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Peak Performance: Matt Carrington (McIntire ’02), CMO of Athletic Greens

Acknowledged on the 2022 Forbes Entrepreneurial CMO list for his trendsetting branding and influencer partnership work with nutrition company Athletic Greens, Carrington believes success in marketing is the result of effective collaboration to reach the right people.

Matt Carrington, Chief Marketing Officer for direct-to-consumer nutrition company Athletic Greens, says that his vast experience has made him a well-rounded leader. But it’s also allowed him to refine his nimble and innovative approach.

Others have noticed. Recognized by Forbes, he was named to the business magazine’s 2022 Entrepreneurial CMO list for his trendsetting branding and influencer partnership work with the company. Carrington has been instrumental in stoking the popularity of Athletic Greens’ flagship AG1 drink mix, which has ushered in a period of incredible growth for the company.

Based in Richmond, VA, for what is essentially a fully remote business that maintains a New Zealand facility where it manufactures AG1, Carrington has been with the decade-old company shy of three years. Yet his input directing the promotion of the “foundational nutrition” beverage has supported the transformation of Athletic Greens, which has only recently decided to use outside capital for fueling its continued expansion plans.

But those plans are not necessarily what you might expect. Short of initiating a rollout of, say, AG2, AG300, or AG5700, Carrington led a brand refresh focused on their main AG1 product, which accounts for the majority of its sales.

“Instead of looking to go broader and grander, we looked to make it simpler and more refined,” he explains. “By focusing on less, you’re able to unlock a whole lot more—both in the creative design system and the messaging that we’re able to put out there. It’s been really successful and well-received by our audience.”

That messaging centers on a principal concept of “health ownership” for its customers, emphasizing the 75 vitamins, minerals, superfoods, probiotics, and adaptogens that comprise AG1’s powder mix. Carrington says that driving that primary idea home during the rise of the pandemic proved successful. “COVID caused a fundamental rewiring of people’s views on health—whether it was a result of COVID or a result of the habits that they were able to adopt during COVID, people were at home and focusing more on their nutrition and meal intake,” he explains, noting that the company’s effective marketing message met the opportunity of a strange time with what the CMO calls the result of a full team effort.

And while Athletic Greens benefited from the collaborative initiatives of empowered marketing professionals and some fortuitous timing, Carrington’s insight into digital marketing and beyond is the result of what he learned in previous roles and, perhaps unsurprisingly, in his time at McIntire.

An Entrepreneurial Role

Being acknowledged on the 2022 Forbes Entrepreneurial CMO list underscores an important quality about Carrington’s thinking as a marketing executive that is not unlike the agility exhibited by founders launching and retooling their startups.

“Because things can move so quickly and you’re so data enabled, everything that you do as a marketer in this day and age needs to be done with the idea of ‘test, learn, iterate.’ The way that we structure a lot of our work—especially in the digital marketing space—is to go test, go get signal, understand what we have, and then go iterate and improve,” he says. “I have built the team in a way that we can move quickly to be able to go gain a lot more traction in a specific area.”

He recalls how in late 2021 through early 2022, his team conducted heavy testing on TikTok and saw worthwhile returns from their efforts, pivoting to invest more resources in the bustling social media platform. If Carrington and his team notice their work with influencers gaining ground in a particular vertical, they have license to forge partnerships with more influencers there and direct more of company resources to ensure a better outcome in that area. That game plan has ultimately been integral to Athletic Greens’ explosive growth in recent years.

Another earmark of his successes stems from the directive to be bold in order to garner the right kind of attention that has elevated the company above an ever more cramped market. Carrington encourages his team to tap into that fearlessness, differentiating the brand from its competition. “If you’re in health and wellness, there are a lot of templates or tropes of how brands show up; you’re just playing into a preexisting crowd. We’ve worked very hard to be able to tailor the design, style, and voice that’s unique within that space,” he says.

The Evolution of Marketing

Having spent the first years of his career in PR and branding, Carrington says the experience taught him to communicate well and provided a testing ground to refine his ability to speak and cultivate his abilities in storytelling.

“I realized that storytelling or narrative is so critical anytime that you’re working with people. I was able to learn that really well early, and it’s definitely been a muscle that I leaned into throughout my whole career,” he says.

Now having been in marketing for 20 years, the rules have transformed with time—as well as the time itself required to ideate and subsequently return to the drawing board.

“It used to be a lot more monolithic when I first broke in, which, was like, ‘Okay, we need to think of a campaign for our client.’ Working for an agency, the cycles for coming up with a campaign and bringing it to life would take six to eight months,” he says, pointing out that they were then dependent on media channels like print and TV.

Roughly a decade ago, when Carrington was Digital Marketing Manager for solar company SunPower, the tectonic changes in marketing were causing a new way of strategizing. “I just happened to be on the desk that owned the digital marketing account. When we started buying ads on Facebook, it was just such a great learning experience for me. The whole industry just shifted overnight. I was lucky to be able to ride that wave for several years and understand this blend between performance marketing and brand, and get well-versed in driving large-scale acquisition across digital media channels and understand that digital customer journey,” he recalls.

Following that, he spent more than three years as VP of Marketing with ride-sharing company Curb Mobility, leading to more work in the direct-to-consumer space. For five years, he served as VP of Marketing for Framebridge, which was started by UVA alum Susan Tynan (A&S ’98).

“That was just a wonderful experience, because it allowed me to bring everything together: storytelling, the customer experience, and branding, while building the capability to acquire a number of customers digitally. That really helped me refine the full playbook altogether,” Carrington says.

But in his current role, he views marketing’s swift pace as a thing of beauty leading to a greater quantity and higher quality of output by the marketers he leads. “What I love about that the most is that it forces us to cultivate and shape ideas quickly and then figure out how to bring them to life. It’s one of the superpowers of someone in this space and something that we look to coach up within our team.”

Whereas in the past, the teams he was a part of would put all of their energies in the development of a single insight responsible for guiding an entire campaign, Carrington sees that his team of channel managers—who are reaching audiences through social media, digital media, as well as more traditional media—has the freedom to explore, test, and reiterate on the fly. “It’s a lot more empowering, especially as the leader of that team, to allow people to come up with ideas,” he says.

Ultimately, Carrington believes success in marketing is the result of effective collaboration to reach the right people: “Focus on your customer and the creativity that you can bring to bear as a team or with other resources.”

Schooled in Communication—by Commerce

The marketing leader and expert communicator traces his success back to McIntire, with two notable learning experiences that he credits with starting his professional life off on the right foot, while also giving him the background he needed to advance to where he is today.

First and foremost, going through McIntire’s hallmark Integrated Core curriculum proved seminal. “Having the foundation of the Integrated Core to get started was critical. I came from a liberal arts background, so I was very interested in literature and history,” Carrington says, explaining how the Commerce School provided opportunities for him to hone his skills in the fundamentals of areas such as accounting and finance—areas he says he’s been able to leverage and learn more about throughout his entire career.

“It’s funny—sometimes you do calculus and you think, ‘When am I ever going to use calculus again in my life?’ But being able to read a balance sheet? I have to do that every month here. Even though I’m on the marketing side, I work closely with our finance department. Having that broad foundation to build from was so beneficial to all parts of my career.”

The second reason for Carrington’s overwhelmingly positive two years at the Comm School concerns a faculty member. “I had a wonderful professor when I was at McIntire: Lynn Hamilton,” he says, remembering how much he enjoyed her Business Communication course. Hamilton’s class revealed a possible future that he has come to make his professional reality.

“Part of it was realizing that there were ways to blend the love that I have for words and for storytelling into a business career. Professor Hamilton really opened my eyes to that in the coursework that we were doing, both in the Integrated Core, which she taught at that time, and also in the more advanced communication classes and advertising classes she taught,” he says.

Learning at McIntire with Hamilton led him to understand what he wanted to pursue after walking the Lawn and changed his perspective about himself and the challenges he imagined being capable of meeting.

“Going through her coursework refined a pathway that has been key,” Carrington says. “It’s helped to drive where I am today, and I’m eternally grateful for that.”

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