Here’s Why Chase Bank Poached Citi’s CMO

Carla Zakhem-Hassan came to banking after decades marketing consumer products including beverages and toys. Now she's moving on to her second CMO spot at a megabank.

In a recent interview with The Financial Brand Carla Zakhem-Hassan, who came up in consumer goods marketing, made a surprising observation. While many in banking complain about regulatory limitations, she said she had found that “working in a box” actually had a way of bringing out creativity. Clearly, that view appeals to others in banking because in late July 2021 it was learned that Zakhem-Hassan was moving from Citi to the CMO role at archrival JPMorgan Chase.

Initially the news was leaked to a few websites, drawing on an internal Chase memo. The Financial Brand obtained that document, sent jointly by Marianne Lake and Jennifer Piepszak, Co-CEOs of Consumer & Community Banking at JPMorgan Chase. A Chase spokesman confirmed that Zakhem-Hassan would be taking the position vacated by Leslie Gillen in March 2021 for personal reasons. Gillen had replaced Kristin Lemkau as CMO in January 2020.

In the memo the co-leaders discussed aspects of Zakhem-Hassan’s Citi years: “As the first global CMO of Citi, Carla was responsible for building a best-in-class marketing team, leading brand campaigns to promote ESG (environmental, social and governance), diversity and inclusion and other purpose driven programs, as well as driving new product launches, such as Citi Custom Cash Card.”

The bankers added, on a more personal level, that: “Carla has extensive consumer-facing brand and product experience, and takes every opportunity to balance performance with purpose. She’s empathetic, passionate and brings her full self to work every day. She’s respected as a culture carrier.”

Once the news was on the street, Zakhem-Hassan published a post on LinkedIn.

Carla Zakhem-Hassan LinkedIn Citi announcement

While Zakhem-Hassan took on the top Citi marketing job with zest after arriving as Chief Brand Officer, she will step into her new job at a time of great challenge for CMOs.

“We are moving into an intense period of competitive activity and established banks are facing threats from challengers looking to disrupt the landscape,” says Andrew Davidson, SVP, Chief Insights Officer, Mintel Comperemedia. “At the same time, the media landscape is rapidly evolving, providing new opportunities to reach new customers for those brands that are willing to engage creatively. The net result is that the role of the CMO has never been more crucial to establishing a winning strategy as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Adds Davidson: “While both Citi and Chase are major players in the banking industry both face unique challenges. Citi is notable for its global breadth, while Chase is notable for its domestic depth with nearly one in two U.S. households having a relationship with the bank. While Citi is undoubtedly a top player, Chase is number one with double the assets and more credit cards in circulation than Citi.”

“An incoming CMO to a brand that is already at the top of the pile needs to inject enthusiasm and maintain momentum at a time when the bank is facing unprecedented challenges from fintech challengers as well as traditional competitors looking to deploy aggressive growth strategies in the wake of the pandemic.”

— Andrew Davidson, Mintel Comperemedia

Zakhem-Hassan did not respond to a request for a fresh interview, but as it happens an interview with The Financial Brand published in mid-July illustrates her thinking on marketing challenges for the industry.

The article below originally appeared under the headline, “How Citi’s Unconventional CMO Turns Banking Rules into a Creative Force.”

How often do you hear someone in banking say that regulation can be a good thing?

When Carla Zakhem-Hassan arrived at Citigroup in late November 2018 to become Chief Brand Officer she was moving from a series of top marketing jobs with major companies that sold tangible consumer goods to a very different challenge. She now would be selling intangible financial products in an industry that frequently complains about regulatory straitjackets.

Since then, Zakhem-Hassan has moved up, becoming Chief Marketing Officer for the entire company in September 2020. But she still doesn’t see herself handicapped promoting financial services versus the marketing she ran at Toys”R”Us, PepsiCo and The Kellogg Company.

“One of the things that has been great, dare I say it, about being in a regulated industry is that you have to operate in a box,” says Zakhem-Hassan, a 25-year marketing veteran. “I happen to love constraints. And I don’t mean that facetiously.”

Constraints Can Foster Fresh Marketing Thinking

She explains that when there are boundaries, that pressure can produce creativity.

“When you have a very tight brief, it is easier for your outside and internal agencies to be more creative, because they know what their parameters are. If you say, ‘Just go out and make something creative,’ it’s hard, because they don’t know what their parameters are.”

A New Face for Citi Marketing:

CMO Zakhem-Hassan says keeping briefs for inside and outside teams tight has focused creativity “that brings humanity to our marketing that we haven’t had before.”

As an example, she points to campaigns that the company has run on pay equity and racial equality.

A facet of the first was a project in which Citi shot a film as a photographer took studio portraits of company employees’ children.

“The photographer said to them, ‘Do you know that in some cases women get paid less than men?,” says Zakhem-Hassan. The photographer snapped as each child reacted to this news. The children were often dumbfounded that pay could differ. Some criticized the unfairness.

Citi girls video women paid less reactions

The reactions of daughters of Citi employees when they found out about the gender pay gap issue.

“I think that campaign was highly creative for the industry,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “We got that kind of work instead of very traditional work which would have reflected what Citi’s study said and what steps we were going to take to rectify things. And it sparked a conversation that was broader than just about Citi.”

She says that there has also been creative work done to promote racial equality. In one spot highlighted on social media that tied in with Independence Day, a pianist, seen only as a pair of hands, demonstrates that “America the Beautiful” can only be played properly using both black keys and white.

Citi promomotes racial equity on Twitter

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Building on a Legacy Brand While Shaking Things Up

Obviously, making the switch from tangible goods to financial services didn’t come as a shock to Zakhem-Hassan. She says she came aboard in part because the company seemed to share her values and supported her desire to be a “change agent.”

“Sometimes I call myself an ‘intrapreneur.’ I certainly don’t have the stamina to start my own company. But I do like to do things differently. I like to think about how to fix things and then fix them. And if we have something that’s already really good, how to make it even better. And from the very beginning I was fortunate that I’m at a company with leadership supportive of me doing things differently.”

— Carla Zakhem-Hassan

Moving into a brand with a long legacy meant recognizing that there’s a reason a brand sticks around, even if the time for some change has come, according to Zakhem-Hassan. She says it is critical that a marketer thoroughly learn the business they have stepped into.

“We have to be curious about the business and think how we can solve problems and become much more embedded in the business,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “I came in with a lot of humility about not understanding financial services and really being curious about it and trying to add value. Once these points came together, I had enough credibility to start doing a few more disruptive things.”

Zakhem-Hassan notes that “I’m a commercially driven marketer. When I think about marketing, I think about how it can drive the business.”

She says a key task of a CMO is figuring out what to retain about a brand that has stood the test of time and what to let go of.

“I’m not a fan of throwing it all away,” she says. “I favor understanding what’s still important. And asking, how do we, not necessarily redefine them, but put a spin on them for the future. How can we take what was powerful 20 years ago and make it powerful for a new generation. The sentiment might still be powerful, but maybe it has to be articulated a little bit differently.”

Power of a Logo:

A simple yet important example is the Citi logo in its present form. People instantly recognize the type font, the red arc over the name. At a level, it’s as iconic as the golden arches of McDonald’s.

“Think about the yellow of McDonald’s arches,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “That is a yellow people sort of hold near and dear and think about when they think of the brand.”

“So,” she says, “there are some things that are sacred cows for us, and other things that we say could be reimagined.”

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Taking Social Positions Can’t be Just a Topical Veneer

As befits a former chief branding officer, Zakhem-Hassan says authenticity in storytelling is critical.

“Oftentimes marketers, in an effort to ‘do the right thing,’ sort of jump on something that is in the cultural zeitgeist, just to jump on it,” says Zakhem-Hassan. She believes this is a mistake.

“If that is inauthentic to the brand, its values and its mission, consumers will sniff it out in a second,” she continues. “You can’t just answer the ‘issue du jour‘.”

Carla Hassan quote marketers jump on cultural zeitgeist

Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser often embraces social causes on her own social media feeds, as does Zakhem-Hassan. So the corporate leaning towards this in branding and marketing is genuine.

But a flip side of speaking out is putting the corporate foot in the corporate mouth, when something accidental or tone deaf makes it to the public eye.

Zakhem-Hassan believes strongly in the value of diversity, equity and inclusion, and says that beyond the desire for fairness, there are practical reasons to have a marketing function that is very diverse. Never have there been so many landmines that a brand can step in and so many opportunities for inadvertently insulting someone.

“It’s very important for my team and my creative agencies to make sure that we have different opinions and different people looking at our creative and marketing work for these reasons,” says Zakhem-Hassan. Many efforts are taken to be sure more than one set of internal eyes has been on any message bound for the public.

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Uniting Brand and Performance Marketing Demands Data Agility

A trend among marketers that Zakhem-Hassan approves of is the reversal of efforts to separate brand marketing and performance marketing. She feels they work best when they work hand in hand, but this hinges on not only having useful data about customers and their relationships but intelligently using it.

“Quite frankly, I think uniting them is a stronger way to drive the business,” she says. Data comes into the picture because increasingly content in any form doesn’t suit every segment. The days of producing a single commercial are over, she says, and much more content must be generated for the sake of relevance to this segment and that.

Citi promotes paralympics on Twitter

Citigroup is a sponsor of the International Paralympic Committee and paralympic athletes. The partnership “gives us a powerful platform to change perceptions of people with disabilities,” the bank states in a blog.

Data, she continues, enables marketers to target messages to small segments, yet through a brand lens.

“But the reality is that data means nothing if you don’t know the questions to ask to draw meaningful insights from that data,” says Zakhem-Hassan.

Being rich in data also has a trap, she says. “In many cases, we as marketers have become super comfortable because we have automation and data guiding us. As a result sometimes we overcorrect — and we stop being creative.”

Retaining that creativity is important to Zakhem-Hassan.

“Passion for the craft is important,” she explains. “With passion comes curiosity. With passion comes authenticity. And with passion comes innovation.”

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