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CEO at Smith: Bennie F. Johnson

Every year, the Robert H. Smith School of Business brings in the best CEOs from around the world for the speaker series, CEO at Smith. This year, the school welcomed the CEO of the American Marketing Association, Bennie F. Johnson. 

The American Marketing Association is a professional marketing association that has over 30,000 members across the United States. The organization strives to be the most relevant force and voice that's shaping marketing around the world, an essential community for marketers.

Courtesy of Mike Morgan Photography

As a graduate of Yale University, Johnson has been working in marketing for many years. He became the CEO of AMA over a year ago. He started a podcast called Marketing / And where he interviews marketers and trailblazers about all things marketing.

The CEO at Smith event features a moderated conversation by Professor Ronald Rust, along with questions from the audience. The audience, comprised of undergrad students, graduate students, business professionals, faculty, and staff asked a variety of questions about AI and emerging technology to what it takes to be a CEO.

Here are Johnson’s thoughts on the following topics discussed during the event. 

On becoming a CEO: "The biggest step to becoming a CEO is believing that you can." Johnson firmly believes that you have to know you can do it before you get there. He says that you cannot be afraid of difficult conversations, or working in and with different teams and disciplines. Typically, we find the CEO seat filled by people in finance or accounting, but Johnson believes that marketing has a seat at the table. The core components of marketing are strategy and customer engagement, which are crucial to being a CEO. Johnson thinks there will be more marketing professionals in the CEO seat in the future, as the profession and its importance are increasing.

Courtesy of Mike Morgan Photography

On imposter syndrome and being fearless: A question from the audience was "How have you approached imposter syndrome in the past?" Johnson says that you have to show up and own that you belong there because you do. You have to believe you are meant to be there, you earned it. He mentioned the "Fearlessly Forward" sign in Van Munching Hall and that it resonated with him. Johnson mentions the importance of creative destruction and how sometimes you need to break things and put them back together to move forward. Johnson said that being fearless is important, and you have to challenge yourself to grow.

On the journey through undergrad and your career: “No career is linear,” said Johnson. He said you should take risks, and go down unexpected paths, even if the people around you don’t understand. Johnson emphasizes the importance of professional relationships as they have incredible value and will help you through your career. He wishes he enjoyed his undergraduate career and had more fun at the time, “enjoy the journey” and “do things out of your comfort zone.”

On personal branding: Creating a personal brand is a huge component of your professional success. Johnson says that you should anchor your brand on what people are saying about you when you aren't in the room. It should be consistent, strong, and authentic to you. Today, there are many tools to help showcase your brand and allow you to show up. Create a strategy, reinforce it, and see where it takes you.

On AI and technology: Johnson believes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new technology are important as our world is changing. He believes that it will transform the way we think about work and it will provide challenges and disruptions. Johnson said, "The AI we have now is the dumbest AI we will see." Johnson told the group not to worry that AI will take your job, but to focus on how to harness it. The increase in these technologies will lead jobs to be "feeling tasks", rather than "thinking tasks". Johnson also pointed out the importance of looking at what would be the large topics if AI wasn't a thing. He brought up the changes in privacy and ethical considerations and how they are increasingly changing the market. 

On why marketing?: Johnson said that he has always navigated the world with the eyes of a marketer. As a kid, he loved logos and brands. The idea of creating and doing things that would entice people to act was inspiring to him and made him excited about marketing. When he was asked, "If you weren't in marketing, what would you be doing?" Johnson said that he would probably be an entrepreneur, and still would be marketing, but under a different title.

Courtesy of Mike Morgan Photography

We would like to thank Bennie F. Johnson for coming out to the Smith School! His insights were incredible and inspiring to our members and the other attendees.

- Maeve Smarick


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