CMO of the Week: Upwork’s Melissa Waters

Presented by

Melissa Waters, chief marketing officer of professional marketplace Upwork is on a mission to make the Bay Area talent marketplace a household name.

Melissa Waters, chief marketing officer of professional marketplace Upwork is on a mission to make the Bay Area talent marketplace a household name.

Upwork has been a leader in the freelance work marketplace for the last two decades, formerly known as Elance-oDesk, and is currently operating across 180 countries. “We've been around for over 20 years, but we're still relatively unknown,” explains Waters, who has been in the role for more than two years. “My role is to help us be known and understood and an integral part of organizations as they lead workforce transformation.”

The brand’s vision is that “independent talent is at the heart of every business.” “Upwork is an integral part of how companies get work done,” Waters said. “The best talent or the most highly skilled talent isn't necessarily in a small radius around your office. There's people all over the world who can get things done to help you meet your goals.” 

Last year, the brand introduced the tag line, ‘this is how we work now.” “It's a really powerful line because it really encourages people to think about the immediacy and the urgency of this,” says Waters. “We've been pioneers and working this way for a really long time. What I'm interested in is not a question. It doesn't end in a question mark as a statement that this is how we work now. It's meant to convey that this new way of working is here.” 

The latest version of this campaign is an AI-specific campaign to introduce the brand’s AI offering and services hub in July this year. “The idea is that the tagline holds true across all of our marketing, communications,” explains Waters. “Anything you see from us is that same call-to-action or inspiration to help people think about the new way of working.”

Prior to joining Upwork, Waters served as global vp of marketing at Instagram. She also held senior marketing roles at hims&hers, Lyft and Pandora. Brand Innovators caught up with Waters from her home office in the San Francisco Bay Area to talk generative AI, Gen Z and the future of work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk about the role that generative AI is playing for Upwork?

One of the fastest rising categories we see in our marketplace is generative AI-skilled talent. Our freelancers are incredibly nimble and resourceful. We have a long history of being the leading destination for highly technical talent –web, mobile software development– that allows companies to really flex their workforces around their development cycles. We see our talent rising to the occasion with gen AI. They are highly skilled and highly motivated and highly resourceful. They have gone into this new emerging category by upskilling and evolving their skills in order to offer that to the clients that they serve on our marketplace.

Our mission right now is to ensure that Gen AI is embedded in everything that we do and offer and that we are seen as the preeminent destination for Gen AI-specific talent. People can come and engage with us, upskill themselves and get smarter about how to apply Gen AI to their workflows and workforce.

Who is your target audience and how are you reaching them?

Because we are a marketplace, we have two sides of the marketplace. We have highly skilled and technical talent that span a number of different categories and regions, and can offer everything from web and mobile software development to creative and marketing to sales. Our talent is the backbone of our marketplace. We certainly market to them to ensure that they are aware of all the features and offerings we built for them to help them be successful on the platform. 

Our outbound marketing is focused on the client side of our marketplace to ensure that clients understand. We are a well-known resource and something that people come to regularly for clients that have used Upwork. But there's still a lot of people who don't know about us. When I joined, we were in single digit awareness and in a position where we really wanted to raise our awareness with clients. Our clients span quite a range. We have everything from very small businesses to enormous enterprise customers. We are very focused on growing our enterprise segments of our business so the outbound marketing that we do is really focused on business decision makers in enterprises where we can be helpful across the range of work.

How has the role of the work world evolved since the pandemic and what does that mean for the brand?

The pandemic offered this enormous opportunity for people to take a step back and rethink how they get work done. We were all forced to think differently about old habits that we've had for generations. We're open to new ways of working. Even though we are very tech-enabled and can work anywhere and be equally as productive in a distributed environment versus an in-person environment. Folks didn't really have an impetus to think that way until the pandemic hit.

While we've been a pioneer of distributed workforce in remote work for a long time, the pandemic really woke people up to the fact that work can look different than it was. We have run research to understand the disposition of hiring managers and how people are thinking about augmenting their workforces,or thinking about staffing. According to our data, 72% of hiring managers agree that the pandemic increases their conversion in hiring freelance talent. 

We know that many of those businesses are set to increase their use of independent talent in the next couple of years. We know that folks are turning their attention more to innovation by saying, ‘Hey, I can actually flex differently, and maybe don't think about just full-time employee hiring and I can look to augment my staffing portfolio with freelance talent that perhaps has skills that we don't have in house.’ 

What do you think about the emerging workforce?

When I look at the back-to-school season, I always focus on what this next crop of talent does, whether they're in school, entering school, or thinking about the next chapter of workers coming into the workforce. 

We know that Gen Z and millennials are really open to working this way and already do so. In 2022 alone, 43% of all Gen Zers and 46% of millennial professionals freelanced. The next couple of generations that are coming up to be the next chapter leaders in our businesses are folks who have already worked this way themselves and are going to be more open to the way that companies can get work done.

What attracted you to the brand? How have your past roles helped prepare you for your current role?

I always love working at the intersection of technological innovation and consumer behavior change. I've had a pattern of doing this whether it's the rise of digital music at Pandora to the introduction of ride sharing at Lyft to the adoption of telehealth when I was at hims&hers. In my most recent role, leading marketing for Instagram, there was this intersection of innovation on a technological offering, as well as the opening of our aperture of consumers to behave differently that I find very fascinating. 

Upwork is just a natural progression in that. While we may not be brand new, it's an opportunity for us to meet the moment when folks may not know us, but they're now more open to working this way. The Upwork brand is an opportunity for people to really associate with us with a new way of working.

Do you ever use client success stories in your marketing?

We talk about our community quite a bit on social. You'll see us highlight a lot of our community members. We talk about them in our content programs. We do video work with them. We tell our talent stories and the impact that Upwork has had on their lives and the ability for them to lead flexible lives and have a life by design, which is quite inspiring. 

We can all relate to that. We all want to be able to live our lives by design. Our freelance talent have chosen to live where they want to live, work the hours they want to work, work on the projects and programs and skills that they want to work on. Being able to see them offer that talent to clients and clients to be able to really see a change in the way that they were working because they moved to this new model is really impactful.

What big marketing trends are on your mind this year? Is it all about generative AI?

AI is the largest technological change we've seen since the advent of the Internet. It's here to stay. It's not only here to stay, but something that will be top of mind for folks for a long time. We're working hard on both our product side of the house at our offering, as well as our marketing communication side of the house, at least that we use the tools internally and offer them externally.

Interested in our events?


Learn More


Ancestry Moves From ‘Me’ to ‘We’

Read More

Grubhub Taps Snoop Dogg in Global Push

Read More