From the Corner Office

Ferocious Competitor With a Friendly Smile

By Toby Bloomberg • September 17, 2014

Toby Bloomberg
Toby Bloomberg, Diva Marketing

A self-described “ferocious competitor,” Russ Klein recently accepted the role of CEO for the 30,000 member American Marketing Association (AMA). The former CMO for Arby’s, Burger King, 7-Eleven and Dr. Pepper, among other global brands, is now responsible for leading North America’s largest professional marketing association. A big challenge and a bigger responsibility.


  • It’s not about what’s possible, despite all of the amazing technological advances we all see. It’s still about what is relevant.
  • Thousands of volunteers are the unsung heroes that are responsible for converting that AMA advantage into an AMA experience.


TB: Russ, having been in the center of creating marketing plans for some of the largest consumer brands, you can appreciate that our tool boxes are overflowing with new tactics and strategies. How does a brand, any brand, ensure that its marketing is relevant and adds value for the customer?

Russ Klein, CEO, American Marketing Association
Russ Klein, CEO, American Marketing Association

RK: Certainly relevance and value are two watchwords that are the right ones to guide any marketer’s actions. It’s not about what’s possible, despite all of the amazing technological advances we all see. It’s still about what is relevant. The main thing many marketers lose sight of is that merely being different is not necessarily relevant to consumers. Creating differences that matter in the lives of the consumer is what’s relevant.

I think the more mysterious question lies with the question of value. I am an ardent believer of Rifkin’s theory of near zero marginal costs that he asserts is imminent as a result of the internet of things and the remaining connectivity potential that is in our future. When you have a knowledge-based enterprise like the AMA competing in a world of open-sourced innovation, a sharing economy and lateral economies of scale, there are tremendous downward pressures on the costs of information.

MIT has posted its entire 1,800 course curriculum online for free. So the AMA is not only challenged with delivering relevant thought and service leadership to its constituents, our products and services must be peerless to command some level of sustainable pricing power. This is why I am so excited to take on the challenges facing the AMA. This is the ultimate strategic gauntlet for any CEO to navigate.

TB: One might say the AMA is the North Star for marketers. What do you feel is AMA’s North Star?

RK: Academic gravitas and scholarly distinction are to the AMA what Mickey Mouse is to Disney. More specifically, by Mickey Mouse, I mean film animation. If you remove animated film credentials and the institutional/cultural effects associated with them, Disney is just another film company—no Disneyland, no Disney World, no transcendent lifelong emotional attachment with its consumers. If you remove the AMA Journal’s thought leadership and the esteemed academic status of being published in them, the AMA is just another conference company or speakers bureau.

TB: With your background as CMO for major consumer brands, as well as award-winning agency work, you bring a prestigious CV to the party. However, nonprofit associations have some different and unique challenges. What most excites you about the opportunity to lead the AMA?

RK: One thing I bring is a ferocious passion to compete. While nobody would characterize the AMA as a bloodthirsty competitor, we are nonetheless competing with other formidable knowledge-based enterprises. The need to identify and leverage competitive advantage is just as relevant in a not-for-profit arena as it is in the for-profit world. I suppose the most obvious difference is the amount of resources available to the AMA to advance its vision versus other better heeled for-profit and scaled up companies.

Conversely, those companies seldom can call upon thousands of volunteers and advocates for whom their volunteerism is both a source of personal satisfaction and a calling to be of service to others. I believe the opportunity to hold up a shared vision as a source of inspiration can power the AMA when dollars can’t.

TB: What are some of the lessons you bring with you from your time in the fast food industry that will help support your success in this exciting new role?

RK: The fast food industry is the most competitive industry in the world, simply because so many companies are competing for the largest consumer dollar in the world: the food dollar.

I’ve already shared my belief that I will bring a very energetic sense of competitiveness to the AMA. Beyond that, the other element the fast food industry has taught me is that the restaurant manager trumps the brand manager every time. Likewise, it will still be our chapter-level execution in delivering a world-class professional experience that will define the AMA, not what my team located in Chicago dreams up and posts online.

Seven Fun Facts About Russ Klein

  1. Tablet or laptop? Laptop
  2. Briefcase or backpack? Backpack
  3. PC or Mac? Mac
  4. Favorite word? Grateful
  5. One of your bucket list to-dos? Build a tree house on my ranch in Colorado and have a family reunion there.
  6. Favorite social network? Facebook for personal use/LinkedIn for professional use
  7. Must have when traveling? Running shoes

RK: There’s no better time in business history to be a marketer. Get involved with the AMA and I guarantee you will get back many times over what you devote to it. Together, we’re going to light the path to improve marketing originality and best practices and make it the best profession you’ll ever love!

Read the complete interview with Russ Klein on the Bloomberg Marketing Blog.

Toby Bloomberg is founder of Diva Marketing blog, noted by Forbes as one of the 20 best blogs on social media and marketing by a woman. Her passion is helping brands tell their stories with in the digital conversation world. Connect with Toby on the Diva Marketing Blog and Twitter.