Adobe CMO interview: Ann Lewnes on data, customers and marketing's product remit

In this in-depth and exclusive interview with CMO, Ann Lewnes shares her views on marketing as product, tackling customer engagement through data, digital transformation and what it takes to be a modern CMO

Ann Lewnes
Ann Lewnes

For Adobe’s global marketing chief, Ann Lewnes, the more things change in marketing, the more they stay the same.

“What hasn’t changed,” she says. “We did a survey six months ago and asked US marketers their perceptions and attitudes about marketing. Seventy-six per cent said marketing has changed more in the past two years than in the previous 50. That’s a telling statistic.

“When you look at the landscape, the amount of transformation is unprecedented. A lot of it has been catalysed by digital technology and data.”

But as Lewnes also points out, the fundamental principles of marketing – creativity, customer focus and insight, research, media and communication – are still very much in play.

“It’s the methods, processes and skills required that have propelled us into this new place we’re in,” she says. “How we do all these things is what has evolved.”

Lewnes was recently in Sydney for Adobe’s annual Digital Marketing Symposium and presented on what it means to run a modern marketing function, as well as the rising credibility CMOs are attaining with their c-suite peers. She caught up with CMO for an exclusive one-on-one during her visit.

As a SVP and CMO marketing to marketers and creatives in the dynamic and expanding world of marketing and creative technologies, Lewnes claims to have one of the best jobs in the world. But she’s the first to admit how challenging it has become in a digital and data-driven era, and just how much she’s had to learn over the nine years she’s held the CMO reins at Adobe.

Prior to joining Adobe in 2006, Lewnes was vice-president of sales and marketing at Intel and spent 20 years with the PC components business. In 2000, she was entered into the AAF Advertising Hall of Achievement and 2010, was awarded a Changing The Game Award by the Advertising Women of New York.

“It’s the best time to be in marketing – we’ve always been the dullards and people no one ever thought knew what was going on, but were spending a lot of money,” she tells CMO.

“Now, because of the data-driven state of marketing, we have much more credibility, we’re driving the business and we can quantitatively show that. No one has more insight into what the customer looks like or cares about. All of these things have made marketing a very scientific, respectable profession.”

In fact, in the words of Adobe’s CEO, Shantanau Narayan, marketing now has a better pulse on the business than the CFO, something that both delights and challenges Lewnes. Because with all of this process change has come great responsibility.

“Return on investment for marketing dollars is how I get my budget at the beginning of the year. We use econometric modelling to do that and the CFO and CEO are the people I’m accountable to for that,” she says.

Handling the modern marketing remit

One thing that definitely has changed is the concept of customer lifecycle engagement as the new marketing remit. CMOs are increasingly being asked to own the customer experience end-to-end, a trend that’s seeing them take a more active role in product development. At the Adobe Summit in Salt Lake City earlier this year, several of the company’s executives proclaimed marketing is inextricable linked to product innovation.

Lewnes agrees the experience you put in front of a customer dictates the relationship you have with them over time. One area this can be seen is in mobile apps, and the struggle marketers are currently having trying to find out what’s the best way to advertise on mobile devices.

“My feeling is the application is the marketing – the app is the ad,” she says. “Once you get someone to actually download your app, you have them. If you mess it up and can’t keep a loyal customer and someone from coming back, shame on you, because that’s the best marketing you’ll ever have.

“If you are a bank, for instance, and you have a great mobile app that enables your customer to check their balance, pay their bills, check their funds and so on every day, and they can do that really easily and joyfully, you don’t need to do more advertising online.

“The experience is more pivotal now than it’s ever been before, and it has to be consistent across everything. If you are going to an app then to a website, then to YouTube and viewing a video from a company, they all have to feel the same, and have to take you to the same place. It’s a tonne of work, but the experience is what is going to keep people going to back a brand.”

Another point Lewnes makes is that the first step into the product for Adobe customers today is almost always its website or app – platforms owned by marketing. Today, Adobe gets 1 billion unique visitors per month to its website.

“When you’re a cloud-based service, and when someone sees a display ad and comes to your site, if we are giving them the right amount of information they’re going to want to download a trial of our service or automatically buy it. So that first step in to the website is the first step into the product,” she says. “It should be one seamless continuum.

“It’s not unlike what others do. Coke, for example, has a machine where you can identify through Bluetooth what you’ve purchased in the past and the machine can mix you up your favourite and unique drink. All of these things are just better ways of identifying the user and using the information you have about them to make them a perfect product. The customisation and personalisation is critical to making the product more relevant and valuable to them.”

More and more, marketing has become intertwined with products

Lewnes saw many companies making the first step into the product about identification of the user.

“Privacy has to be tightly controlled and handled responsibly, but what we have learned is if you provide someone with an experience that is catered to them, in most cases they’ll be OK with it. They don’t like to be exploited. If you’re giving them something they find valuable, and personal in a way that’s comfortable and familiar, most customers will be welcome that.”

As well as the front-end customer experience into its products, Lewnes’ team is taking a more active role in back-end product development. As a user of Adobe’s Marketing Cloud and Creative Cloud platforms, marketing provides ongoing feedback and participates in regular sessions to help build the product roadmap.

“There are a couple of products we felt we should have on our roadmap, so we went with a spec and said we’d like you to build this and they’ve actually built them,” Lewnes says. “We stress test everything, and we are the beta or pilot user, so it’s a super-close relationship. Hopefully we can help sell too – we evangelise a lot as we’ve used everything, we know where the potential pitfalls are and we can help them talk about what training is needed, consulting and so on.

“More and more, marketing has become intertwined with products. Again, if you’re the first step from the customer, you have to be providing that feedback to the businesses, both in terms of what the product should look like, but also how the business is going.”

How to make customer data actionable: Lewnes reveals her methods for success

Collaborating with the wider business

It’s not just the product team marketing is engaging in a two-way collaboration with. It’s also IT. Lewnes agrees most CMOs wouldn’t have considered the tech team an ally a few years ago. Now, her and the CIO talk constantly.

“It’s natural for there to have been silos, and marketing was always a silo in business,” she says. “Creating that connective tissue to different functions, which we never had a connection with before, is vital.

“IT is a perfect example. Several years ago, we did everything possible to go around IT. In the beginning, the reason we came to that conclusion was that we felt IT didn’t really care about marketing as marketing wasn’t a strategic function. It wasn’t payroll, ERP or CRM.

“When marketing technology started to come about and people started to see what the value could be, it had to become a core system of the company. And now it has to be looped into the fundamental technology infrastructure. It’s a natural course of affairs that this will evolve.”

Peer-to-peer collaboration for Lewnes extends to the CFO, who now regularly asks marketing for numbers. “This could be how many people came to the website yesterday, as that helps convert people into paying customers,” she says.

At some companies, this collaboration has had to happen sooner because of digital disruption, while in others it’s going to take longer, Lewnes comments.

“I wish it would happen quickly with everyone, because the longer it takes, the further you fall behind,” she says. “In every category, there will be those who adopt quickly, and those companies will be the ones that outpace the market.”

There are going to be growing pains, as it’s not easy to transform yourself digitally overnight, Lewnes admits.

“You have to talk to your peers, talk to technology partners and try to figure out the best way to do it without too many errors, although everyone makes mistakes,” she says. “This is new, no one has done it before, and it’s not totally easy. That’s why I always tell my peers to talk to the people, and do a lot of case references, because you have to do it. So try to figure out the way to make the least mistakes.”

Marketers must also have the support of the CEO behind their efforts, Lewnes says.

“It’s difficult enough to do this even with this. I had the blessing of a CEO that was extremely supportive,” she says. “There is enough evidence that this is the way to do it, so a smart CMO should be able to convince their CEO it’s the right thing to do.”

Skillset adjustment

The skillsets required in the marketing function to cope with this new paradigm is another area of transformation for Adobe. Lewnes says a deliberate decision was made a few years ago that every marketing employee had to be digital first.

The vendor then reorganised around specialties. These include a social media practice, along with Web analysts, database analysts, and integrated campaign managers. In addition, most data synthesis has been centralised within the Marketing Insights Group, Lewnes says.

Putting in the technology for data-driven marketing in just the first step, Lewnes adds. “You need to transform everything – your organisation, the way you do everything, measure everything, and how you deal with your different constituencies.”

Up next: How Adobe makes customer data actionable plus how to achieve one-to-one engagement

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