Remember the catchy J.G. Wentworth jingle that got everyone singing in the shower? Well, today’s guest is Ken Murray, the hands-on marketing and digital leader responsible for creating several ground-breaking and award-winning TV and digital spots when he was the CMO at J.G. Wentworth, including “Call 877 Cash Now”. Now, Ken works as CMO at Chief Outsider. In this episode, he joins Evan Brandoff to discuss the story of creating the catchy jingle and the strategy behind it. He emphasizes the importance of aligning values to create outcomes that serve your purpose. Tune in to learn more about the viral ad and the secret sauce to great marketing.
We welcome Ken Murray onto the show. Ken is the Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders, providing growing businesses with fractional CMOs. He has led marketing at a lot of amazing brands, including JG Wentworth, which we’re going to dive into. Let’s get into it.
Ken, thank you so much for coming on.
Evan, I am thrilled to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.
We were talking about planning. This time of year, it seems like a lot of marketing departments are in planning mode, getting ready for the next year. I’m curious as generally, what are the keys to being good at annual planning for a marketing department?
You have to know where you want to go. Marketing is an extension of the business. Whatever marketing does has to be in sync with what the business wants to do with the strategy of the business to move forward. That’s step number one. If you’re not aligned there, then all you’re doing is treading water. Anybody can send out campaigns, write copy or whatever you define as marketing, all those moving pieces. They’re tactical unless you’re aligned with the business, leadership and strategy. That’s where it all starts and stops.
The campaigns that you’ve been a part of in the past that didn’t work are ones that didn’t tie back to the core mission. Can you elaborate on this a bit more? How should a marketing department leverage the mission of the organization in their work?
The first thing is that there needs to be a recognized mission. I’m a big Simon Sinek fan. You want to understand the power of why, why you exist, what you do and how you do it. That’s the secret sauce. Unless you know why you exist as an organization, then everything else is immaterial. It is hard work to get to that core purpose and vision. You have done that. Your mission-based focus is amazing and aligned between youth sports leagues and the corporate partners you bring together at Lakeside. You have that purpose. You understand why you exist.
I bet if you walked down your virtual halls, people would know why you exist, but at many companies, that’s not the case. Getting back to your question, if you don’t know why you exist, you’re going through the motions. If you do know why you exist, then there’s a North Star and everything pivots from that North Star to say, “I understand what we’re trying to accomplish.” This customer has to be in the middle of that purpose. As long as I understand that, then it opens up worlds of opportunities.
Let’s try to throw it up against the wall and see what happens without tying it back to anything. Let’s run this campaign and say, “Why? What’s the purpose? What are we trying to do? Are we going to be able to measure it? Are we going to be able to create value for this core audience and tie back to the why?” We’re all guilty of it. I’ve done it and you’ve probably done it. You also have to get stuff done. You don’t always have the timer to say, “What’s our why? I don’t know what it is.” You don’t always have that luxury but ideally, what you do ties back to your purpose.
Can you web the efforts of a couple of my favorite marketing campaigns? Arguably the most iconic campaign ever at JG Wentworth. I want to get into those campaigns in a second, but first off, what was JG Wentworth’s why?
When I was working at JG Wentworth, you mature over the years as a marketer and human being. At that point, my thing was it’s all about the customer. The customer has to be in the middle of every conversation. Without having that as your core value and mission, then everything else doesn’t matter. That’s right still, but it’s not a complete picture without understanding why the entity or corporation exists. We didn’t go through that exercise at JG Wentworth about why we exist. It was a successful company. People knew what they were supposed to do. It was well run.
We had a lot of fun and bandwidth to try some things, but it was about trying to connect with our audience at the end of the day. Forget the why for a second. It’s that connection with the audience and providing a valuable service for an underserved audience. What is a structured settlement? Nobody knows what that is, but one million people in this country have it who need money. We made that connection. Our purpose is to provide liquidity for an underserved audience that had no other resource, especially when they needed cash.
People don’t necessarily know what a structured settlement is, but everyone does know what cash Now means. JG Wentworth 877 Cash Now is the phone number, which is one of the most iconic phone numbers, not because it’s simple, but it is also accurate and describes what JG Wentworth does. How did you get that phone number?
At JG Wentworth, we owned over 1,000 vanity numbers. Mainly it was for tracking purposes because we did a lot of advertising throughout hundreds of distribution channels, TV Time, how many networks and even local stations, so we needed 800 numbers for every single touchpoint. We had probably twenty numbers on the website because we wanted to know where people were when they called. We’re very analytical. Data drove that company.
I got a call from this guy in Wisconsin and he said, “I’ve got this phone number that you could use knowing what little I know about your business.” I’m like, “What is it?” He said, “It’s 877 Cash Now.” I thought, “That is a good number.” I’ve got numbers close to that, but I don’t have that. I said, “How much do you want for it?” He said, “$1 million.”
I said, “No, thank you. I’m not interested. It’s not worth it.” I can’t afford it. I don’t have a big budget like that. We hung up. He called five minutes later and said, “It might not be worth $1 million, but it’s worth at least $500,000.” I said, “Thank you for your interest. I can’t afford that.” I can’t justify spending that much money on a phone number that I’ve never used.
How badly did you want it at this point?
At this point, the gears are starting to grind in my head like, “There are some possibilities here.” I was even thinking maybe I could rent or trial it to see. I’ll pay him $1,000 to use it for a week or something to try it. That’s going to be a lot of expense on me, too, because I’ve got to incorporate it creativity. There are a lot of moving parts.
He kept calling and finally said, “What will you buy it from me for? What’s your number?” I said, “$5,000.” He hung up on me. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. He called back and we ended up much closer to my number than to his number. That was that and it was off to the races. It’s being super creative around the use of, “How do I leverage this?” We created a new brand out of that within a couple of months.
It’s probably hard at this point to remember the exact metrics but from a high level, do you remember how much call volume increased? What was the phone number before? Was there anything notable?
Unless you know why you exist as an organization, everything else is immaterial.
We didn’t have a specific vanity number for JG Wentworth. We used 800 numbers and we maintained them in the distance. That was part of the operations component of making sure we are always testing different strategies and uses of that phone number. Over a year, qualified leads are up over 50%. It was planned. It wasn’t like, “Let’s try something and see what happens.” We mapped it out. There is serendipity involved too. We had amazing creative talent that worked on this as an agency, Karlin+Pimsler, in New York.
I remember they came down for our first meeting when I said, “I have this number. I need you to come up with some concepts. You’re the creative guys. I’m the operations business guy.” A week later, they came back and were going through some of the boards as they were going through. The first one was like, “That’s okay.” The second one is so typical. You’ve got these dollar bills flying everywhere. I’m like, “I don’t want that.” The third one was like, “My god. I didn’t even get halfway through.” I said, “We have to do this.”
I’m either going to lose my job or it’s going to be super successful. There is no in-between here and that was the opera between establishing that. I told them before they came back with this concept. They said, “What are your KPIs? What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to increase business. I need to generate more web leads, phone calls and ultimately more revenue. That would be with any campaign. What I want to do here is I want people singing in the shower about JG Wentworth. I want to know that people are doing that.”
They looked at me like, “How are you going to know that?” “I don’t know but that’s the goal.” They did a fantastic job with the production and hiring the right talent. We had a great location in Little Rock, Arkansas, where we filmed this thing. We hired real opera singers to do the voiceovers. About three weeks into the campaign, I’m going through YouTube comments. YouTube is blown up.
What year is this at this point?
It’s 2008, probably. That’s when it launched. I’m scrolling down into 200 comments or something like that. There was this one that said, “I was in the shower this morning and caught myself singing the JG Wentworth 877 Cash Now song.” I went like, “My life is complete. I’m hanging up.”
Everyone wants to increase call volume or sales. When you think of KPI outside of the metrics but instead of, “If people are singing this in the shower,” or something along those lines, it yields so much more creativity. That commercial probably wouldn’t have come to be if the KPI you provided them was, “We need to increase call volume.”
That’s one of the dangers of any marketing team that takes literal guidance from its leadership team. The job description and mission is, “Grow the business by 20% year over year. We need to get to X millions in revenue.” “We will do that. How am I going to get there?” You have to think outside. We’re all human beings. It doesn’t matter if it’s B2C or B2D. I haven’t seen a situation where the true decision-maker isn’t a human being. Human beings have emotions and reacts.
What you’re trying to get to is, “I want someone to react and do something, I’m going to show you something, play something and read something from me. Whatever the medium is, I need you to react.” If I tell you, “I want to increase sales and my product is better than the other guy’s product. You can’t find the product at a lower price unless you buy it from me.” That’s great but that doesn’t mean anything.
If you think around the band a little bit and say, “What is going to get me some attention here and not be ridiculous?” You have to be a little careful because it has to tie back to why you exist and the business objectives, “I need to grow.” It’s hard to find the creative space and support to do that, but that’s how you break through.
You got me thinking of a world in the future where we aren’t selling to humans anymore. Computers are representing the company or household making those decisions.
Decisions certainly are being made on what you will see or what types of advertising you will see based on what computers think. That’s been happening for a long time, but at the end of the day, the buying decision still rests within flesh and blood. Someone who has a brain, thinks a little bit and makes a decision.
Speaking to computers on choosing what you see, Zubin our Cofounder, whenever he gets targeted by an ad on Instagram, he buys it because he assumes the algorithm knows him better than he knows him.
That’s how they made their margin in 2020.
The other commercial or campaign that was iconic in my mind from JG Wentworth was, “It’s my money and I need it now.” Did that come before or after?
That was before. There’s a little story there. When I joined JG Wentworth, they had gone through a private equity transaction. Whenever that happens, you’re going to build the right team to grow. You’ve got some funding. The expectation is you’re going to grow at a pretty healthy CAGR. I was brought on board as the first CMO. Mike Goodman, the CEO, had been doing marketing before and we ended up being marketing assistants. He was good, but we needed to take it to the next level. It took me several months to absorb what we had. I realized what we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.
We’re going to have to step beyond from a creative standpoint. The product is such as that there’s no list. You can’t just buy a list of people who have structured settlements. In the old days, you do direct mail campaigns. You can’t do that. It doesn’t exist. The demand is not known. People don’t even necessarily know that a structured settlement was liquid and they could sell payments back then. We had to create the demand. We had to let people know that this was a thing. The only way to do that in 2008 was through TV and supplemented with a lot of digital stuff. The TV led the way in terms of flying all the air cover.
The business was healthy, but when you needed to move the needle and figure out a way to get more people excited and engaged about the product. That’s where, “It’s my money,” came about. That was through deep research. We did a ton of customer listening. We had 300 people, 300 seats call center. I would sit there and listen. As well as our agency, Karlin+Pimsler came in. We sat there for a couple of days, listening to calls and absorbing. We felt that pain.
That’s an important point. To solve a problem, you’ve got to find the pain. That goes in consulting when I’m talking to a prospective client. One of the first questions I ask is, “Where’s your pain?” You go right in. It’s a little unnerving sometimes like, “What do you mean?” Not your pain necessarily, but sometimes it is a personal pain, especially if you’re a small business owner or a mid-sized growth company. You have pain if your company has pain. I pretty much guarantee it.
Hopefully, you can build a relationship where someone can reveal that. When we were doing the listening with our J Wentworth customers, we felt the pain like, “I need money. I need to send my kid to college. She’s going to be the first one in my family to go to college. I can’t afford it. I had money locked up in the structured settlement. Help me get it. I need a used car to get to work. My car broke down. I need $20,000 to buy a good, reliable used car, but I need the money or else I’m going to lose my job.” There was true fear and pain with these customers. That’s what led to the, “It’s my money and I need it now.”
There needs to be a process and it needs to be measurable and sustainable. Without that, it doesn’t work.
That one struck a nerve and that was either you’re all in or all out. We got a lot of criticism for it. We’re pushing anger. It would probably be popular if that came out in 2020 and 2021 because there was so much anger. I won’t get into politics, but it was probably a precursor to that. It wasn’t meant to inspire anger. It was meant to shed light on a need for this target audience and it worked. That’s bond dozens of homemade copycat videos on YouTube as well. They’re hilarious.
Which campaign was more successful, the opera campaign or the, “It’s my money and I need it now,” campaign?
Opera was much more successful, but the, “It’s my money,” campaign showed that we could go outside of the box. Number one, I had the full support of Mike and Gary Veloric at Wentworth way back to do this. I’m forever grateful for that. It took our combined courage to say, “We’re going to do something completely different.” We’re going to take some risks here, but it’s calculated. It’s not just, “Let’s try something.” It was calculated based on what our customers were telling us.
We wanted to establish ourselves more in the mainstream and get recognition. No one knew what JG Wentworth was, so we use both of those campaigns as a platform to grow out of the notion of, “They’re a late-night TV advertiser,” which would never work. Ninety-five percent of our advertising happened between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. That’s when people watch cable TV and are responsive to direct response. It’s all about the math. If you do it at late night, you’re going to get the wrong audience. It’s bad.
If you did spend $1 million for the phone number, would it have been a positive ROI?
If the person that sold JG Wentworth’s number is reading, you could sleep at night knowing that what you were asking for wasn’t a crazy number.
I’m thankful to him. A lot of this was serendipitous. Had that not happened, would I have researched if 877 Cash Now is available? If it isn’t, you can always find the owner and negotiate. I might not have ever done that. I probably wouldn’t have done it. I probably would have been too busy doing something else to even think of that, but that happened. That luck is a thing and you don’t know if it’s luck at the time. It’s almost like if something pops into your life and it is at least moderately interesting, don’t ignore it. It’s so easy not to return a phone call or an email. People are annoying but if something is moderately interesting, get back to them.
You’re highlighting another important point for marketing, which is the importance of being ego-free to be a great marketer. I mean that just because you didn’t think of that phone number beforehand, you were still open to it when they contacted you. You had the idea of singing in the shower. It wasn’t necessarily your idea to have an opera singer singing it but being open, sharing ideas and listening more than your speaking is why these certain instances were as successful as they were.
You’re so right. We’re all guilty of sometimes being prima donnas, but if you can step back and give credit more than you take credit, especially as you rise into leadership roles, it’s so critical. Doing the opposite is so harmful. You always try to position others in front of you before taking credit yourself. That’s a good point.
Transitioning to where you are at Chief Outsiders, I don’t want to botch this, but would you describe it as essentially fractional CMOs for growing companies?
Exactly what it is. It’s a network of folks like me who have pretty deep experience either as a CMO or a VP of Marketing and mostly, impressive companies. The roster, we’ve got about 100 people like me and I am amazed at the folks that we have. I learned something new every day from these folks. They’re so generous with their time.
We all try to be generous with our time because we all know something different. We all come from different backgrounds. You can imagine 100 people representing about any industry, specialty or vertical you can think of. One quick thing you learn is that there is no such thing as a full-stack marketer anymore. You cannot be good at everything and a lot of things, but the network that we have is we can be good at everything.
I might take an assignment where B2B lead gen isn’t my deal, but that’s a pretty important component of this assignment. I’m not going to guess, “Let’s put together a B2B lead gen program. Let me go to YouTube and figure it out.” I have real class B2B marketers sitting next to me virtually. We are 100% virtual and there is no office, so we’re all over the country. I can get that advice or even hire them to work for me on the engagement and partner with me. It’s an interesting dynamic.
The main thing is we’re trying to help mid-market companies understand and get to their growth objectives. It’s usually because marketing is sometimes an afterthought, especially you’re a founder and an entrepreneur. You’re busy building stuff. Do you have time and budget to hire a person? Not until you get to a certain scale. Even then, you’re probably not hiring someone who has deep experience who can execute tactically, but they can’t necessarily see the big picture.
They don’t understand what we call the growth gears, which is you got to have the insights, understand your customer, company and the competitors to power the strategy, which then leads to execution. They build upon each other. They don’t have to be serial, necessarily. You can do some of that in parallel, but if you can’t execute without a strategy, you can’t have a strategy without insights.
When you’re a $5 million or $10 million company, you often don’t have that. “I don’t have insights. I don’t know what you mean. I’ve got a bunch of data, but I don’t know what to make of it. Help me connect those dots so I can then build a strategy that is sustainable and then ultimately help me organize my thoughts around marketing.”
That might include hiring a person or two to run marketing or outsource it. You don’t have to always have an inside person, but a process needs to be measurable and sustainable. Without that, it doesn’t work. There’s a bit of a pattern. It’s a long-winded answer, but that’s how we go about it on a fractional basis.
What I’m hearing is how important it is to have an outside perspective. When you’re working inside the business, you have a lot of knowledge about the business, but you could sometimes lose that overall market landscape and perspective. Having someone come in that has that perspective, even though they might not know as much about the business, is good complimentary knowledge.
Many times in our fractional engagements, we are part of the leadership team. We sit at the executive table. We don’t want to be bogged down by a bunch of meetings and that’s where Corporate America gets it wrong. I’ve been to several Fortune 200 companies, great experiences and I love them to death but the bureaucracy is suffocating. We don’t want that. We need to be at the table when we’re talking about key strategies and objectives that the leadership team has for growth. “We want to double our growth in three years.” We’ve got to figure out how to do that.
We need to be there at the table when you’re talking about that. We do bring a different perspective. Honestly, the true value is it’s not just Ken Murray’s perspective. It’s my perspective plus potentially the perspective of 99 others. We do peer reviews. I can bring a problem. “I’ve got a client who has this issue. I’m having trouble figuring it out.” I’ll have a peer review, have 30 people sit in on a workshop for an hour and we’ll bang it out. I have some plausible steps forward that I can bring to the client and say, “I sorted this problem out with the help of my tribe. Let’s try A, B or C. What do you think?” I alone would never have been able to come up with that. It’s all the notion of a networking team.
You can’t market a bunch of activity. You’ve need to market purpose.
Something that I find interesting is the importance of tying a marketing campaign to the core mission. When working in the business, it’s sometimes lost exactly what the core mission is, but when you’re hiring someone to come in and help you with marketing and they say, “I need to know what the core mission is,” it’s a forcing function to get that core mission.
More often than not, one of the first things we need to do is figure out the why because it isn’t there. It’s there. The CEO knows it. He or she is visionary, but they haven’t necessarily been able to articulate it. A lot of businesses that grow aren’t necessarily purposeful. Somebody started something and it worked.
I did a little bit more of it and hired some people. Before I knew it, I got a loan from the bank. I’m doing all kinds of stuff, working eight hours a week and going crazy, but I don’t know necessarily why. I’m doing it and I’m successful. That’s all good, but we organize those things. You can’t market a bunch of activities. You’ve got to market the purpose.
Ken, this has been extremely insightful and interesting. The last part of the episode is the lightning round where I ask you four different questions and you’ve got two minutes to answer them, so answer whatever comes to mind first. First question, what is your favorite youth sports memory?
I have been a parent and have coached youth sports. I’ve been a board member of youth sports organizations and participated in youth sports. I’m going to go with the coaching. I love coaching. I coached a CIAU basketball team for ten years in Wilmington, Delaware. It’s not one singular moment. It’s the collective memories and engagement with those kids seeing them grow and being able to be part of that. I can’t even replicate that thought or feeling. It’s amazing.
The second question is, when you were growing up, what did you want to be when you got older?
I want to be a baseball player. I loved baseball and I was pretty good at it. I remember having a heart-to-heart with my dad, who was not an athlete and cared less about sports. “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I said, “I’m going to be a baseball player.” He looked at me and said, “No, you’re not.” He knew that the probability of success from a decent twelve-year-old baseball player to a major league star is pretty slim. I’m thankful to him for squashing my dreams.
You went on to play rugby in college.
I played rugby. That was even more fun.
Third question, what is a brand whose marketing you admire most?
I’m going to go with Delta. Delta is my favorite brand, not just because of the marketing. To me, marketing isn’t a campaign. If you knew the core mission of the business and the why, that’s the sun. The campaign is Pluto. It’s that far out from where the center of the universe is, which is the customer and mission.
Delta is so good at connecting with me and understanding what my needs are on a one-to-one basis. I never feel like I’m being marketed to. I always feel like I’m being treated like a world-class citizen. I see it happening to other people too. It’s something that they’ve been able to replicate. At scale, I’m incredibly impressed with Delta.
Finally, what is your go-to cause to support?
I am on the board of a nonprofit that drives community activities and small business growth in the city of Neenah, Wisconsin. I live in Neenah. It’s a city on the shores of Lake Winnebago and Northeast Wisconsin. It’s a beautiful little town. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved on this board for a few years. Creating a better place to live for people, providing opportunities, both employment opportunities but also cultural. It’s something as simple as a free concert every Wednesday night in the summer, a holiday celebration where we close downtown or stimulating business activity where we can attract new businesses. That’s my passion for the past couple of years. It’s been fun. I wish I could spend more time with it.
Ken, this was fun, insightful and educational. Thank you so much for coming on.
I appreciate it. I enjoyed sharing my experiences. I don’t know if any of that had to do with wisdom, but I have truly enjoyed it. I look forward to seeing it and seeing you soon when you come to Neenah.
I’ll see you at Neenah for some case ideas and nachos. Thank you, Ken.
Thank you for reading our episode of Ken Murray. As a recap, we discussed the backstory to some of the most iconic marketing campaigns at JG Wentworth, the power of understanding your company’s why and the importance of a fresh outsider’s perspective when building your marketing strategy. Thank you so much for reading. See you next time. Play on, everyone.
Ken is the Chief Marketing Officer at Chief Outsiders. Ken is a hands-on marketing and digital leader and created several ground-breaking and international award-winning TV and digital spots when he was the CMO at J.G. Wentworth. Ken builds enterprise value by creating new channels, discovering new segments, driving out-of-the-box creativity, and streamlining processes.