Mozilla’s CMO on Lazy Marketers, Battling Trump, and the Future of the Open Web

Five years ago, Jascha Kaykas-Wolff sat in a board room, wondering if he’d wasted his life as a marketer.

Every time he took a new job, he was filled with the promise of making a positive impact on the world. But over the course of a 20-year-career, at startups and tech giants alike, he kept finding himself in the same situation: Sitting in a board room, lamenting a missed quarterly target, and listening to those around him plan to take an action that would deliver short-term gains but no benefit to the end user.

That all changed three years ago, when Kaykas-Wolff met the team at Mozilla, one of the tech world’s most interesting enigmas. Launched as a free-software community in 1998 by the founders of Netscape, The Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit, rose to prominence after it created the favored browser of the tech world. Jascha-Wolff realized that there was a way to avoid those depressing board room moments, so he joined Mozilla as CMO.

Along the way, he’s faced his share of challenges. Mozilla’s Firefox phone and OS was a gigantic flop, and it’s share of desktop browser traffic has fallen from a peak of about 30 percent in 2009 to 11.8 percent today, per Netmarketshare.

But the company may have hit its stride of late. Its privacy browser, Firefox Focus, is finally available in the Android and Apple stores. And its mission has taken on a new layer of importance in the Trump era, as Mozilla prepares to battle the administration over everything from net neutrality to immigration. As one recent headline on the company’s blog declared: “Mozilla is Ready to Fight.”

At Collision, the trendy new tech conference in New Orleans, I sat down with Jascha-Wolff to discuss how to be CMO at a company that hates retargeting, why marketers have gotten lazy, and how content is helping fuel Mozilla’s comeback.

How does Mozilla’s non-profit model affect the way you view marketing metrics and ROI if the end goal isn’t just the bottom line?

We still care about growth, which has leading indicators for us. How many people are installing it? What parts of the world are they installing it in? But at that point, we really get to think about the way that we operate differently.

I can now tell the data management platforms and the media buyers I work with that we’re going to try to get the best ROI possible, except we’re not going to use retargeting. We’re not going to do any strange behavioral stuff. We’re not going to let you take the data that’s associated with the programs and attach it to the rest of the business that you have.

We can make decisions like that, which I think are ethical and they’re right on behalf of our customers. We still have to care about performance, but the base state is not just do everything at all costs. It’s empowering. It’s challenging.

I think a lot of marketers would look at your situation and be like, “It’s cool that it gets me so focused on the end user.” At the same time, having a limited budget and not using retargeting would scare a lot of people. Do you think it’s a disadvantage?

Time will tell. Right now, I’m confident that the programs we put in place will perform as well as, if not better than, programs that I ran in the past.

The decision on how to use customer data actually isn’t something that hamstrings how you work. It forces you to do the hard work that marketers don’t do as much as anymore. That’s customer segmentation or research. It’s the hard product marketing.

Generally speaking, marketers have become pretty lazy over the last decade or two. We can now go out and buy a million different technologies. There are 2800 different companies that are selling marketing technology to us. They all fundamentally do the same thing. They help you collect some data about your customers. They help you organize it, categorize it, and they help you take action with it.

Marketers have become pretty lazy over the last decade or two.

The reason I say it makes you lazy is because it’s kind of like buying a bunch of Roombas and hoping that when you leave the house and turn them on, they clean up the house. In reality they don’t do that. I turn the thing on, I leave the house, and it runs around the house and rams into stuff. Then it gets stuck and I find it underneath the couch at the end of the day when I get home from work and I’m like, “Ah this thing didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”

Everyone kind of approaches marketing like that now. We’ve been taught big data’s good, buy more technology, take more action, collect more stuff. But when you do that research upfront, when you understand your customer segment really well, marketing tactics aren’t that complicated.

How do you build a team capable of doing that?

You have to empower them, but it’s how you set up a system. Most marketing organizations are not set up in a way for smart people to be successful. They’re built in a old hierarchal command and control structure. “I am the head of marketing. I know more than you do about the use of this color. I know more about the use of an email. I know more about data collection than you do.”

It’s kind of a farce that you have to break down. It’s all about how you empower a team to focus on solving a problem. Not the way that marketers used to solve problems, but the way that product teams used to solve problems. If you’re a product person, you’re thinking about how to make a product better for your customer. And you’re probably using lean agile techniques and the way that you set up the KPI’s for the team are all built around how do you develop a more successful customer relationship.

Are you a big fan of a pragmatic marketing framework, or more just agile in general?

I actually think those two things fit together very nicely. Pragmatic marketing is more about the positioning structure research, and agile is about the system that empowers a team.

I’ve been using agile techniques in marketing for the last decade. I don’t believe that there’s another way for marketers to work, and I think it’s going to be the operating system that marketers use moving forward. It looks a lot more like a newsroom than it does a group of people that are lined up at an agency waiting for somebody to tell them what to do.

The subject I have to touch on is the role that content plays in all of this—particularly in telling the story of your company’s mission. How do you think about content in your larger marketing mix?

When I think about our ability as an organization to get our message in front of more people, a proxy for that is the CPM that we pay for media.

I’m making this number up, but let’s say we have a 10 million dollar marketing budget. I’ve got to stretch that as much as I possibly can. The most efficient way to create [an effective] CPM for our business is through the production of content. And it’s not like sales-pitch content, it’s content that’s relevant to the audience and the concerns of the conscious user.

We can’t exist, we can’t compete with 100,000-plus, 200,000-plus organizations without content. Content doesn’t completely level the playing field for us, but is the most efficient way for us to actually get our message out.

From a content perspective, what’s working for you?

It’s longform content and video content, which are both new for us. We didn’t operate this way a year and a half ago. The philosophical change that we’ve made is to say that the development of content and the promotion of that content is the path for us. We needed to be able to staff each one of our teams with the right kind of writers.

We still have to care about performance, but the base state is not just do everything at all costs.

We now have writers who think about certain channels and certain kinds of content sitting in every part of our organization. We’ve built an editorial team that is headed out of Berlin but has global scope. We now have infrastructure for content strategy, and we have people in our organization who are responsible for developing content.

You guys have done some bold things like taking a stand against Trump’s executive orders, which a lot of companies are afraid to do. What goes into the calculus behind that decision?

Our mission as an organization is very broad, but it’s about empowering the internet and making sure that the internet stays open and accessible. Our first filter in the world is: Does whatever it is that we’re going to respond to have a relationship into the internet being accessible?

On the Trump executive order side, that’s actually more related to us as an organization. We believe firmly in diversity as a major driver for us. It’s about who you are, what you believe, where you live. Responding to the [travel ban] from Trump was a somewhat easy decision. This impacts our organization, the people in our organization, and we feel it’s our responsibility to support our people in our organization.

Right now, if you’re in the U.S. and you’re in the technology world, especially as we talk about changes to immigration, you have to be aware of how your organization is open or closed to the topics that are currently in play publicly. Because you will probably be in a situation where you’re gonna have to make a decision to respond or not.

I think a lot of people operate from a default of, “It might piss some people off, so let’s not touch it.”

Yeah. Another dead end that you deal with a lot as a writer, as a journalist, is that the half-life of any information or response we put out is tiny. Nobody cares two weeks after you put out a blog post or made a public comment about something. Most people aren’t going to remember. But maybe two years from now, whatever you did is going to come back and have a relationship to something you’ve done.

How are you approaching your challenges when it comes to mobile? What’s your strategy to come back from behind?

We had a public failure, right? We did something incredibly challenging. We built an operating system that works with the internet, and our mobile strategy didn’t work. It changed the structure of Mozilla.

The last couple of years, we made some pretty significant changes in the way that we work as an organization. All of the effort and time and people have been re-entrenched in developing the thing that we should do best as a company, which is build a great browser. We’re really invested in making Firefox better. It can’t just be in parity to Chrome, it can’t just be in parity to Internet Explorer. It needs to be better. The last two years have been about shoring up all of that core technology and then putting us in a position where we can start to bring new technologies to the market.

In November of last year, we introduced a product called Firefox Focus. Firefox Focus is an incredibly highly rated app. It’s almost like a single use throwaway browser. Not for throwing away the browser like you’ll never use it again, but if you have a search you care about and you don’t want it to sit somewhere with Google or Apple, you go into Focus and turn your single search on. We found a gigantic erase button that removes all the tracks from whatever you’ve done to be really successful. It actually gives us a potential to be successful on mobile that I don’t think we’ve had over the last couple of years.

What do you think the prospects are for the open web?

We certainly are in a challenging time right now, but the future looks very different than our current situation. We’re in a period of centralization, and we see these major cycles that happen on the internet since it became commercially available to us.

[The Internet 1.0 brought] the centralization of content and access through things like AOL. Then we saw companies like Yahoo pop up that provide a better end user service that aren’t tied to access. That consumer choice drives a behavior change in the big corporations that run centralization.

We haven’t hit that yet in the mobile world, but we’re seeing all the same kinds of behaviors that took place a decade ago. Our organization believes that we need to focus on decentralization as a concept.

The world of VR and AR have a completely new opportunity to change the way that you and I think about the internet.

Decentralization isn’t about just technologies. It’s about the control of content and making sure that it isn’t holed up by just a couple of big players. Decentralization could mean technology, it could mean content, it could mean search engines. We think there’s enough consumer interest, which ultimately drives the big behaviors that support an open web over time.

The world of VR and AR have a completely new opportunity to change the way that you and I think about the internet. VR is a new way to think about computing. It’s a new way to think about access to content that’s in the internet. In the future, as long as we keep pushing this path of content being accessible and open, VR could be a major driver for change.

Our view of the internet is that in the future, it exists absolutely everywhere. It’s a free space.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

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