Marie J. Williams, G’95, WG’95, has a love affair for digital, as she puts it. She has been involved in online marketing for the world’s major corporations since the mid-1990s, when the Internet was evolving from plain text to Web 1.0. Now as senior director of digital innovation at Hilton Worldwide, the Wharton Class Engagement Ambassador is exploring digital and marketing innovations that test the boundaries of the Internet and social media.
WHARTON MAGAZINE: How have you become such an expert in the corporate digital marketing field?
MARIE WILLIAMS: After graduating from Wharton, I went to Ford Motor Co. as part of the marketing leadership program. And it was completely serendipitous that I was given a Web project. This is back in 1997 where websites consisted of single static Web pages. And I was given a project to persuade all the Lincoln Mercury dealers to have a webpage. So that kicked off this love affair that I have for digital.
Then I kept taking on projects, not as my main job, but I worked in Europe for four years and I had a couple of different Web-related projects that I took there and led. I decided at that point I was having so much fun with it that I took a role when I came back from Europe focused entirely on Ford’s online presence. So I had responsibility for the corporate website and owner websites, among other things.
So since then I really have been in roles that have been 90 percent to 100 percent focused on digital. That has given me this tremendous base of knowledge and experience, which is relatively uncommon. The digital space is growing. It’s evolving rapidly. And there still is a dearth of people that have the expertise in the field. That’s part of it. I’ve had great opportunities at the various companies that I’ve worked at to take on amazingly meaty projects in the digital space, which has certainly helped.
WM: Why do you enjoy it so much?
WILLIAMS: It’s a blend of marketing. It’s a blend of user experience, design. It has a tremendous impact on people’s lives, and like I said, it’s evolving so quickly and rapidly. There’s constantly a great challenge to be faced, and it just never gets boring.
WM: How has your Wharton knowledge helped you to have such great impact?
WILLIAMS: I was a marketing-finance double major, and I took the marketing path in my professional career. And the marketing courses that I took at Wharton were amazing and really gave me the foundation to become the marketer I am today, to give me great marketing instincts, to give me great marketing knowledge.
WM: Is there a particular project or a particular position that you’ve held in your career that you are really proud of?
WILLIAMS: There are several of them in the digital space. The Ford.com corporate website was, at the time, the best automotive industry website, and then when I was at Capital One, I was fortunate enough to be involved in leading a multimillion-dollar project of revamping that website experience. And at every turn I was able to incorporate digital best practices and innovations to drive success. So there isn’t necessarily one, but I’ve been very fortunate to work for companies that are very supportive in the digital space and really wanting to kind of test the boundaries, and the same thing is true here at Hilton Worldwide.
The other part that I’m very proud of is my community service, which in the last few years I’ve become more and more engaged in. I have a number of volunteer endeavors. In addition to serving as a Wharton Ambassador, I’m a U.C. Santa Barbara alumni board member, and I devote significant time to local D.C. homeless shelters doing life-skills training and carrying out pro-bono Web projects and things like that.
WM: Have there been parts of your career that you wish you could get a do-over for?
WILLIAMS: I’m sure we all have parts that are like that, but, you know, what’s funny about that is even the parts that weren’t overly successful at the time were huge learning experiences. So I’m not sure I would want to do them over because then I wouldn’t learn what I learned.
WM: What were you like as a student?
WILLIAMS: Very social. That was a really fun, crazy experience. At the time there was a Nike commercial that was “work hard, play hard.” That’s what I felt my life was like at the time. So I didn’t sleep a lot when I was at Wharton. I was in charge of communications for the Wharton Student Organization. And I went to Lauder as well. Between the Lauder group, which is very tight-knit, and the Wharton cohort, there was always a lot going on socially, which made it tremendously enjoyable. So it was a true immersion.
WM: Do you sleep much now?
WILLIAMS: I sleep more than I did then.