2 Minutes With ... Leslie Marshall, CMO at Mesmerise

How Morningstar Magazine used AR and VR to spice up investing

Leslie Marshall is chief marketing officer at Mesmerise, a company that enables immersive, enterprise-level events, meetings and conferences hosted in virtual reality. Prior to joining Mesmerise, Leslie spent 16 years at Morningstar, most recently as head of experiential marketing. Currently, she serves on the board of directors of the American Marketing Association's Chicago chapter as president.

We spent two minutes with Leslie to learn more about her background, creative inspirations and some recent work she's admired.

Leslie, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

My life has come full circle! I grew up in Michigan and after spending over 20 years in Chicago, my husband and I moved back to Michigan last summer to be closer to our family.

How you first realized you were creative.

Both my mom and my grandmother encouraged me and my siblings to be creative and appreciate the arts. I loved going to the Detroit Institute of Arts as a kid and recently became a member after moving back to the area. My grandmother was an art teacher, a painter and a basket maker. My mom designs quilts. I love to paint, sketch and take photos, as well as use a lot of color and interesting furniture, art and vintage pieces in my home. I remember taking a sketching class at the Art Institute of Chicago and feeling frustrated that I wasn't "good" at it. I realized it's a learning process and I needed to let go and not focus so much on the perfect piece. I love getting lost in the creative process when I'm working on a room design, photography or painting.

A person you idolized creatively early on.

My grandmother was an artist and I have a number of her paintings, woodprints and baskets throughout my home. She had a beautiful garden and would also take me on hikes to discover plants and nature. She lived abroad (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, England, Germany) and traveled quite a bit during her life and her home was filled with wall hangings, artwork, dolls and mementos from her travels. As a child, I learned to appreciate that the world was much bigger than my hometown and to be interested in other cultures and art. 

A visual artist or band/musician you admire.

When I saw the David Bowie exhibit at the MCA in Chicago, I gained a whole new appreciation for his impact on music, art, fashion and films. I enjoyed learning about his writing process, seeing handwritten lyrics and the system he created to write songs.

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.

Since I've been going through some big moves and changes in my life this last year, I have found the book Life Is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler inspiring and useful. It speaks to how our lives are not linear today. Rather than wait to get THROUGH a transition, that life is IN these transitions and the book provides guidance and inspiration to embrace changes in our lives that feel "out of order," and actually thrive through the transitions. I also recently started Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik—just a few pages in and I’m hooked! I discovered this book as part of my subscription to Wordy Traveler. If you're not familiar with Wordy Traveler, it’s a travel-themed book club that also supports emerging artists and small businesses.

Your favorite fictional character.

I'm a big fan of suspense and mystery books and love a character who is trying to figure things out from childhood heroines, anything from Harriet in Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew to detectives like Kinsey Millhone created by Sue Grafton and hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. 

Someone or something worth following on social media.

As I've become further immersed in virtual reality, I’ve found a lot of inspiration in keeping up with some of the minds leading the conversation, like Cathy Hackl or Matthew Ball. Both have distinct perspectives on the role that VR will play in our lives as it continues to evolve, and it’s been exciting to see first-hand how their predictions are coming to life. In my new role at Mesmerise, I’m focused on establishing the company as the trusted guide for the metaverse while building a high-performing and engaged team of innovative marketers who are passionate about creating great experiences for clients. Keeping up with thought leaders at the forefront of a budding industry is a huge part of ensuring we’re building something great.

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.

I was incredibly lucky to spend 16 years with Morningstar, and during the last few years of my time there, Covid-19 played a big role in how I approached my job. My role as the head of experiential marketing enabled me to tackle new challenges head-on, building the teams and strategies necessary to navigate the "new normal" at the time. I remember when we had to cancel all of our events in 2020, and the team and I were on Zoom, feeling a sense of uncertainty about how to move forward. I told the team that I didn't know what the future would look like, but that we were a great group of planners and problem solvers and we would figure it out. We focused on creating great experiences for our customers, keeping them at the center of the process. Part of being a good leader isn’t having all the answers, but believing in your team and their ability to figure things out. Morningstar is known for its award-winning events, and you could imagine the challenges that arose trying to orchestrate a conference amid a pandemic. That’s what led me to VR—I was intrigued by the possibilities the metaverse had to offer when it came to establishing deeper connections while we were all spread apart. My team and I began working with Mesmerise to host the VR portion of Morningstar's annual Investment Conference. Through that, I realized the potential the emerging space held and what a catalyst the pandemic was for ushering in new eras of technology. I had already been working with Mesmerise for a couple of years ahead of Covid-19's onset, but the pandemic really highlighted just how powerful VR could be for leveling up experiential marketing.

On a personal level, the pandemic gave me pause to think about how I wanted to live and work, and opened up new possibilities for where work could be. I didn't have to be tied to one location or an office. While I'm based in Michigan, Mesmerise is a global company. We meet weekly in VR as a company, and I can meet up with team members in VR whenever we want. I also have the opportunity to travel to our office in London as well as meet with clients. It's very energizing to be able to recast how and where fulfilling and creative work is possible.

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on. 

When I first started at Morningstar in 2006, my manager at the time told me the team was going to launch a new magazine in six months. And we did! Each issue of Morningstar Magazine, originally launched as Morningstar Advisor magazine, features an illustrated cover instead of photography, to represent the spotlight topic for the issue. The goal is to explain investing in new ways. In 2019, we took that a step further with the first AR-enhanced issue by partnering with Mesmerise While the AR-enabled app for the magazine has been retired, it is one of my favorite projects because it helped me see the possibilities for AR and VR technology to captivate people.

A recent project you're proud of.

I mentioned earlier working with Mesmerise to host the virtual component of Morningstar's Investment Conference. I was incredibly proud of how it came together and truly made attendees feel like they'd been transported to an off-site resort, especially during a time of such turbulence. Alongside the digital ecosystem, we also built out more creative virtual reality concepts, like Sustainable City and Bee Game, which debuted at the 2022 Investment Conference and used real Morningstar data to educate players on the impact of their investing choices. Users navigated immersive challenges to better understand things like the outcomes that various investment choices may have on a city or what impact saving bees might have on us as people. We spent months working on each game, so seeing it all come to life was a milestone moment.

Someone else's work you admired lately.

I greatly admire Iris Apfel, an American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon. Her colorful life is reflected in the way she dresses and decorates her home as well as her business partnerships. She’s 101 and continues to innovate and create in the world of fashion and lifestyle. I highly recommend the documentary about her life, Iris, as well as her memoir, Accidental Icon. From her own Mattel Barbie to her recent partnership with Ruggable, she inspires me, knowing that life is as full and as creative as you want it to be!

Your main strength as a creative person.

I joke that one of my superpowers is the ability to be calm in the midst of chaos. But that calm energy does really help me see an opportunity or idea from a variety of different perspectives and how to figure out complex plans and projects. It fuels creativity because I’m not locked into only one way to approach a project.

Your biggest weakness.

At any one time, I have a lot of projects going. I don't like to sit still or be complacent, so I tend to always be looking for what's next. I am working on being more present in the moment, as well as taking the time to celebrate the moment. I love the Calm app for meditation and working on mindfulness.

One thing that always makes you happy.

My husband and I love animals and we have two dogs, Matilda and Artemis, and three cats, Tammy, George and Carlos. Artemis is the newest member of our fur posse. He’s an English Mastiff/Bull Mastiff puppy. It’s hard not to smile or laugh every day with them around.

One thing that always makes you sad.

In the last year, my dad passed away. Learning to live without a parent is really hard, but I see or feel him in everyday moments and know he lived a great and full life. He taught me so much about working hard and how to embrace the Finnish spirit of SISU, a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising/marketing.

One day I plan to have a vintage shop and curate beautiful, interesting and weird objects for people to discover, and to be a beekeeper.

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a contributor for Muse by Clio. She's also a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication, and Information.

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