James Keating is CMO at Pleo, which offers smart company cards and automated expense reports. I caught up with James to find out more about his role.

We also discuss Pleo’s focus on brand storytelling, what it’s like working at the fintech scale-up space, and what’s next for the company.

Econsultancy: Tell me about your role – what does a typical day look like for you?

James Keating: I am the Chief Marketing Officer of business spend solution Pleo. My role is certainly varied, and no two days look the same.

To put it simply, my job is split into two core functions: that of growth driver and of brand storyteller. Having the ability to flex between these responsibilities is what keeps me on my toes and the role super-interesting. I also spend a significant amount of my time enabling my team, removing blockers, and ensuring they have all that they need to be successful.

E: How does Pleo use storytelling to differentiate itself in the fintech market?

JK: We’ve had quite a lot of discussion around whether our product leads our brand or whether it is the other way round – similar to the famous chicken or egg debate. There’s no right or wrong answer to it but it’s important that our products, longer-term vision, and our innovation are matched up with our storytelling. All three strands are intertwined and must grow and evolve together.

The fintech space is incredibly competitive so differentiating yourself from the rest of the market is essential. At Pleo, we started with our vision and mission to guide us to build our storytelling style which enables us to stay true to ourselves. As we continue to grow, we constantly refer back to our core values to ensure we don’t lose our unique tone of voice and brand personality as we expand and grow.

Another element to our strategy is ensuring our customers have a voice. They help demonstrate the challenges they were previously facing and the value that Pleo can offer to future customers. We work really closely with our customer success teams to find those gems and ensure we amplify their stories which in turn tells the Pleo story.

E: How has your previous experience at big companies like Dropbox and Microsoft shaped your time at Pleo?

JK: I’ve been lucky enough to work for a range of companies from large blue-chip corporations to incredibly fast-growing startups. I learnt my trade at those larger enterprise businesses and in those roles the benefits were ample resources and solid business foundations. However, this also meant that timelines were long and there were multiple layers of approvals on each activity, so it often felt slow-moving and not very dynamic.

Dropbox and Pleo are quite similar, so when starting at Pleo I already knew what to expect. With scale ups and start-ups you have to be incredibly focused as you often have less resources than larger organisations. This focus gave me the mindset of a venture capitalist – you need to make bets and invest in initiatives that you believe will drive growth whilst remaining efficient and ensuring a positive return on the investment.

The other major skill set I learnt at Dropbox which I’ve used in my time of Pleo is the level of pace needed at a scale-up. You have the freedom to experiment and test in a fast-paced environment, so learnings and iterations need to be equally fast to uncover the next best solution quickly.

E: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your role so far and how did you overcome them?

JK: Scale-ups are an exciting but challenging environment, so you need to be aware of what you’re getting into. Growth is hard and you need to be comfortable with the fact there can be setbacks on the journey-but this is also what drives me and I thrive on working with my teams to constantly iterate and develop.

One of the ongoing challenges I face is balancing out competing demands such as demand generation and pipeline build vs building the brand, new business acquisition vs customer and retention marketing. This is where having a really great team comes into its own, having the right people and skill sets to drive success and to support on balancing out priorities is crucial.

Having a flexible strategy is another key element to overcome the challenges of multiple demands. At Pleo, we review our marketing strategy on a quarterly basis to ensure we’re always laddering up to the wider business strategy. It’s also important to underpin that strategy with a solid infrastructure of reporting, analytics, and customer insight to ensure that it is driving the right outcomes.

E: It’s been a tricky time for the tech industry… how has Pleo navigated any challenges?

JK: We have moved on from a ‘growth at any cost’ mentality in SaaS, and rightly so. Now, the focus for companies is on charting a path to profitability. There is a level of maturity in how we run the business and the marketing competency has a huge role to play here. It is important to balance out the demands of driving top of funnel new business whilst maintaining a focus on our existing customers and proactively managing churn.

E: What’s been the greatest achievement in your role so far?

JK: There are so many areas that I am proud of. First and foremost, I am most proud of the talented team of marketers we have at Pleo. Without them we have nothing. They continue to amaze me on a daily basis spinning up new and innovative programs but more than this, it’s how they operate, with an agile, outcomes focused mindset. For example, our PR team is in its infancy (barely a year old) but the output of this team is phenomenal, already enabling us to have a top ranking in Share of Voice vs competitors.

We have a unique brand that is the envy of the industry and continue to innovate here to stay ahead of the pack. We have great insight into our customers and ICP’s which allows us to be more targeted and successful. Ultimately, marketing has a solid seat at the table. Pleo relies heavily on the team to drive future growth and to tell its amazing story.

E: What’s next for Pleo? Big ambitions or goals for the next 12 months?

JK: 2022 was a strong year for us and we hope to build upon that as we see out 2023. Our ambitions are centred around continuing to innovate and focus on acquiring new customers whilst continuing to delight our existing customers.

In the SaaS industry, customer retention is critical – especially in the midst of an economic downturn.

From a marketing standpoint, we will continue to innovate, test, and iterate. From new channels, and routes to market, to exactly how we should think about the impact of AI on our marketing. I am also excited about the progress we are making with our partner activations such as TravelPerk with more exciting developments in the pipeline.