One year before the start of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, Mike Katz had doubts.
"I went there in November of 2022 for a groundbreaking ceremony," Katz, T-Mobile's president of marketing, strategy, and products, said. The telecom company had just announced it was the exclusive wireless provider for the desert city's inaugural grand prix.
"They bring out this big case that shows what the paddock building will look like — and there's literally nothing there," Katz said. "I was like, there's no way this thing is actually going to happen."
"I think people had high expectations that within the first few years of 5G, we wouldn't have to drive our own cars anymore," Katz said. "That's just not a thing yet."
But Katz's job is to create marketing moments that get people talking — and bring the customers. It's working.
A spectacle such as the Las Vegas Grand Prix is a playground for 5G-performance storytelling. With hundreds of thousands of attendees, a track spanning 6.2 kilometers along city streets, and a fast-growing US fan base that's highly active on social media, network speed and reliability would be tested to their limits.
"The Las Vegas Grand Prix is a great opportunity for US wireless carriers to show off their 5G capabilities," the telecom-market analyst Opensignal said at the time, adding that T-Mobile was in "pole position" — i.e., the best spot — going into the event.
T-Mobile's primacy in 5G availability is as recognizable as its electric pink livery. In its January 2024 Mobile Network Experience Report, Opensignal named T-Mobile the leader in overall experience, availability, and consistency. Verizon, its next closest rival, topped the charts in video experience and upload speed.
Fourth-quarter and full-year earnings aren't set to be reported until January 25, but T-Mobile's third-quarter financials were solid. In 2022, T-Mobile's total revenue was effectively flat at $79.5 billion. Third-quarter earnings showed 1.2 million net prepaid customer additions and $5.3 billion in net cash, an improvement of 21% year over year.
Not all the news was positive last year, though. The company's 7% staff reduction in September was, according to a letter from CEO Mike Sievert to employees, driven by a need for greater efficiencies as winning customers had become more expensive and difficult.
"It is clear that doing everything we are doing and just doing it faster is not enough to deliver on these changing customer expectations going forward," Sievert wrote.
The layoffs catalyzed a marketing retool, Katz said, to "rethink our working model inside our team, to get a lot more focused on what the big, big priorities are."
Katz's 2024 plan involves other significant changes. Last week, T-Mobile announced it had chosen Dentsu Creative as its lead creative agency, ending a long-standing relationship with Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi. T-Mobile's total advertising budget in 2022 was $2.3 billion.
With the 2020 Sprint merger in the rearview and its Mint Mobile acquisition up ahead, Katz is aware that growth — in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer — will depend on leveraging new skills and opportunities not all currently within his team's wheelhouse.
"We have to be able to look around corners. We have to keep ahead of the innovation curve," Katz said. "And we've got to make sure that we have the capabilities — knowing that success in future periods is going to take different things."
It's a moment he's been training for his entire career.
From sales to strategy
Katz's 25th anniversary at the company was one month before the Las Vegas Grand Prix.
He didn't start in the corporate office but as a college student selling cellphone services at retailers like Circuit City and Sears. Back then, T-Mobile was still a regional player called VoiceStream Wireless, and Katz was studying sociology at Colorado State University, a few hours away from his hometown of Carbondale, Colorado.
Last year, Katz was his alma mater's commencement speaker, where he flexed his characteristic self-deprecation: "I'm sure many of you are asking yourself some pretty tough questions. The first, and maybe most important, question you are asking yourself today is, 'Who the hell is this guy?'"
We have to be able to look around corners. We have to keep ahead of the innovation curve.Mike Katz
"He's so humble," said Callie Field, the president of the T-Mobile business group, who herself has been at the company for 20 years. "He's wicked smart, but you never hear him playing that role, like, 'I'm the smartest person in the room' — not one time. And yet the size of deals he puts together and what he's doing with our brand is pretty extraordinary."
After graduation, Katz took a full-time sales position in Chicago at VoiceStream (which became T-Mobile in 2002 following its earlier purchase by Deutsche Telekom). For seven years, he grew through the sales organization, working directly with customers and building out territories.
In 2007, he took a new job, and a new direction, at T-Mobile headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, working on a small corporate-strategy team that reported into the CEO.
"It was the first time I'd been in a job where I sat outside a function and could see how the company worked left to right," Katz said. "I got a deep understanding of our business model, could understand how value got created here, had the opportunity to do projects with all of our major functions."
Katz took on progressively senior marketing roles until he was eventually made vice president of marketing for the prepaid-phone business. His remit went beyond brand work.
"It was my first opportunity to run a sub-brand and relaunch and reposition a brand," he said, "and really think about customer segmentation, needs of customers, and how customers interact and make their purchase decisions on a product like prepaid."
Uncertainty, and the birth of the 'Un-carrier'
While Katz was learning the ropes of the prepaid world in 2011, T-Mobile was poised to make a big move with AT&T's $39 billion acquisition bid.
But the Federal Communications Commission and the US Justice Department moved to block the deal on antitrust grounds in 2011, and the bid was abandoned.
"The deal's end leaves T-Mobile, the weakest of the four national operators, with an uncertain future," The New York Times reported at the time.
"When the AT&T deal failed, we were like, 'Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do with this company?'" Katz told Business Insider.
It was at this dire moment that John Legere, a former CEO of Global Crossing and veteran telecom executive, became T-Mobile's CEO. Legere hired Sievert — who would become CEO in 2020 — as chief marketing officer.
Katz was part of a small team in the marketing group working to forge a new strategy.
"We were obviously a company that was struggling," he said. "We were losing customers. We had gone from a really powerful value brand into a cheap brand with the 'less for less' position."
The team brought the leadership a new idea: "It was called Pain-Free Wireless, the idea that everybody loves their phones but hates the companies they do business with," Katz said. "John and Mike rebranded it to 'Un-carrier.'"
We saw an opportunity to do something that was unheard of at the time: listening to customers and disrupting the status quoMike Sievert, CEO, T-Mobile
The customer-centric messaging, with its cheeky jabbing at bigger competitors, stuck. "Un-carrier" has been T-Mobile's positioning ever since 2013, celebrating its 10th anniversary last year.
"We saw an opportunity to do something that was unheard of at the time: listening to customers and disrupting the status quo created by the 'carriers' to solve their pain points," Sievert told BI via email. "The journey has been incredible for our company."
Detours and new directions
Riding the wave of Un-carrier momentum, Katz was pumped.
"I was running this consumer brand that was going through this marvelous turnaround," Katz said. "It was fantastic, super exciting."
He was in for a shock. Sievert, who in 2016 was chief operating officer, asked him to lead T-Mobile for Business.
"I was like, is Mike trying to fire me?" Katz told BI. "To put it in an understated way, B2B was not a focus area for T-Mobile. It had kind of been a place where we sent executives to die."
Ultimately, Katz said, he's glad he made the leap.
"I'm a far better marketer because I ran B2B," he said. "It taught me a lot about the nuances in different business customer groups, how they research and make decisions in a category like ours."
Also, the B2B business structure was integrated, so Katz was not only overseeing marketing, but also sales and product. His leadership chops were also tested as some team members early-on balked at new ideas.
"There were people that were initially very resistant and were like, 'You're the fifth leader that's come in here and talked about B2B being a priority. We're just going to wait a couple of months for you to be fired.'"
Five years later, Katz was still running the business group. In the meantime, T-Mobile merged with Sprint in April 2020, catapulting the company into a new competitive landscape, and Sievert became CEO.
Sievert appointed Katz chief marketing officer in March 2022, and just a few months later, his role was expanded to president of marketing, strategy, and products.
The CEO told BI via email that Katz was the right person to lead marketing at a critical time, when T-Mobile's 5G leadership messaging needed to be carefully married to its long-standing position as the value choice.
"Brands are powerful, but they are also stubborn," Sievert wrote. "Convincing the public that one brand can be a better deal, while also offering a better product, isn't easy. It sounds like a contradiction. We weren't yet known for network leadership and had a lot of wood to chop. So it was time to put Mike in charge."
The job of leaders: Innovate fast
Now less than two years into the lead marketing role, Katz is synthesizing his wide variety of T-Mobile experience into a growth plan.
And he has to move quickly: "The burden of leadership is to speed up innovation," Sievert wrote.
Home broadband has been one of the big proving grounds.
"One way Mike's doing that is by leading our team, which didn't compete at all in home broadband just over two years ago, to become one of the largest national ISPs — and, by far, the fastest-growing — in an incredibly short time," Sievert wrote. "They make that look easy, but it isn't."
Sievert said that Katz pushed the company to innovate, "while keeping customer love as our North Star."
"That's one of the things a good marketer can do — help rally an entire organization around the customer," he added.
"Mike and I have been close coworkers for over a decade, so in many ways, we've been on this transformative journey together," he said. "I've had a front-row seat to his marketing prowess and his authentic love for what we do, which is serve customers every day — because their happy is our happy."
The Las Vegas Grand Prix was more than a platform for showing off T-Mobile's 5G capabilities — it was a moment to delight both B2B and B2C customers, and Katz delivered for both sets of stakeholders.
"Mike is able to take the fans' love of the sport, take his relationship with the F1 team, his understanding of the technology, bring all of that together, and create something really compelling," Field, T-Mobile's business-group president, said. "That's what Katz really brings to this role."
T-Mobile hosted more than 50 enterprise CIO and CTO customers at the Las Vegas Grand Prix who had the opportunity to mingle with technology heads from Formula 1, the PGA, and the MLB.
"They all talked with our customers about all the things that T-Mobile was able to do," Field said. "So while it was an incredible sports and entertainment experience, I had 50 CIOs that were like, 'I see how I could solve all kinds of pain points with this technology in my hospital or my manufacturing line.'"
The regular-fan experience, particularly those who happened to be T-Mobile customers, was just as important.
"There were 315,000 people at this event, and we know a lot of them are going to be T-Mobile customers," Katz said. "We want to make sure that T-Mobile customers feel something special for being T-Mobile customers when they go to an event like that."
Activations included "Club Magenta" for T-Mobile customers only, which gave access to concerts and an elevated seating area to see the racetrack.
"I just thought that was so cool and such a special touch to make our customers feel like VIPs," Katz said.
More opportunities are coming. In November, Katz and T-Mobile struck a deal with the PGA of America to be its wireless-innovation partner, with T-Mobile's 5G powering real-time analytics for players and immersive digital experiences for fans.
We want to make sure that T-Mobile customers feel something special for being T-Mobile customers.Mike Katz
Performance, and perspective
T-Mobile's pending acquisition of Mint Mobile, which is fronted and partly owned by the actor Ryan Reynolds, struck some industry observers as a marketing-centric move to leverage differentiation and star power.
But Katz said Mint's performance marketing is the real star, and he aims to bring its expertise to his own marketing organization.
"Mint is far and away the most successful digital direct-to-consumer wireless brand in America ever, period," he said. "They've been able to crack something that none of us have been able to do."
Katz plans to modernize T-Mobile's marketing approach in 2024, broaden it from a TV-centric mindset, and build more skills in performance and data marketing, leveraging artificial intelligence and other capabilities.
"It's not good enough anymore for you to come into a store or go onto our website or call a customer-care agent and have it feel like it's the first time you've ever interacted with us," Katz said. "We need to make the experience highly curated for you, informed by your previous interactions with us and your experience with our product."
In addition to focusing on training for the team, Katz has added talent to build up new capabilities, including Vinayak Hegde, formerly of Airbnb and Groupon, as consumer chief marketing officer, and Stefan Bewley, formerly at consulting firm Altman Solon, as chief strategy officer.
With so much on the line, Katz acknowledged that he struggled to switch off from work. Family ski trips and rainy soccer games with his wife and four children keep him in the moment.
He tries to keep the daily challenges in perspective.
"My kids have always really helped me," he said. "I'll go home and talk about something that I'm stressed out about and get a bunch of side-eye and, like, 'Seriously, Dad, that's what you're stressed out about?' So when I walk through the door of my house, I really try to be present."
He takes a little part of the job everywhere he goes, though. Katz didn't wear T-Mobile-branded clothing just for this article's photo shoot; it's pretty much a daily habit.
"I've got a whole T-Mobile section of my closet," he said, adding that many of his colleagues were similarly badged.
"There are many years where you wouldn't have seen anybody caught dead with this brand on them," Katz said. "But I would say over the past 10 years, this brand — we hope it's beloved to customers — but I can tell you it is beloved to the people that work here."
The brand makes the difference, Katz said.
"Without our brand, we run the risk of essentially being the electric company," he said. "The utility you don't think about unless something goes wrong."