Bozoma Saint John, Netflix's newly named chief marketing officer, has climbed the corporate-marketing ranks over 20 years using her celebrity connections and ability to tie brands like Pepsi and Apple to cultural trends.
She's also known as unapologetically outspoken and a role model for women of color — who are notoriously underrepresented in the C-suites of corporations.
Netflix has long been synonymous with streaming video, but it needs to convince people to keep subscribing as new options from HBO and Disney emerge.
Some say a chief marketing officer with huge personal stardom can risk overshadowing the very brands they're hired to promote.
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Shortly after noon on a recent Saturday, Bozoma Saint John appeared on thousands of women's computer screens.
It was the inaugural livestream of her event The Badass Workshop. Viewers paid $25 to learn Saint John's personal and work philosophies.
Ciara's "Level Up" began playing, and in danced Saint John, blue stars glittering off her black jumpsuit.
"I've seen all the descriptions of what it looks like to be a global CMO, and it's not supposed to look like this," Saint John said through fuchsia lipstick, half her hair pulled into a braided topknot.
Even when the livestream suddenly crashed, the expert marketer spun it positively: "WE BROKE THE INNANET!" Saint John proclaimed on Instagram.
Saint John, who was named chief marketing officer of Netflix in June, has always taken an unconventional path. While the role has become increasingly the domain of data geeks, she's a glamourous executive who goes with her gut and is known for her work tying brands like Pepsi and Apple to cultural trends. Before joining Netflix, Saint John served as a marketing executive for Apple, Uber, and Endeavor.
Netflix is one of the most popular streaming-video players. But it needs to convince people to keep subscribing as new options launch from competitors like HBO and Disney.
Her hiring also comes at a moment when Silicon Valley, along the rest of corporate America, desperately needs more executives of color.
Saint John, with her cultural magic touch, could be just what Netflix needs — but as her persona grows, some question if she risks overshadowing the companies she serves.
Business Insider spoke with 18 of Saint John's colleagues, friends, and competitors for this story. Netflix declined to make Saint John available for an interview.
Saint John stood out from others since childhood
Until age 12, Saint John lived in Ghana. After the country's government fell to a military coup in the 1980s, Saint John's family relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now 43, the 5-foot-11 executive says she always stood out among mostly white faces in classrooms and boardrooms.
Over time, Saint John has built a robust list of connections from the worlds of media, politics, entertainment, and tech, including Anna Wintour, the Obamas, and Facebook's Carolyn Everson. A recurring theme of Saint John is the idea of "bringing your whole self to work," which she frequently evokes in conversations and interviews.
In 2014, Saint John captivated a crowd when she was named to the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Achievement. She gave a moving speech and talked about the loss of her husband, Peter, who died from cancer one year prior.
"She won over not just the room but the whole industry," said Ross Martin, the president of the marketing services company Known, who received the same honor that year.
Those high-profile ties and that honest nature are captured in Saint John's Instagram account, where she broadcasts a jet-setting life as "badassboz" as well as her role as the mother of a 10-year-old. She has also made rounds in the glossy lifestyle-magazine circuit — with interviewers calling her the "Queen of Silicon Valley" and "a better brand than Uber."
Her acquaintances, like Tiffany R. Warren, the senior vice president and chief diversity officer at the ad giant Omnicom, speak of Saint John's open-book approach to life, informed by her African heritage and religious faith.
"What you see is what you get," Warren said. "That's how I think of Boz."
Other stories tell of her praying with the investor Anjula Acharia before a high-stakes presentation and subbing in for Arianna Huffington at the Cannes Lions festival at the last minute when Huffington was recovering from hip-replacement surgery.
She uses her position as one of the few visible Black women in her field. She teamed up with Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Glennon Doyle, and Stacey Bendet to launch #ShareTheMicNow, an Instagram campaign to magnify people of color, and served as the Ghana ambassador for the education nonprofit Pencils of Promise.
She built a career on emotional and cultural connections
At a time when chief marketing officers increasingly live and die by the numbers, Saint John's stock-in-trade is connecting with consumers on an emotional level, and, in her own words, trusting her gut. This approach can open her to criticism that she doesn't care about return on investment as much as a chief marketing officer should.
"There are some marketers that lead with logic and data, and there are other marketers that lead with instinct and culture. She sits far out on the instinct and culture side," her friend Jonathan Mildenhall, who is a cofounder of the consulting firm TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, said.
At Pepsi, Saint John spearheaded projects like a series of livestreamed Twitter concerts with Katy Perry and others that marked a new union of social media, advertising, and pop music, the former Pepsi executive Shiv Singh said.
She helped land Beyoncé for the 2013 Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show in New Orleans and assembled the trio of Kerry Washington, Mary J. Blige, and Taraji P. Henson for a buzzy Apple Music Emmy night ad in 2015.
"She has such a strong understanding of culture that she gets how to embed a brand in it without it seeming inauthentic," said Joe Anthony, the founder of the agency Hero Collective, who met Saint John while working with Pepsi.
At Apple's 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference, Saint John introduced a revamped Apple Music by leading the typically staid crowd through a raucous rendition of "Rapper's Delight." That and other public appearances paved the way for other Apple executives to develop public profiles, said Justina Omokhua, the senior vice president of brand marketing at Endeavor who also worked under Saint John at Apple.
Putting out fires in Silicon Valley
At Uber and Endeavor, Saint John also put her emotionally and celebrity-driven approach to work to fix crises.
She joined Uber in 2017 as its chief brand officer. The company's reputation was being dragged by a series of punishing revelations about its corporate culture and treatment of drivers.
After an eight-hour meeting with former CEO Travis Kalanick and board member Arianna Huffington, Saint John was hired. She and Huffington had first met six months earlier at a private dinner at the CES trade show.
"I didn't know who she was, but she was such a force of nature that I was just taken by her," Huffington told Business Insider. "She recalled the story of how she once took her Uber driver to an Iggy Pop concert, and that's when I realized that she could really help humanize the brand."
Saint John helped shift Uber's marketing focus from being a mere utility to something more essential in people's lives. Under her direction, the company worked with celebrities like LeBron James and ESPN's Cari Champion to promote that message, and she helped craft a 2018 spot that featured a heartfelt apology from Uber's new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, about the company's toxic culture.
Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood dealmaker and Endeavor's CEO, wooed Saint John away from Uber in 2018. There, she rubbed elbows with celebrities like Wintour and Tom Ford at the Endeavor-owned New York Fashion Week, spoke with would-be investors for an ultimately unsuccessful initial public offering, and helped the ad agency 160over90 win new work from clients like McDonald's and Lowe's. She also helped Papa John's take responsibility for founder John Schnatter's racist missteps by using angry customer tweets to apologize.
'She's the CMO of herself'
As her career has grown, so has Saint John's personal brand.
In recent years, she's flirted with the idea of a Starz docuseries, started an iHeartMedia podcast with Katie Couric, and launched The Badass Workshop.
Acharia, who is Priyanka Chopra's manager in addition to being an investor, saw all these activities as a natural progression for Saint John, whom she called a "born star."
To Saint John, her sense of social responsibility is interconnected with the work she does as a marketer.
But where some see stardom, others see a potential problem. Multiple people interviewed for this article said Saint John's outsize personality risked outshining the very brands that she's been hired to promote.
"She puts on other coats, jackets, and uniforms sometimes, but she's only worked for one company the entire time, which is the Bozoma company," one marketing executive said. "She's the very definition of the CMO of herself."
This tension can be more intense for executives of color, who already face systemic bias.
To Mildenhall, the bigger Saint John's profile gets, the greater tensions could become with the brands that employ her.
"Everybody should figure out what their authentic brand is, but that personal brand can never be bigger than the brand that you're in service of, or bigger than the company that you're working at," Mildenhall said.
Netflix wants to have a bigger role in pop culture
Netflix added 10.1 million paid streaming subscribers during the second quarter of 2020, even as the coronavirus pandemic decimated many other legacy and digital-media companies. It had a global marketing budget of $2.65 billion in 2019.
But new competitors are challenging its service, including upstarts like Quibi and more successful launches like Disney Plus and HBO Max. Forrester principal analyst Jim Nail said co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have recently begun emphasizing Netflix's ability to influence pop culture through a steady stream of original hits like "Bird Box," which helps it retain subscribers and sign up new ones who don't want to miss out on the latest cultural phenomenon.
Netflix has also sought to deepen its relationship with the Black community through investments in Black-owned businesses and colleges, as well as collaborations with influencers like former first lady Michelle Obama and the filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
Nail said Netflix's goal of influencing culture lined up with Saint John's record of helping companies stand out by co-opting trends beyond their industries.
"It's almost a repositioning. They're certainly enhancing and enriching their positioning with the idea of being a key part of culture," he said.
There may be no one better-suited to help it than Saint John, who built a career by ignoring the rules and finding a place in culture for everything from high-end headphones to canned sugar water.
And for that, Saint John isn't apologizing.
"You know how many times I've been told I'm too much? A lot. All the time," she said during her inaugural Badass Workshop. "But it's the reason I'm successful. It's the same things that they'll celebrate you for that they'll criticize about you too."SEE ALSO: We mapped out Netflix's 56 most powerful executives including its new co-CEO and CMO in an exclusive interactive chart
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