In episode 153 live from AdMonsters PubForum Miami, Erik and Kerel talk with Chris Contreras, Chief Customer Officer at MNTN, a company that builds advertising software for brands to drive measurable conversions, revenue, site visits and more through the power of television. Chris was first born American after his parents moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic. He comes from a long line of well-acclaimed family members, his father who taught himself English and practiced medicine, a mother who was an architect, and his grandmother who was the first female to run a bank in the Dominican Republic. Chris deciding between medicine and business eventually chose finance and has worked at Univision, NBC, Snap, and more Global Customer Success organizations.
Chris not only works full-time at MNTN but also has a lot of outside obligations including founding an angel fund, a mentorship program through MNTN, as well as a mentorship program in the CS sector, and mentoring VPs and SVPs. He believes that DEI is not something to be promoted as a time-based initiative, but something that is weaved into a workplace and leadership. Chris shares soft and hard skills employees need to have stepping into leadership positions, the importance of mentorship and why future leaders need to get clarity on their weaknesses to figure out a great balance for themselves, their team, and their company.
“I think communication is such a valuable component. As you move up in your career, the clarity, the succinctness of which you provide feedback, and just general guidance to a customer and internal constituent becomes even more and more important, because the time that you have with senior leaders is very limited.”
We want to welcome all of our listeners to another episode of MRP, Minority Report Podcast, with Erik and Kerel. Each episode we talk with leaders in business, tech, and media. And today joining us is Mr. Chris Contreras, Chief Customer Officer at MNTN. Let's jump in and get to know Chris. Chris, welcome, how you doing?
Chris Contreras 00:30
I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me again.
Excellent. So for those who don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about where you're from? And tell us a little bit about your background?
Chris Contreras 00:41
Yeah, definitely. So I'm actually born in Georgia, but grew up in Miami. So I'm back here, moved back 12 months ago. I started my career in finance, all but 12 months of my life, and then moved into the publisher world, actually worked for Univision. I see some old colleagues in the room. And moved to New York almost 12 years ago and was with NBC for a little bit and then went on to the tech scene. I was at a couple of startups, was at Snap, pre IPO, and then have been focusing primarily over the course of the last eight years running Global Customer Success organizations. And most recently, I've been at MNTN, it'll be two years now in May, where performance CTV platform, and I run their entire existing business.
Excellent. I want to ask you a little bit more about your career, because you've had a tremendous career working at great companies, publishers, media companies, tell us a little bit about who you are, your family, and where your family comes from. Tell us little bit about that.
Chris Contreras 01:39
Yeah, so I'm the middle child of three boys. And both of my parents are Dominican. My father came here when he was 17, taught himself English, went to NYU undergrad, NYU Medical School, and then enlisted in the Navy, and was a Navy Sergeant for eight years, and then went to practice medicine after my mom moved here, right before, like two years before my parents got married. She's an architect. You know, I come from a- I'm first American born family member and I had a really good experience growing up because both of my parents were educated. And it's an interesting dynamic coming up in the household that you have to live up to like a father who taught himself English and went to medical school. So it's a interesting perspective to kind of balance. I actually went to undergrad for, I had two majors, biology and a minor in mathematics and chemistry, and then finance and I chose business, much to my father's excitement, because he's like, don't go into medicine. Don't ask me why.
Chris, I want to switch the topic a little bit and bring it back to leadership, as Lynn said in her opener, right, like, part of the theme today is about leadership, career growth and development, right? And you have built a successful career in customer success. You've built a successful career in recruiting and developing talent and building great teams. Can you talk a little bit about, like, what is your approach to leadership?
Chris Contreras 03:06
Definitely, I would say if you ask any of my team members in the past, currently, I'm a servant leader, and I'm through and through a servant leader. I had a pretty horrible experience earlier in my career with leadership and I vowed the moment that I would become, and have the opportunity and the privilege of leading folks, that I could help cultivate an atmosphere where folks understand what it takes to move from a junior role to a more senior role in their area of expertise. And one of the things that I focus, I'll use a real life example, when I joined MNTN, there was really no difference between like a Director, a Senior CSM, a CSM, an Operations person, a Support person, a Technical Account Manager and what that leads is just this area of time based, like, promotion, where folks don't really understand, like, the hard and soft skills that are necessary to move up. And then also providing an avenue and opportunity for folks who are already in leadership, especially in the publisher world where you can stay as a director of VP for eons and then what's that next move is not very clear. My goal was always to provide like kind of that canvas. I call it a career lattice. And it's a blueprint so that folks can understand and I can put people in positions, that number one they're uncomfortable with, which is usually the area of their areas of weakness. And then secondarily is provide them just a path to understand what soft skills they can continuously work through. I didn't have this opportunity, so I had to kind of build it my own. In the publisher world, I started in OPS, from a BI perspective, I moved into strategy, I ran ad ops, I ran ACAT. I ultimately was Revenue Operations Senior Director, before I left the publisher world and I had all these teams under me. I had no historical experience leading those teams prior to that. So I kind of like carved my own path to get to that point. And it's challenging my perspective, and that's what I'm doing for my teams as well.
Right, right. And what's interesting about that, you know, to your point, carving your own path, right? I'm sure you've received some tremendous advice along the way, right? Can you give us an example of some of the best advice that you've received in terms of, you know, how to move up in your career or how to grow as a leader?
Chris Contreras 05:13
Yeah, one of my most memorable and he's still a mentor of mine. Some folks in the room who worked at Univision remember him, Charlie Echeverry was the CRO for Univision Digital. He's a servant leader through and through, but he's almost more of like a personal mentor type of leader, where he provides you the guidance you need, gives you enough slack for you to kind of like figure out like, what you need to do. And his feedback to me early was like, be as agile as you can be. Because I'm like, in this space, how fast this industry moves, we all hear all the time, I'm going backwards 14 years ago, it's like it was a year mobile, we heard that for like seven years and then it just flipped over to it's a year mobile still. But things were evolving rapidly. I remember we used to have on premise DFP and then we went to DFP premium. And it was just all these changes, I wasn't even used to using these tools all the time. And I just started becoming more and more like a sponge. And his feedback was be a sponge, be agile, and don't get stuck in a certain place because it will prevent you from kind of learning more and expanding in the areas that you want to expand in. I take that feedback, and I consider it like gold consistently.
Gotcha. Gotcha. I recently read a stat that said that companies with great leadership outperform other companies by it's something like 13x, right, because I guess, you know, the teams they've built so on and so forth, right? Give us an example of throughout your career, whether it's you as leader, a company that you're working for, or your specific team, where you've seen the impact of leadership and great teams have helped companies really thrive.
Chris Contreras 06:58
That's a good one, I'll use my current team as an example. And it's not just because it's a current, like thing that's easy. When I started, it was May of 2021. And as everybody knows, during COVID, and when folks are starting going back to the office, or working remote, there was a mass exodus. Folks were leaving roles, joining other companies, people were overpaying for talent. And in the last two years, I've lost one person from my organization. And that's not because we're paying more than every other place. It's because we've set the structure where folks understand like where they are in their own individual career. The secondary part to that is I've purposely challenged my leadership to hire folks outside of the ecosystem that we normally hire. So I have folks that are top performing in my team that came from the hospitality sector never touched ad tech, never, they weren't in the publisher world. But it provided an opportunity, because their hard and soft skills are dealing with customers on a consistent basis, that are either very frustrated, or easily like moved into a different area of their challenge for that day. So I can teach folks, the ad tech, I can teach folks the approach from like a customer journey. I can't teach them to be customer people. And I feel like that centricity I can find in different sectors. So I was a founding member of a group called Success in Black and we created a network in the black community to provide opportunities for folks to join the customer success sector and that's where we started getting really good talent. And I'm seeing the team and like we are doing about 250% year over year growth for the last two years in revenue. And from a base, right, sub 100 million over 350 last year. Like we're like growing fast. And it's a testament to the group that we're building, and the team and the talent that we're bringing in that is just hungry to learn more and be that sponge and expand.
Yeah, let me ask one more follow up question to that. So you're going outside of the industry to bring people in that have the skills that you need to build your Customer Success Team, right? I have to imagine though, within that, you've got to have a great foundation for a training program to onboard folks, right? Because they don't have the history of ad tech, right? They need to learn that piece of it, right? Some of the skills are transferable. Can you speak for a little bit about like, what is your onboarding process of a new employee look like?
Chris Contreras 09:31
So at MNTN the one piece that I know personally having come on board is we have an excellent enablement organization. And they're made from different parts, so we brought folks from online universities who happen to be very good at distributed workforces. We're a fully remote business, so we had to double down on the ability to bring folks on board that weren't in a physical location, which is hard, to be honest with you. We have classes, like last week I spoke at our office onboarding new hire class. The first week is pretty scheduled and in that session, we had 13 people and they were distributed across the United States. It wasn't like high concentration in New York, LA, etc. It was like all over, we have folks in Spokane, we had folks, one of them was dialing in from Columbia. It's one of those pieces where we create this environment that is easy and repeatable process. The secondary piece is my leadership team made a concerted effort on figuring out like, what are the specific characteristics in the training program and regimen that we want to tailor towards the new hires. For some, we hire very experienced folks in ad tech, who I don't have to train anything but the platform and the nuances that our platforms have. But for the others that are coming in from a different industry, we've established a pretty good cadence. It's both, we call it in person, but it's on Zoom kind of training. So like player-coach scenarios where they can actually talk through situations, and also like e-learnings that we've established. And that continues to evolve, like, right now we're doing our entire customer journey revamp and those folks are part of that planning process. So the best part is, it's not like leadership imposing a training program. It's the folks who are on the ground, doing the work, helping create the future evolution of what that program looks like, so we have buy in from the people on the street. Because I feel like you come into these businesses, and you're like, this is like I know this stuff. Or it's the opposite, it's like, this doesn't even make sense to like my day to day like, why am I even learning this stuff? So it's like hearing from them was very important.
Thank you. That's very helpful. And I think a lot of organizations, you know, talk to Kerel or myself just about where they may struggle, or where it's hard to build sort of a program internally. So I wanted to ask you about your leadership style and how you make sure inclusivity is part of that. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Chris Contreras 11:50
Yeah, look, I think there are two things. And one of the piece is that I've been very mindful of is I don't want to use DEI as a marketing tool. I want to use it as part of the DNA strand that any business that I'm in runs with. So if you actually go and Google our company, we have no banners, nothing promoting the DEI efforts that we're doing because we do it naturally through the day to day business. That's one piece. I don't see the value in just showcasing something for a period of time, I want to see the consistency of that in the thread of what we do. How we recruit, what events do we go to, what do we sponsor, the leaders in the organization doing their own due diligence and spending the time in their own way and that's a consistent beat of the drum. So that's one piece. A secondary piece is I focus on, I kind of mentioned a little bit around like the recruiting aspect within my organization, like we have to break these barriers of like barrier to entry on like experience and like schooling, and stuff. Which, I was reading a study in the Harvard Business Review where it showed, and I'm going on the female talent minority that there is in the ad tech space, and it's something around like, for any specific role, manager level above, women apply at a 56% less rate when they have similar qualifications to a man. And the reason they do is because a man thinks that they can apply regardless of their background, and how it's written, women look at it and say, "That's not me." So like, we have to remove like those, even those small little barriers are like old school, like, you gotta have five to 10 years of experience. That's a huge window. Yeah, like, what's the difference between a person who has five years experience and person who has 10 years experience? And some of them are even bigger, that's like five to 15, I'm like, really? Like, such a wide aperture. You're going to remove- no one's going to pick the person with five years, but that person may be the best fit for that role. And it's getting that type of acumen established in the job setup and then recruiting, we don't recruit for color, we recruit for talent. And we look at places that normally are missed or folks are unaware of where excellent talent sits in.
Now I have to imagine that there's a lot of internal discussion at times where you have to point out very specific things for leaders to sort of, like understand internally. Is that accurate?
Chris Contreras 14:08
100%. I am the only, with the exception of a company we acquired, Max Effort, it's me and another gentleman, but the only people of color on leadership. And it's a struggle, you know, like, it's one of those things where I had to fight and scratch and claw my way to the sea level. I'm like, I've been passed up over the last five years for senior leadership positions, because I don't look the bill. And I don't fit the bill, you know, for many instances. And I'm in this position now and my goal, as it was in my previous senior roles is to bring a chair for someone behind me and ensure that when I leave that there's opportunities, ripe for everybody else.
Yeah, and I want to stay on that point about, you know, you're in the C suite now, right, and you talked earlier about your career through revenue operations, account management, so on and so forth, right? What do you think has been sort of the springboard for your career in getting to the C suite, right? Because I always look at career growth and development. As an individual, there's two things that are super important in that, right, your ability to manage up and also your ability, as you said, to build a pipeline behind you so that way when you do move up to the next level there's someone there to take your role. How have you navigated that throughout the course of your career?
Chris Contreras 15:29
Great question. So I think one of the biggest pieces, I think it's a preventer of you moving into senior leadership is the executive leadership team doesn't feel that if something happens to you, that there's enough coverage behind you that you haven't built that, like kind of like, team up from a support structure. So in my current function, I purposely looked at the organization, and I handpicked a couple of folks to continue to groom them as they move into their more senior roles. Like we had folks, and one specific person on the team, her name is Rachel, I'm like, she was a Senior Director for years. And I'm like, I came in, I wanted to say, like, what's preventing her from moving into that VP role? And at my company we're pretty flat, so I can count with one hand how many VPs we have. So like, it's a big role and it requires approval from the board, and everything. So it's not like, you know, we just handing out titles in our company. So, I promoted her at the end of November. And it was a no brainer for the leadership team. It was an 18 month progression to get her in that position of exposing her more to leadership, giving her core projects that were her ownership fully, and require minimal guidance, and her ability to create relationships and cross collaborate with other leaders in the business.
I think you just answered my next question, because I think a challenge that some folks face in their career moving forward is they get boxed into a specific role and job and how do you make sure like your team doesn't get boxed in so that they can grow? Right?
Chris Contreras 17:01
Yeah, it's a good one. Because, for example, we had for, like Rachel specifically, she oversees our technical side of the customer engagement. So we have an onboarding organization, we have a team called Platform Experience and then we also have Platform Experience Managers, which are different in different ways. They're almost like if you think about it in your traditional, they're like the Technical Account Manager to the CSM. So they're working in parallel, creating a great user experience. In that world, it was very much she was pigeon holed to like just the support, and they called it support, and I'm like, it's actually not support. I don't have 100 person team taking emails and answering tickets, because our platform is not managed. So it's self serve and the amount of tickets we get, 15 a week and they're usually more technical oriented. So creating the path and the avenue for her to kind of like branch out of her area of expertise, and becoming sole owner of that group, and represented in the strategy, the vision, the responsibility on some of the core KPIs that we do at a senior level, she took it and she ran with it for about 18 months. Could I have done it sooner, yes, but I was working with her on a couple of different soft skills that I believe she needed so she can excel at this new level. It's not just getting there, it's setting her in a position so she can exceed the expectations at that point. And I feel like that part is probably one of the most valuable pieces that I can offer her. And it's been rewarding for me because I see my reflection and my my work ethic through her, but she has all the intangibles I don't have. So like she's gonna be a much better leader than I am. And I'm excited for that, because now she has- her path is clear. And it's up to her to kind of meet the expectation on each of those checkpoints.
And as I listen to you describe that, Chris, obviously, there is a lot of responsibility on the individual who you're guiding and mentoring, right, but at the same time, there's a lot of work for you to do as a leader, to do the mentoring, to put your folks in a position to be able to move to the next level. It's just not about, you let me know if I'm wrong, but it's not just about opening the door for someone, right, there's other work and intangibles that go into that to be a great leader.
Chris Contreras 19:22
Yeah, 100%. And it takes a lot of time. I would say one of the hardest pieces for me personally in moving into senior leadership and now at the C level was I wasn't given any time. Like my leadership was, they trusted me, but that trust is helpful to a certain point when you're kind of like fluttering in the middle of the ocean sometimes. And that's the type of part where I've personally taken a vested interest my entire career, but even more so now to go outside even of my network right now. You know, we founded three weeks ago now, an angel fund called [inaudible] Angels, and it's looking at minority groups that are trying to create technology startups for the customer success sector. And they come and pitch us and then we fund like their seed round. These are the type of things that I'm more invested in. And I'm doing this in my own time, so I'm doing double the work. You know, I have my regular job, I have mentorship with my regular job, I just became an executive coach for a mentorship program in the CS sector, Under Catalysts and I'll be mentoring VPs and SVPs as we continue to scale and grow over the course of the next few months. These are things that I'm doing to put more responsibility on my shoulders, so I can help build the future of this industry. I don't like the accolades, either. If you look at my LinkedIn, I'm posting stuff about my team. This entire month of women's history, like I'm posting, I'm highlighting a specific talent that I've been exposed to, either leader who I had, my first ever manager was a female leader, and I still talk to her today, was in a completely different industry and she's a rockstar. She's one of the reasons why like, I'm the style of leader I am today, because she was compassionate and she was a catalyst for people kind of going outside of their comfort zone. And those are the type of things that I want folks to remember me for, less to get like awards and stuff like that.
Can you share with everyone, what are some important soft skills to have, and some important sort of hard skills to have?
Chris Contreras 21:17
The hard skills depends on the role, but I'll start with the soft skills. So I think communication is such a valuable component. As you move up in your career, the clarity, the succinctness of which you provide feedback, and just general guidance to a customer and internal constituent becomes even more and more important, because the time that you have with senior leaders is very limited. So if you send a diatribe as an email, and it takes the person 18 minutes to read it and then at the end of the day, that last sentence is a point that you want to make, how do we kind of condense that? And those are things that you learn as you get more experienced. So, I think the hard skills help that soft skill, but communication, I know sounds like oh, this is not anything earth shattering, but I've seen it work in the benefit of folks moving fast up their career because they're clear and concise. And then the other soft skills I think are important, and I said this in the beginning where like folks who are agile, meaning like they can shift on a moment's notice strategy approach and change doesn't fluster them that much is such an excellent skill to have. I will tell you as an operator, having been an operator in strategy for years, and seeing the business shift, pricing, yield strategy shift on the drop of a dime, it gives you the flexibility at this point right now where, you know, we're seeing headwinds from anywhere. SVB over the weekend, you know, folks in this room may have some level of impact because of that. I'm like, what do you do? Do you sit and just mope? Or do you focus on like, how do I quickly pivot my strategy and ensure that, A) I'm not over leveraged, I have a better strategy approach, I'm diversifying my risk. And you do that in your day to day business as publishers, too. I come from the publisher world and I understand, from the moment I was there, it was consistent headwinds. And it's always something and I feel like the talent in this room is one of the best talent that can fit almost any style of business because you're used to the agile nature. And it's a skill set that you can't train. People either have it in them, or it's something that they get exposed to and they unlock. You've talked about the importance of mentorship as a leader, right? Can you talk to us a little bit about mentorship in leadership and why it's so important? I believe there's a path for folks to have an open dialogue and communication with people who are in the positions that you want to be in. You'd be surprised how many times I've reached out to other Chief Customer Officers, three, four years ago. And for me that and I'll tell you fully honest, the goal was to understand like what is different in them than it is in my specific experience, and there wasn't that much difference. So the validation was already there. It's like there's something preventing me from breaking through that mold, but I learned a lot from aligning to certain mentors in the Chief Customer Officer kind of set up. I would be remiss to tell everybody, you have to go outside of your comfort zone, reach out to people. I mean, people are actually open. I'm like, the craziest thing is like the amount of "no's" I got, were probably like two out of like 100 outreaches. And folks, I was having coffee with folks, a virtual coffee during, you know, during the last couple of years. I come to these events and I meet with people. And my goal is if I can be helpful to that person, that's my ultimate goal. And then for me what I get value for is secondary. So building that reciprocity is important. It's such a good learning path, and I recommend everybody kind of figure out whatever time you know, they have to do that.
Chris, where do you draw inspiration from?
Chris Contreras 24:46
(laughs) It's a loaded question. I would say, the first is probably my mother. I am a mama's boy, but my mom is such a inspirational person for me, and my grandma who's her mother who just passed away a month ago, was the first female to graduate from accounting school in Dominican Republic. It's the top university, it's actually the first university in all the Americas, you can Google it, it's called [inaudible]. And she was a Principal Chief Operating Officer for the biggest bank in Dominican Republic for 20 years. First female to run a bank and just an inspirational person.
As we're sort of getting a little bit towards the end here, I wanted to ask you, just things you can pass on to anyone that's looking to sort of level up into a new leadership sort of position. What can you pass on to them that has been significant to you?
Chris Contreras 25:42
I would say start figuring out with clarity, like what your areas of weaknesses are. Everybody tells you or you hear this in certain instances, a great leader hires their weaknesses, but a great leader understands their weaknesses very early. And that's not something that you, sometimes you can't overcome it. I'm like, if you aren't strategically analytical, that's not something that you should force on yourself, you should create the supplement to that within your organization so you have a very good balance. Because what you can offer them is the strategic guidance, the operational acumen, if those are your areas of strengths. And I feel like it's even more so on the technical side, because you have organizations like ad ops who are evolving into revenue operations, and just core systems strategy. You have folks on these teams that are some of the most brilliant minds I've ever met in my life. I have two CSMs, that were former ad ops and strategy folks that are performance ops people, and they are absolutely killing it in this function. And it's because they were, they're customer people at the core. They want to secure the bag, they want to ensure that that bag continues to be filled and the customers are delighted in the experience. And you can see that transition and how easy it was for them. And then how do we continue to create that dynamic and provide that. So in finding that weakness that you have, and understanding it early will create an opportunity for you to build the right team structure and strategy.
Alright, fun question for you, what's in your music rotation these days?
Chris Contreras 27:06
Oh my, you know what's crazy and I do not mean to offend anybody, I am a huge hip hop guy and I've tried the mumble rap a lot. I've tried. I'm a big like, 21 Savage, and all that stuff. But I'm like, I consistently have my old school hip hop as my top 100. Talib Kweli, I was listening to this morning. I'm a big 90s hip hop guy, because I grew up in that frame. And I'm not trying to be like my dad, where it's like "Oh the best rap was back then," but it's a different style of rap. I feel like it's a lyricist component to the rap game that is lost now. But the beats I love the beats. I love the beats. I'm a big beats guy too. So like, I love the new age rap where like you do have some lyricists out there that are very very tongue in cheek, but I don't get me wrong, I am a big rap fan so I'll listen to 21 and a bunch of other guys but right now my rotation is like recently, Wu Tang, Talib Kweli, Tribe Called Quest.
Nothing wrong with that . This year is hip hop's 50th Anniversary so nothing wrong with those names.
Chris Contreras 27:20
Excellent. Well, Chris, thanks for hanging out with us. It's been a pleasure, a lot of fun. And a lot learned. You know, a lot of times our listeners and viewers like to stay in touch. What's a good way that they can connect with you or reach out?
Chris Contreras 28:26
Yeah, find me on LinkedIn, first. Chris Contreras. I think it's actually linkedin.com/chriscontreras or email me. Email me at my email. It's Chris@mountain.com. I'm happy to connect with anybody, not only in this room, on the podcast, extending an olive branch is my thing so whatever everybody needs, reach out.
Excellent. Well, thanks everyone for listening and watching another episode. We're excited to also do this live with our friends and our partners at AdMonsters. Thanks, everyone.
Chris Contreras 28:57