TCV’s Head of Marketing Katja Gagen on Why the VC Industry Shouldn’t Write off the Media

Venture dealmaking is having a moment. According to PitchBook data, more than $460 billion was invested into private startups as of February 2021, an almost 40% increase on the previous peak in 2018. In this founders’ market, marketing and communications pros in VC are working hard to differentiate their firms and create opportunities for meaningful engagement with the startup community. This is something that Katja Gagen, head of marketing at TCV, a growth equity firm whose flagship investments include Airbnb, Peloton, Netflix and Spotify, knows a thing or two about. 

After partnering with Katja to announce TCV’s new $4 billion fund, TCV XI in January, we sat down to discuss how the industry’s attitudes towards marketing and communications have changed over her 15-year career, how to make owned content stand out in an era of information overload, and why building great relationships with the media will always matter.

You have more than 15 years under your belt leading marketing and communications for venture capital and private equity firms. In your experience, how has the industry’s appetite, attitude and approach towards external comms changed over the years?

At the start of my career, there were just a handful of communications professionals working in venture. At the time, our roles were mostly geared toward portfolio support. Today at TCV, I am much more focused on building the firm’s brand in the eyes of founders and CEOs by leaning into what has set us apart and helped us build category-redefining tech franchises for the last 25 years. This shift is partly due to a growing recognition internally that we do have a different story to tell, and partly because of the increased competition in venture and private equity today. 

From a media standpoint, the focus has expanded from coverage of the funding landscape to bigger trends and important issues for the industry. Especially today, given the pandemic’s accelerating effect of innovation in our key sectors like SaaS, fintech and touchless commerce, there is also more of an appetite among investors to engage in these conversations. What hasn’t changed over the years is that relationships with the media matter. It will always be critical to build and nurture authentic relationships with journalists rather than treating them as transactional interactions. 

Having led marketing and communications functions for both early-stage and growth-equity firms alike, how has your approach or strategy differed?

As a marketer at an early-stage fund, you are an extension of your portfolio companies’ teams, working alongside founders and CEOs to shape their messaging from the ground up. With a portfolio of more mature companies, my strategy is completely different. These companies are wonderfully illustrative examples for the next generation of category leaders, so my focus is on identifying stories, insights and advice from TCV’s companies that can be packaged into practical content for others that are earlier in their growth journeys. I also work closely with TCV’s investment team to support our companies at both a strategic and hands-on level. 

Today’s VC market is flush with capital, and world-class founders have their pick of the lot when it comes to raising their next round. What strategies or channels have you found to be most effective in helping TCV connect with your target audience of growth-stage founders and executives in a noisy environment?

First and foremost, communication is about being authentic and meeting your audience where they are. This means creating multiple touch points for engagement across channels and prioritizing content that’s easy to digest, such as owned media like blogs, videos and podcasts like TCV’s Growth Journeys. It also means coordinating and aligning all of this content so that TCV’s core values come through for our audience. 

That said, with everyone leaning into content, the market is definitely reaching a saturation point. Breaking through really comes down to the quality of your content and uniqueness of what you can bring to the table. As a firm that’s been around for 25 years, we have built up a wealth of knowledge and cultivated a deep network of experts. The personal experiences of people scaling companies such Netflix, Zillow and Peloton and other large tech franchises can add real value for our audience of growth-stage CEOs and founders. 

“I approach the media the same way our investment team approaches potential investments: It takes time to build relationships. I think that many in the VC community need to wake up to the reality that the media isn’t paid PR. They need to do their homework on reporters and put in the time with them.”

While the media has been an important megaphone for the VC industry, fierce competition for audience mindshare, the friction between shrinking newsrooms, and a hyper-active news cycle, has resulted in deeper investments in owned content. What’s your take on how VCs can embrace this shift successfully? 

Be helpful, not promotional. For example, TCV’s longevity means we really can anticipate how patterns will play out. It’s not just a marketing line, it’s how we work. So that’s why I focus our content around great examples of it: “how has someone who has been in my shoes overcome this challenge I’m facing?”

At the same time, I value earned media as highly as ever, and not just because it amplifies my owned content. The media remains critically important for synthesizing information and insights from multiple sources and placing them in a broader context. Journalists are constantly speaking with experts; they have their finger on the pulse of important trends and topics. It’s also important to have someone challenge you from the outside. That’s why I approach the media the same way our investment team approaches potential investments: It takes time to build relationships. I think that many in the VC community need to wake up to the reality that the media isn’t paid PR. They need to do their homework on reporters and put in the time with them. A great PR partner like Mission North can be of tremendous support here. 

Measuring the impact of communications, particularly earned media, has long been a challenge. What are the most impactful metrics that you track to demonstrate the value of comms and marketing back to the business? Have these metrics for success changed since the pandemic?

It may be easier to measure metrics like clicks, page views and follower growth, but in our work, quality is more important than volume. It’s important for us to know that we’re getting the right people into our network. For example, securing meetings with two growth-stage founders might not look like much on paper, but in reality, it’s a big success. Anecdotal feedback, like learning that an article in the media helped the investment team secure a meeting, is also critically important and an ongoing challenge to quantify.

Founders and CEOs of high-growth companies are among the busiest people in tech. How do you draw them out to share their stories under the TCV banner?

It starts with the sincere, mutually beneficial relationships they have with TCV. I am part of those relationships, so the entrepreneurs know me already. Then I make the process easy for them and deliver a story that is entertaining, illustrative and memorable. So it’s a win for everyone, which renews and reinforces the great relationship we want to maintain. 

How are you influencing outcomes for portfolio companies from your position in marketing and communications?

Before the pandemic we hosted in-person events for the portfolio ecosystem. Today, we’re relying on webinars, roundtables and smaller gatherings to bring everyone together to discuss highly relevant topics ranging from building brands to hosting virtual events, managing analyst relations, to crisis comms and to hot topics of the moment like: should you be on Clubhouse?

What is your take on Clubhouse?

The industry is definitely still testing the waters. Clubhouse is facilitating interesting conversations and bringing people together that wouldn’t have otherwise met, but time is our most precious asset, so the biggest question to answer will be: is this a good use of my time? I look forward to seeing how Clubhouse will evolve over time.