In this episode, Evan Brandoff sits with Erin Levzow, the Vice President of Marketing Technology for Del Taco Restaurants. Erin has been widely recognized for her work over the past few years, including Adweek’s 2021 The Future is Female shortlist, Brand Innovators’ 2021 40 Under 40 , and Global MarTech Leader of the Year by Internet Marketing Association in 2020. Erin shares her journey from show business to marketing, and how perseverance was key to her success. What can you do to stand out? Have the passion, eagerness, and energy to want to learn. Be in the room where high-level conversations take place. Do you want more practical tips on perseverance? Tune in!
We have Erin Levzow on the show. She is the Vice President of Marketing Technology for Del Taco. Erin has a super interesting background that did not necessarily start in marketing and is now an award-winning marketer. I’m super excited to learn from her incredible career, so let’s get into it.
Erin, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
Where are you from?
Outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I appreciate you joining us. I am super excited to chat with you. First off, I want to congratulate you. The amount of awards you have won in the past couple of years is incredible, including Top 25 Future Female by Adweek New York, 2021 40 Under 40 Brand Innovators, CMO of the Year in Milwaukee 2020, and 2020 Global MarTech Leader of the Year by Internet Marketing Association. What is most impressive is you did not even start your career in marketing. Did you start in theater?
Yes. My degree was in Theater when I went to college. I thought that was going to be my career path and be in theater for the rest of my life. I chose a state school because I did not want to have a ton of student loans, knowing that I figured I would be poor the rest of my life as an actor trying to make it. I moved out to Vegas to start working my way up in the theater and got a job in theater, which was great. That dropped me into talent development and training because I had taken a management training course for Caesars. They said, “You are a natural trainer,” which is like being on stage again. You are training and helping people, and I love educating and helping people.
They moved me over to the training team, which was wonderful, but then the recession hit. You don’t need trainers if you can’t hire people. I remember that day being devastated like, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I thought I had found this career where I got to train, help people and give back, but at the same time, still perform in a way. Caesars asked, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I will be a housekeeper and clean rooms.” I’m glad they didn’t choose me for that because that is a hard job. They said, “What do you know about internet marketing?” I said, “I have Facebook.” I don’t know anything about this, but I had this passion, eagerness, and energy to want to learn it.
I was in a crisis and had no job, so I would have learned anything. They put me in front of the director. She truly had no reason to hire me at the time at Caesars, but she gave me a shot. She took a chance on me because of my passion, because I said I would never give up, and I have a strong work ethic. I worked my way up and started there. That is where I started on the internet or what is now digital marketing or technology. That was the beginning of it, but that only became that because of the situation in which I was in.
I can’t wait to get into the marketing portion. That is the focus of the show, but it is unique to have someone from show business come on the show.
I still love it. I watch all my friends who are pursuing it, but after a while, people go, “Why don’t you pursue it?” It turns out I like money. I thought I wanted to be poor for the rest of my life, but I was wrong.
What shows were you working on?
You need to be in the room where high-level conversations take place.
In college, I did a bunch of different shows. Out in Vegas, I worked on the producers in the Broadway touring show and met a lot of great people through that. The Bally’s, Paris, and Rio at that time had Jubilee and some other shows. Those were a lot of fun, including Anthony Cools’ hypnotist show. I never believed in hypnotism before seeing that show night in and night out, and the people getting on stage, getting hypnotized, and what they would do. I was like, “This can’t be fake. This has to be real.” There is nothing like working in Vegas. It is wonderful.
Did you ever get hypnotized?
I refused to go. I could not do it. You have to want to be hypnotized and give into it. It would be very hard for me to let go and allow myself to be hypnotized.
I always wonder about shows in Vegas. It is always the best shows and concerts. How many people buy tickets weeks in advance of the show versus going to Vegas for the weekend, and when they get there and figure out what shows they want to see?
I’m excited to get into how you use that psychology in what you are doing nowadays at Del Taco. For everyone reading, if you are having trouble getting Adele tickets, contact Erin. She has the hookup.
I wish I did. That would be a wonderful concert.
What was it like living in Vegas during The Recession?
It was interesting because a lot of people, including myself and a lot of my friends and family, are all going through the same thing. We lost our jobs. I bought a house during The Recession, and everybody was like, “There is no way the market could go lower than this. This house is one-half the cost it originally was” I bought it, and it dropped 75% more. Nobody knew what was going on. People thought areas that were up and coming just plummeted and did horrible, and you were surviving. Once I got back into digital marketing, you survived through it. You worked your butt off.
People wanted to work. There was this scrappiness of you fighting to have a job because there were 1 job and 10 people applying for it for every single job, which is not something we are used to. Now, there is a labor shortage. At that time, people wanted to work. It is very different. It also has to do with the work ethic I still have. You want to work and be there. If you don’t want to be there, do something else.
Caesars gave you a chance as an internet marketer. This was back in 2008. What does internet marketing mean for Caesars?
I started by doing accounts payable and receivable for all things, internet expenses for Caesars, and corporate, all the properties. I did not know what I was looking at. They would be like, “You have to know what we spent in order to pay the invoice.” I don’t know internet marketing. How do I know how to check this? I had to learn. I was at the bottom of the barrel. I was as low as you could go on the totem pole, and they would say like, “We need someone to come into this executive meeting and click the PowerPoint.” I was like, “Please choose me. I want to do it.”
I shared an office with two other individuals. One is that I’m still friends with. We could spin and touch our knees. It was that confined of a space. They would go, “Why are you volunteering the PowerPoint click?” I was like, “It is because I get to be in the room.” In Hamilton, they say the room where it happens. I got to be in the room where these high-level conversations were taking place. They said, “We need someone to make this PowerPoint look pretty and put the right analytics in it each month.” I’ll do it because I got to take home these slides, study them, and understand what all this data meant because I had no clue what I was doing.
I took on marketing events and promotions. This was when online gaming was not a thing as we think of it now. I could build like skeeball online and people could enter to win and do a skeeball game. I was working on those things. We started QA in all 41 properties’ emails. I will be the first to say I’m not the most detail-oriented. They would be like, “Erin, find all the spelling errors.” I’m like, “Okay.” You just do it. Anything they asked me to do, I would say yes. I was also paid hourly. If they were like, “You are going to have to work through lunch.” I was like, “I will do that.”
I worked and worked until I got a call from MGM. They said, “We want you to come over onto this side and do ad planning and buying. In Caesars, we worked with an agency at MGM. They want us to do our own ad planning, buying, strategy, tagging, and attribution. In my head, I’m thinking, “I know internet marketing. They worked in Caesars, but I had never done my own ad planning and buying.”
I go over there. The first four weeks at MGM, I cried almost every single day because I could not get it. I did not understand like, “How does someone learn to code a tag? How do I wake up at 6:00 AM to talk to someone in Manila about how the tracking is placed?” I don’t know what I’m doing. There was someone who would always be like, “You need to figure it out.” I had no idea.
Did you have an agency that you worked with?
We were the internal agency and our clients were the properties at MGM. We were doing work, but it was a lot of a big learning curve. I have never placed my own ad buy in my life. I’m figuring it out, learning from the people around me, how we calculate ROI, how we are tracking and attribution. I got it eventually, and I took on five properties as the key account person. I got a call from PalmsIt is the same deal. They said, “We need someone to lead on marketing.”
At that time, I was running the Las Vegas Interactive Marketing Association. I thought maybe they would want to pay to place their job on our job board. I will go over and meet with them. They told me about the job. It never hurts to have a conversation. I said, “Here is what I would need to leave.” I’m very happy at MGM. I love my job. I put out some very lofty things, and they said no, which is fine. Three weeks later, they called me and said, “We will give you what you asked for if you come over.” I was like, “You called my bluff. Let’s go.” I went and did that.
I’m from a small town in Illinois, and my husband is from Wisconsin. We did not foresee ourselves raising our kids in Vegas. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but we were like, “We should move. This is the right time before the kids get into kindergarten.” That is when I left and went to Wingstop in Dallas and traded in Vegas vacations for chicken wings.
What is incredible is that you got thrown into marketing and quickly moved up the ranks at three incredible different companies. A question that I get asked a lot by marketers earlier in their career is, “How can I learn as much as quickly as possible?” Maybe the main thing is to throw yourself into your work and take on as much as possible. Is there anything you could do outside of your job, or is there anything you did outside of your job to level up?
I mentor a lot of early-on career folks. I have in the past too. They asked me the same thing, and I always tell them, “When you first start a job, think of it like college. You go to the class, but that is not where it ends. You go home and do homework. You study and cram. There are nights when it is finals and you stay up all night because you need to be ready for this. Think of that as when you start your next job.”
Whenever you start a job, think of it that way. I know that is frowned upon because people are like, “You need to have a work-life balance.” You have to decide where you want. In the long run, you will have a different type of balance. We can get into that because I don’t believe in balance. I believe in blend and it blends together.
You can motivate someone to do the right thing by telling your story.
When you first start your job, it is not 9:00 to 5:00. That is when you are in the class or the course, but then you go home and do homework. You study and research so that you are prepared when you show back up the next day for the 9:00 to 5:00. Otherwise, it does not work if you expect it to all fit into this one little thing. I have had people go, “I don’t want to sign up for that.” That’s fine. That is their choice, but the people I see succeed well do not say, “I can only think about this job 9:00 to 5:00.” No. A career is something you think about all the time.
Let’s talk about blend. I love that phrase. What does that mean blend versus balance?
The word balance makes you think of a scale. It is like, “I need to have this much work, and that means I need to have this much something else. It is weighing it down. If work gets too heavy, I need to put more fun or something else.” It makes it seem like work as a negative. Work is not a negative. Your career should be fun, exciting, and fulfilling. If it is not, you don’t have the right one. You have all these other things in your life. Your career is part of your life, and it is a very important part because you spend more time with these folks than you do with your own family, and you blend it together. It needs to blend.
The other way to think about blend is there are going to be times when work takes up more of your time than anything else. As long as it sways back and forth and lands somewhere in a nice functional blend, you are fine. When you start to think about balance, people start to go, “I can work this hard as long as I go skiing on the weekends.” You could get a job like skiing if that is what fulfills you.
You are hoping to fill your cup on Saturday and Sunday so that Monday through Friday, you go to this job, so go get a job in skiing. Do something you love to do and are fulfilled doing so that you are not thinking about it as like, “I have put it all this time at this 9:00 to 5:00. Now I have to balance it with something else.” It is a blend and you should be fulfilled with all the aspects of it.
What I’m hearing is the greatest solution for finding the right blend is to do things you love as part of your career. Do you love marketing now that you have learned to love it as much as you love theater?
I do, and I love tacos. I love the idea that a story that we are telling can motivate someone to do something. It could be taking a Vegas vacation, eating chicken wings or tacos. A message or a story that you are telling motivates someone to take action is so exciting to me. The best part is we can track it. There is so much talk about tracking, cookies, and everything now, but people want to be tracked because they want personalized offers when you think about it. They do not realize it because they don’t understand it, but this idea that we can follow someone through the journey to help them understand and motivate them to take action is very exciting to me.
Before we leave Vegas, I have one last Vegas question. In 2013, the Downtown Project was underway. Did you spend any time in Downtown Vegas?
I did. One of our good friends, Cory Harwell, has a restaurant in Downtown Vegas called Carson Kitchen. If anyone is in Vegas, there’s also one in Alpharetta, Georgia, and one is in Salt Lake City now, but it started in Downtown Vegas when they were revitalizing. It is by far one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. Going down there and seeing the change was pretty impressive.
I had a couple of friends that were part of the Downtown Project. We visited it a couple of times. It was amazing what they were doing down there. The first common transition was from theater to marketing and then from marketing for casinos to wings. That is the other classic transition. How did the knowledge that you gained through your experience at Palms, MGM, and Caesars translate to now taking over digital marketing at Wingstop?
When I had an interview with Wingstop, one of the things they asked me was, “What is your favorite wing?” I said, “I have never had chicken wings. That grossed me out. There is a bone in it that seems weird.” It is the only thing they sell besides French fries. They still hired me because it turns out to be a great marketer does not mean you have to be head over heels for the product.
You have to understand the product, story, and psychology. It turns out I love wings now. They are delicious. Lemon Pepper is my favorite. Marketing is about motivating a behavior, whether a Vegas vacation or chicken wings. Ironically, they have a lot of similarities because there is a crave or need to be incited when you eat wings. It is a visceral experience.
Your elbows are not off the table. They are on the table. You are messy. When you start thinking about chicken wings, you are eating chicken wings in the next week after you start thinking about them. Vegas is a visceral experience. It is just a little bit different. It might also be messy, but it incites a feeling. You don’t go, “I need to get a hotel, and I might do something.”
You are going there to have a great time. You are also going to fill something inside of yourself, the same with eating wings. Shockingly enough, there are a lot of similarities. It is just a different story you are telling. I have seen that everywhere, in every brand I have worked with and how we talk about it. It is a different story, but you’re still trying to motivate behavior.
It is understanding the products, story, and psychology. Those are the three things.
Simon Sinek talks about the why like, “Why do you eat wings?” It is the psychology behind it and then motivating that behavior. Why does someone come to Vegas? Why does someone eat chicken wings and burritos? Why does someone buy a pair of shoes? There might be different personas in all of them. It might not be the same for every single person.
I’m putting you on the spot a little bit here. At Del Taco, can you speak to a campaign or some strategy that the marketing team has deployed and how you bucketed it into those three categories as you went to market?
Our leader, Tim Hackbarth, worked with the team to create our campaign, which is 20 under $2. It is a phenomenal and spot-on campaign. He speaks about it much better than I will. If you watch our commercial, in a world where everything seems to be rising in price, you need something that is not going up in price. It is 20 items under $2. We are speaking to value and quality.
Our food is fresh. We make our guacamole in the restaurant so you are getting fresh, quality food for a value. In the world that we live in nowadays, what a great place to be able to tell someone that you can choose from any of these twenty things. It is truly a value that you are getting. Like me, if you go to the gas station, you are like, “This can’t be the price of gas.”
I watch the number go up, and I’m like, “Didn’t my car hold more gas all of a sudden? What happened?” It is the same amount of gas, just much more expensive to fill it up. That has been a phenomenal campaign leaning into what a customer needs now as well as fulfilling the void. My Starbucks was $6 something for the same drink that I used to get for $4.25.
I remember looking at it going, “That can’t be right. When did it get pushed over $5 for this one drink?” Let’s be honest. I don’t need to be drinking, but I still get it. I could get a full meal at Del Taco for my one coffee at Starbucks. That’s crazy. It hit on all of those things for us. It is very timely with everything that is happening in our world nowadays.
Speaking to the psychology of Del Taco has delicious tacos and fresh ingredients, that is one thing, but you are going past that and thinking about what is top of mind for consumers nowadays, and it is inflation. Everything is getting more expensive. We are hitting on that topic as well.
I’m super proud to be a part of it. I give credit to Tim and the team that cultivated and created this idea. We got to help execute it from a MarTech standpoint and spread the word.
Say yes to things, push forward, and accept rejection.
For those reading that are not as familiar with a MarTech title, what does it mean to be the Vice President of Marketing Technology at Del Taco?
I’m still figuring that out every day. It used to be that IT and marketing technology lives separate, and then they would have to come and work together. My job straddles both of those things. I have an understanding of technology. In marketing, everything that used to be paper is now plugged in. It is all technology. My joke is I always touch anything that touches a computer or mobile device, which is everything. It’s a lot of fun.
My job title did not exist before I joined the company. They were creating this position, and I filled that void for them. It was a new position. There are still a lot of restaurant companies that do not have marketing technology. They sometimes have digital marketing people that start to lead into that space. The fun stuff is I get to handle everything with our cross-functional team, from digital menu boards through digital media. If it has to be plugged in, there is a chance our team will get involved.
Where does MarTech fall on the org chart? Is it under marketing or technology?
It is under marketing. We work super cross-functionally, and we have team members in all these different departments that we work closely with. That is what’s wonderful about it because I am not in operations and IT. We have to be close and be joined at the hip in order to push certain projects over the finish line.
You also advise young people as well. I understand you’re an advisor to BUILT BY GIRLS. Can you tell us more about it?
BUILT BY GIRLS helps high school and college-aged women who are focusing on stem function activity. They either want to learn more or have a startup they are working on, but they want to cultivate that and be connected to a mentor and advisor. I have worked with folks all over the US. Some have startups that they are trying to get off the ground at a high school level, which is insane to me.
I look back, and I thought I was good at what I did and was successful, but then you look at some of these high schoolers, and you are like, “I need to step it up. They are impressive.” It’s also women who are looking into like, “Do I want to go into a MarTech space? Do I want to go into this type of activity?” It has heavily been male-skewed for so long, so having a woman they can speak to that has done this is few and far between for a lot of them.
They will say, “I have this guy professor and this person as a mentor.” 9 out of 10 times, it is all men. They are excited to talk to a woman. They go, “Am I going to get held back for female leadership?” I said, “Keep going. Power through. You can do it.” It has been more fulfilling for me than them in some cases because I am able to see the change that it creates in them and the energy and ambition they have.
Lucky women that are able to get mentored by you sound like an incredible program. If you could go back to your senior year of high school and do college again, would you have studied something different?
I would not because theater taught me so much about being a leader, empathy, and emotional IQ. It was a family. At Illinois State, there was this place called the airport lounge. It wasn’t an airport. It was the space between two buildings they built to connect the two buildings. They called it an airport lounge because it looked like it was in an airport. It was set up with long tables and a hodgepodge of chairs that they found on the side of the street.
In between classes, you hung out there and built relationships. It was all people like me. When I say like me, it was people who felt like outsiders. They did not know where they fit in, but all of a sudden, for the first time in their life, they felt like they fit somewhere. They fit in this airport lounge where people came through in between classes, gave each other hugs, and checked on each other.
It was a weird family that existed. It sounds insane, but we would do a 4 square marathon or 40 hours straight where you played all together, like the kid four square games, to raise money for scholarships and funds. It built relationships, connections, and this thing that I needed more than anything, which is to find a place to belong and acceptance in a world where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out like, “Where do I fit in? How do I connect with people?
I say that because it not only taught me a lot about that and helped me feel accepted, but it also helped me learn a lot of the things that I use nowadays in my job, like saying yes, embracing things, continuing to push forward, and accepting rejection. That is what theater teaches you. I’m not going to get every part. It’s for no other reason than, “I’m too fat. I’m too skinny. I’m too tall. I’m too short. I’m not smart enough. I don’t sound good. I sound too nasally. I can’t do a British accent.” It is not something I can change. I can’t be 100 pounds lighter for this role, so I’m not right for it. You accept that rejection and move forward. It taught me all those things. I don’t know that studying a different career path could have taught me those things.
I want to go to your school and hang out with the theater crew.
It is so wonderful. I have a friend whose son is going completely different, like on a baseball scholarship to Illinois. He stopped there one day when they were looking. He went in to see the theater that I was in. The janitor that has been at the school for years asked him how he could help them. He said, “I have a friend that used to go here years ago.” He said, “What’s the friend’s name?” He told him my maiden name, and the janitor was like, “I remember her. She used to sit over here.” That’s how close of a group it was and also how caring. It didn’t matter if you were the janitor, professor, or dean. You were all accepted in this space. That was amazing.
I could go on a whole tirade about what universities could be doing differently in terms of motivating students to 1) Have such a tight-knit community that you experience, 2) Study things that you’re passionate about and interested in, and 3) Compliment that with a couple of classes that are practical to what you’re going to need in the future, like some Excel skills or personal finances.
Have you watched Ted Lasso, the Coach Beard? He went to Illinois State and studied Theater and a lot of the same things. He could tell you about the Foursquare marathon. He could tell you about Saturday night midnight’s we called it Theatre of Ted. You got up there, and you could perform anything. It was about daring to suck. Get up there and be horrible. It’s interesting because he talked about that in an interview. I was like, “That’s what college was like. That was wonderful.” It was the same thing. He said it was inclusive and connecting. John Malkovich and all of these guys went to ISU and had the same experience. It’s wonderful.
Whenever I’m feeling down or need a reset, I watch the darts scene from the first season of Ted Lasso. It is a great scene. Erin, this has been so interesting. What is coming up next for Del Taco? Can you give us a sneak peek at anything exciting going on?
There is so much like continued growth. We are excited about the future. It is only positive. I would not have joined the brand if it was not such a successful and continuous momentum brand that I have seen. When I first joined, people were like, “You are going to QSR fast food?” I was like, “You don’t understand.” In Wisconsin, people are not as familiar with Del Taco, but if you go to California, people lose it anytime I pull up to the headquarters. They get so excited, “Do you work here? This is amazing.” I’m like, “It is amazing. We have delicious food. We are going to continue to do what we do best and continue to grow. Keep an eye on us. It will be very positive.”
Before we let you go, the last part of the interview is called the lightning round. It is the first thing that comes to mind for all four questions. First question. What is your favorite youth sports memory?
Encourage people to cross the finish line.
It was not sports. It would be the dance team. I was on the dance team in high school. I remember being mentored by two seniors when I was a freshman, and they would run alongside me because I could not run a mile to save my life. They would run with me, help motivate me, and cheer me on. It was very humbling but also motivational. That was a big memory for me to help encourage people to cross that finish line.
When you were in elementary school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In elementary school, I wanted to be a lawyer because I would watch lawyers on TV, and they got to argue. I was good at arguing. I was like, “I’m going to do that.” It turns out they were actors in that transition very quickly.
What is a brand whose marketing you admire most?
I love Dove because they have done so much in body image and self-acceptance for women. What a passion for working on and helping other women accept their bodies and selves and get rid of negative self-talk. They do a thing and go way beyond what their product is.
Finally, what is your go-to cause to support?
I have lots of causes I support. I’m on the board of the American Heart Association. I love supporting that, but it’s Safe Families now. They are all over the US. You can get involved in SafeFamilies.org. They help keep kids out of foster care by helping parents in crisis and who need help for a short time, whether it is a couple of months or a parent gets incarcerated and needs a little bit of help in between that.
We have taken in kids who don’t have a home for a short time, and then we are able to reunite them with their parents and help them fulfill them through a Christian organization. That has been fulfilling for our family. I have seen the work that it can do. I’ve seen the parents and the kids. It can help, even if it’s just a bright light in their life for a minute, how much help that creates for them. They need all the support that they can get now.
Erin, I am so excited to see what is next for Del Taco and what awards come next in your amazing repertoire. It has been amazing following your career. I appreciate you coming on the show.
Thank you so much.
In this episode, we had our special guest, Erin Levzow, the Vice President of Marketing Technology from Del Taco. On the show, we discussed a lot of incredible topics like her career trajectory from theater to marketing, the importance of perseverance and never giving up, and how to optimize your life in order to have that right work-life balance. I appreciate you reading this. I will see you next time. Play on, everyone.
Erin Levzow is the Vice President of Marketing Technology at Del Taco Restaurants. She is a goal-focused, multitalented marketing leader with over 18 years of success delivering innovative, impactful digital, marketing and eCommerce solutions that position companies for lasting success. The winner of multiple marketing awards, Erin is a source of inspiration to the next generation of female leaders who are stepping into careers powered by technology.