In this edition, VettaFi CMO Jon Fee sits down with Vanguard’s Sid Ratna. The role of the chief marketing officer (CMO) has evolved as companies digitally transform, embrace the power of brand, and lean into data-driven behavioral insights to drive client growth and satisfaction. No longer is the role merely “colors and fonts” or “clever copy.” Today, a CMO sits at the intersection of most functions within an enterprise, with responsibilities that span pipe, business development, sales automation, and even community-building. As a result, successful CMOs must embrace change while remaining close to both customer and product.
Sid Ratna is a ‘Full-stack’ CMO of $3 trillion intermediary business. He leads a talented, fully agile, diverse team of ~140 marketers responsible for E2E marketing strategy + execution. His work is in service of what he calls the 3 C’s: delight the Client, empower the Crew, and grow the Company.
Sid Ratna on Jobs and Careers
Jon Fee: What is the difference between a job and a career?
Sid Ratna: For me, a job is where someone else has told you to do something and drawn a box for you. They have defined what success is. You, in turn, have to fill up that box and operate within that box. For many of us, including myself, a job was really a way to pay bills and prevent my parents from having to subsidize my life.
A career is where you determine what success is. What you want your story, your narrative to be. You’re investing in yourself over decades. In your career you think about other people more. Your impact and value to them. What’s your purpose? In career you’re thinking bigger than yourself and and your paycheck. If you are doing it right you are thinking beyond your box, and hopefully spending as much time out of the box as you are inside it. And hopefully thinking a lot about whether your legacy persists in helping clients and crew long after your presence has moved on.
Fee: That’s an excellent answer. What was your first job?
Ratna: My first job — I really wanted to work in a bank, but I had graduated into a crisis. I had actually skipped my first year of college, I was doing sophomore year in Canada. I didn’t even grow up in Canada, I grew up in Thailand. I was just 17 years old and I didn’t really nail my first year of school with great GPA, great academics. So while I wanted to work in the bank, I wasn’t in that top 10%.
I actually got a job on the phones, reviewing loan applications and credit card applications, asking applicants deeply personal questions about their income and debt. It was formative. I learned a lot of gratitude for what it is to be on the front line, and got into strategy and analytics from there.
Living the Dream Job
Fee: The counterpoint question to that is what is your dream job?
Ratna: In many ways, I am living my dream job with Vanguard and what I do now. That might sound hokey, but it is actually just the way I approach the job, the mindset, and gratitude for all the things that I get to do.
Let’s, let’s put aside the word a job for a second and say, what are the dream things that you would like to be able to do, and get paid for it? For me, those elements are: be able to impact a large group of people — check. Build something that’s beautiful that’s born out of your vision and the team around you that you recruit and select — check. Do something delightful for the client or do something delightful for society and do it at a place that is mission-driven and purpose-driven. So, check, check, check, check!
But also work at a place where you never sacrifice personal integrity or compromise personal beliefs. I love being a family man, a husband and an involved father, and work lets me do that — check. Today, I feel like I am doing a ‘dream job’ because go to bed happy and feeling very fulfilled.
I probably have a ‘Chapter 2 Dream Job”. Once I’ve put my kids through college, I really, really would love to do something — I haven’t defined this yet —where I get to teach kids who haven’t had the same access to opportunities and networks that are essential in having the types of careers they aspire to and deserve.
There are a lot of things people take for granted: how to wear a tie, what suit to wear, how do you interview? How to shake hands? How do you write a resume? These are things some of the kids in America don’t have access to. I’ve had a great ride for 22 years, I’d love to just impart a lot of that back into maybe just looking for that access to information. I don’t know how that takes shape, but I would love to do that.
Fee: Awesome. That’s a that’s a great answer.
Ratna: In many ways it’s just paying it back or paying it forward. I’ve made so many unintentional blunders in my life, including showing up for my first real job interview wearing what, at that time, I thought was a really cool pink tie and a pink shirt, to a very conservative place. You have to understand it was ultra conservative. [Laughs] I just didn’t know that.
People along the way taught me the importance of first impressions. And, yes, you should always be creative and bring your authentic self to work, but that can take many different versions.
Ratna's Unique Entrance Into the World of Marketing
Fee: So how did you get into the marketing world?
Ratna: I haven’t been a marketer for as long as people think. My career arc was almost always strategy, data, and business development. You can call it M&A, you can call it strategic partnerships.
I love growing businesses and I love using data and financial acumen to build something of beautiful value for the client and for the company. At that time, JP Morgan Asset Management was looking to do a data and digital transformation of marketing. I joined on their data side, and really wasn’t looking at marketing. I was just looking at data and effective use of digital assets and marketing investment to drive outcomes.
I just saw sales and marketing as channels around the client. So, I started just building a more client centric understanding of who, say, Jon Fee was, as an individual — not through the lens of marketing or a digital website or email. I didn’t really care. I just cared about Jon and what was Jon telling my company in regards to what he liked and didn’t like. And by virtue of that, when the US CMO left, the global CMO at the time offered me the opportunity.
So I became the CMO as well as head of analytics.
Learning From the Past
Fee: Excellent. It’s a great story. What’s something you learned from an earlier job that you had outside of marketing that impacts your abilities as a marketer or your approach to your current job?
Ratna: Yeah, so remember how I said I started on the phones? Two years in, some very wonderful people at Bank of America took a chance on me and saw some things in me that they believed in. I joined their leadership development program, and it was just 10 people in this program. In that program, they made you do every single job: sweeping the floors after a party, collecting on people who maybe applied for a credit card but never had the financial education to balance debt and an income properly, customer service like selling credit cards at a NASCAR statement, which is which is not as easy as it sounds and it doesn’t even sound that easy.
From that program, I learned two things. One is the importance of leading by example. You need to be able to look at your team in the eye. There are a lot of things that I am asking of you, and it matters that I have either done them myself or would be willing to do them when times get tough. That just gets you a lot of credibility when you’re leading teams of people or large teams of people. When I’ve done the job, the people I’m leading understand that I’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
The second thing that I learned from that job is empathy is very, very necessary. Leading and managing is a privilege, it’s not a job, you didn’t earn it, you’re not entitled to it, you have to earn it on a daily basis. It is important, when you are sitting across from someone having a business conversation, to understand the person across there is a human. They brought a lot of their personal situation to work that day and at the end of the day, they’ll go back to that personal situation. You have to understand that that’s who they are. They’ve got dreams, aspirations, concerns, a lot of things.
That lesson has become more and more important to me, the larger the teams that I lead and the broader the spectrum of people I’ve led from very early career to later in their career. You have to think of the human first, even before you get to the business sort of side of things.
Fee: That’s an excellent answer. Do you have any pet peeves?
Ratna: I’d start with my own patience is my own pet peeve. I wish I was a more patient man.
I’ll tell you what I enjoy and then you can interpret that on the other side of that coin in terms of maybe what I don’t love as much. I like positive people, especially when I manage teams. I especially get a lot of energy from people who see opportunity, they identify problems, they’ve got a solution going forward. They know what they need from you to solve the problem and they ask for it. I love that.
I love and I get a lot of energy from positive people. We talked about a career, which is more than just the sum of the parts, right? It’s the narrative. It’s the team culture. It’s the camaraderie you build with your team, with your directs, and then even with your boss. And so, because I love that so much… have you ever sat across from someone where it feels so apparent that it’s a chore for them to even be there? The first time, you get it. The second time, you’re like, okay, fine. But by the fifth time, you’re asking am I doing something wrong, or do you just not want to be here? How do I make this a more positive experience for everyone involved? That’s something that just sort of drains my energy and I’m a big believer in bringing your energy to work.
I’m very grateful to work in the industry that I get to work in, the one that you work in. And what I really appreciate are the people – I call them volatility eaters. There’s always going to be times where things go up, things go down. There’s a sense of inspiration you get from people who just manage the volatility and have this calmness about them to say, “we’ve seen this before. We’ll get through this.”
I try and do this with my team. I really appreciate that and maybe not so much the volatility amplifiers.
Living Through Your Career
Fee: Totally makes sense to me. What daily habits or weekly routines do you have that keep you sharp as a leader or evolving as a marketer?
Ratna: I’m constantly thinking of myself as a client, as the customer. I wake up and go to sleep with that mindset. So, it’s like if you asked me again, “what’s difference between career and a job?” Job is you put your job hat on, take it off. A career is lived through.
So, one thing that keeps me sharp is I’m constantly thinking about my client experience, what I like about it, and what could be better.
Then, on the flip side of the coin, how’s that impacting the hundreds and thousands of clients of mine? Benchmarking! I love, love, love looking at other industries and downloading apps from things that I may not necessarily be that interested in. But I downloaded just to learn how they are talking to their clients and teasing out what can I learn from them.
Those two things make sure that I never get complacent or stale. I’m always participating in a relevant conversation, I’m learning from in the industry but also outside the industry.
Then the last thing is, honestly, the people who keep me not complacent and mentally young, the teams that I hire. I take big bets on people with high potential. I’m probably more willing to lean on potential versus proof. I don’t hire Jon Fee because he’s already proven himself to be a great marketer. You don’t get any alpha for that, there’s no prize. The betting on potential though – I’m a big believer in that. That’s real leadership. Courage. A bet on very talented directs. Sarah Alexander was one of them. Their natural curiosity and their runway, and the fact that they care so much and get better keeps me learning from them.
Ratna on Being Inclusive
Fee: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And Sarah is definitely someone who will succeed no matter what role you put her in! Let’s pivot over to volunteerism. How do you give back?
Ratna: I forget what it is called, but there’s this diagram of how, when you start, a job becomes a vocation. But ultimately, you end up on a purpose and mission. Early on in your trajectory, it’s about timing. It’s mostly about what you need. You need to be able to pay your bills, pay rent – that’s a job. When you get good at it, it becomes a vocation. Hopefully by the time you’re done, what you do intersects with what the world needs and it becomes closer to a mission and a purpose.
So a lot of what I do today is very active. I care passionately about the DEI front, and being able to help people tell their stories and to understand other people’s stories because I love this country.
I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, and my earliest memories of some of the nicest most inclusive people were these amazing people called Americans. And one was a Hawaiian teacher of Hawaiian descent. One was white, and one was black. But they were all called Americans. And they talk to each other like Americans.
It was just so inclusive before I even knew what the word inclusive was. They were the first to make me feel very included. So, age eight or nine, I told myself, “I’m going to live in America someday.” I just knew wanted to be around these people.
I’m here and I love being part of this country. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. So, while this country has been very good to me, I now need to pay it forward and make this country feel more inclusive for people who are trying to participate and have that representation.
I’m very active on that on DEI front at Vanguard and then second is just mentorship within the company and outside the company. Again, I think I’ve had the privilege of having people teach me a lot of things where I made unintentional mistakes, or lift me up when I needed it. I remember a lot of those lessons and I still have that passion, that fire to lift someone else up. Similarly, I want to help someone who’s got all the acumen, all the energy, all the drive, all the attitude and just needs a little help pointing them in the right direction. So, I do that as well.
I’m a very present dad at home right now — I probably will get even more involved with the nonprofit or nonprofit board.
Fee: Excellent. I love that answer. I appreciate that you’re doing that work and living that mission. Let’s chat about digital transformation. Without using the words “digital” or “transformation,” define what that term means.
Ratna: Yeah, I think that’s a great question… leaders and marketers should be asked that question more often. Even that term is such an inside-out term. It’s speaking from the lens of the company, the channel, what the company is trying to do. Really, the way I think about my job is how do you show up for the client when they need you? How do you meet the client, where they are, with what they need when they need it, and do it in a delightful way so they actually appreciate you reaching out to them?
That’s all digital transformation is. We call it a “transformation” because, well, a lot of our old ways of doing things need a rethink, because our clients are now either in different places or talking to us in different ways or in need of different things. That’s really all a digital transformation is. But at the end of the day, all it’s always been about is the client or the customer.
Fee: That’s a great answer. What’s something nobody’s thinking about in terms of digital transformation, but that you’re keenly honed in on?
Ratna: I don’t know that no one is thinking about them. I’m sure there are very talented leaders and marketers who are also thinking the same way.
The first thing is that while the word transformation is described as digital, there is a huge human element to this. On the work side. So, the digital transformation done correctly involves a lot of change management, a lot of upskilling, rescaling, a lot of reassurance.
People who lead large teams may have been doing a thing a certain way, and you cannot ever let your transformation capabilities be asymmetric or overtake your change management strategy and your thoughtful human approach.
Sometimes the appetite for doing cool things makes leaders move too fast without bringing the people along or having a thoughtful human capital strategy. It’s not going to work. And it’s also just not very humane.
So, there’s a whole human or humane side for digital transformation at large companies that you really have to be thoughtful about.
Talking about generative AI, there are a lot of implications for that. And as much as half of my brain wants to lean in, because this is the kind of thing that I find super attractive and it has great client potential, my conscience is thinking about, how do I do it in the right way, with people involved?
So that’s one. The second one, and this is going to sound a little meta or a little esoteric, but I increasingly think about that most fiduciary or social responsibility marketers need to play when it comes to marketing and advertising more and more.
Here’s what I mean. You talked a little bit about digital transformation, right? We have to consider that four or five decades ago information was largely symmetric and followed the normal distribution, meaning, you went and got your news. Hardcopy. Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Economist. We all shared the same tomes of information and it was built on a normally distributed curve. There was no personalization, there was no streaming of news, there was no hashtags of interests. Everyone had the same set of facts, whether they were right or wrong, they had a consistent set of facts. This consistent place that had to, by virtue of large publication, normally distribute interests and information.
That has changed. Now you can do hyper-personalization, you can reinforce notions, in a way that humans are maybe thinking, “well, here’s all the information I have, I’m going to assume that’s normally distributed information. That’s what the world is.” But all I’m doing is reinforcing a loop, getting you further and further polarized from a set of facts. And so, with great digital power comes great digital responsibility.
It’s not about just selling things, you have to also balance it out. You have a responsibility to balance it out. The right intent, what is right for the client? What is right for the customer? What’s right for the audience, what’s right for the reader? And so that responsibility of marketing is something that I think about a lot, especially as the world gets more digital, and personal.
Fee: I think that’s something that we should all very much be thinking about. Terrific answer.
Ratna: It is becoming easier as a marketer, you now have more in your arsenal. The goal isn’t necessarily just to sell, .
Looking Into the Crystal Ball
Fee: What’s a headline you expect to read in the next five years?
Ratna: I cannot yet give you something, the concrete headlines. But my bet is – and you’re already seeing it, headlines around what it means to be to be a productive member of society.
I think technology has this long build and then it gets exponentially more powerful. A lot of tasks that we are asking the human brain – which is this beautiful, ultra-creative, cognitive machine – to do are still highly rote and monotonous. We’re paying people to do the same thing they’ve already done.
And just with how far generative AI has come, how far our remote and virtual capabilities have come right, where robotics has come, how far data has come – data models and cognition and decision-making engines.
The confluence of that is going to be an exponential multiplication of those capabilities, we’re going to see the rote things taken out of society. Which is scary, don’t get me wrong. But also, a lot of headlines that I’m hoping to see are also highly uplifting ones because it places a premium on creativity, like true creativity, true original thought. You asked about dream jobs. I’m hoping to see a rise of dream jobs in the future.
A Parting Gift From Ratna
Fee: I love that. Before I let you go, can you share with us an album, book, movie, TV show, or other creative work that’s bringing you joy right now?
Ratna: I grew up loving all of Sherlock Holmes, like every single story I’ve read. I just think Doyle was actually a very expert writer. His language and construction of the English sentence is expert. The topic was very interesting, obviously. But it’s more than just about detectives, I love the way Doyle wrote.
Obviously, its very sad that there are no more stories to be had, except I went to the library the other day. I saw a book titled “Mycroft and Holmes”, written by Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And he’s actually a brilliant author. He’s also a brilliant writer, and a civil rights activist. He’s just a brilliant man. He contributes to the New York Times and New Yorker and is just very, very thoughtful. I just love seeing this side of him. So, I’m enjoying the book, I’m enjoying the protagonist, but I especially enjoy the story behind person writing this book and how he’s had so many chapters of his life. He’s redefined the concept of a job or career, where he can be a basketball star, a civil rights activist, and now an author.
Fee: That’s brilliant. Thank you so much.
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