Mark Derks

Marketing Leader Series: How Mark Derks Built a Content Engine at C.H. Robinson

Mark Derks spent years as the director of global marketing at C.H. Robinson, one of the world’s biggest third-party logistics providers — think trucking, railroads, air freight, and ocean carriers.

“Content marketing” wasn’t yet a buzzword when Derks started in marketing at C.H. Robinson, but he’d already started polishing his experience in brand publishing. Twenty-one years later, his team’s challenge is producing content that answers customers’ questions and moves the sales process forward.

We asked Mark what he’s learned about B2B content marketing, measuring results, and what he learned about building a modern marketing team during his tenure at C.H. Robinson.

Talk Like Your Customer Talks

C.H. Robinson was an early adopter of content marketing to connect with customers. Derks and his team knew they wanted to follow the model of big accounting and consulting firms and use white papers to position C.H. Robinson as a thought leader in the space. “We knew we had a decent brand in the market, and a decent website as a platform to get people to download white papers. The big question was, what are we going to write?

“The key to content is your customers,” he says. “What do they want? We asked customers what they’d like us to cover. We listened for trends: What were customers repeating?”

When it comes to content production, the team treats white papers as academic research — no sales messages or quoting their own people. “We learned early on that customers will only value content if it offers value,” he says. “If it’s just a high-level brochure promoting the brand, you probably won’t get a lot of repeat engagement from people who read it.” Instead, C.H. Robinson white papers include valuable insights customers can use in their business.

Writing in the language of the customer is also pivotal, he says. “If you talk like they talk, customers will be interested. But if you talk like your internal team talks, customers will see through that really quickly. We spend a lot of time listening to the language customers use and how they talk about what’s going on in their business. We build content around those attributes and those word choices, then add our own knowledge and expertise.”

Figure Out What Resonates

The C.H. Robinson team is strategic about measuring what customers respond to. Every day the marketing team pushes out communication on many different channels — social, email, multiple websites, events, PR — but all of the results come back to one centralized group.

The “marketing and sales response team” welcomes every person who downloads a white paper, sends an email, calls in, or fills out an online contact form. The group asks every prospect how they heard about the company, qualifies the opportunity, and sends it to the sales team. Every prospect gets a unique code, which the marketing team tracks over time.

“We watch if that person becomes a buyer. We’re not trying to take credit for the sale; we’re just looking for responses to marketing touchpoints. We take that information back to our content and channels, and either pour on more fire or pull back the investment.” Derks and his team also use data about net revenue from each channel to forecast and budget marketing spend each year.

“It’s a circle — strategy, creative, content, data, strategy. We use the data from our marketing and sales response team to drive the strategy going forward.”

Build a Modern Marketing Team

“The secret to success is my team,” Derks says. “When my team wins, the brand and customers win.”

But assembling a content marketing team is a challenge for many marketing leaders, Derks explains. “Finding a really good writer who understands how to create engaging content is tough. Nobody wants to read an encyclopedia, so the writer has to be able to lead a visual creative person on the team, and tell them ‘This content would be really good for an infographic,’ or ‘We should do a pull quote with this.’ Leading people through your story visually is probably more important than the words on the paper.”

Derks says he looks for marketers with specific traits:

  • Collaborative: People who want to work with teams and make a team impact, not an individual impact. “We’re looking for writers and designers, not authors and artists. Authors and artists don’t want to listen to an editor or a customer. We need people who are willing to make changes to their work, listen to internal customers, and contribute to a group effort.”

  • Service-minded: People who think about customers first and want to work together with sales teams to make an impact on customers.

  • Innovative: People who are curious about the customer’s world and ready to bring new ideas to the table.

His final piece of advice for marketers: Seek out people you can learn from. “A lot of young marketers get a good college education and good internship experience, but there’s such a need to connect with people who have experience and have seen different markets, economies, and strategies. You have to learn through people. Put yourself out there on a consistent basis. Look for lunches, coffees, and chances to get involved with marketing groups. Find a tribe of people who can be your mentors, coaches, and sounding boards.”

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