CMO interview: Salesforce’s global marketing chief talks team tactics and customer strategy

In this exclusive interview with CMO, we talk to Simon Mulcahy about art versus science, sales and marketing alignment, blazing a customer trail, and how being a team player is vital to success

Simon Mulcahy
Simon Mulcahy

Salesforce global CMO, Simon Mulcahy, agrees there’s a problem with today’s modern marketing leader. And it’s one of definition.

“Looking outside my organisation, I do feel it’s a tough role – not because the CMO and CEO have completely different views, but because it’s not clear what the CMO’s role is,” he tells CMO.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘Why CMOs never last’, suggested there’s something very wrong with the current relationship between CEO and CMO. As proof, the story points to a 2012 global survey by the Fournaise Marketing Group that showed 80 per cent of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. Surveys done by the authors also found 74 per cent of CMOs believe their job doesn’t allow them to maximise their impact on the business.

The result: Ever shorter CMO tenure, frustration and a misalignment between marketing and other executive ranks.

“Some CMO roles are nice and clear – they’re executional. I’d suggest that’s more the case in traditional organisations,”Mulcahy says in response, in an exclusive Australian interview with CMO. The more you have a clear delimited set of roles and responsibilities, the easier it is. That goes for any role: The more your responsibilities and scope directly impact your tasks, and you can pull levers right and left, the easier it is to execute.

“But the more you have an organisation where a CEO feels it’s disconnected to the customer, the more the business model has to change and the more the company has to flick the switch to become more customer centric.”

It’s clear brands are increasingly moving away from pure marketing distribution, to a world where they’re providing more of a service, Mulcahy continues. This can make the CMO’s role “vague”, he says.  However, what’s equally apparent is there’s lot of strategy in the new-look CMO role. And that means becoming a facilitator, agitator and advisor, he says.

“Is the CMO being an optimal provider of advice to the CEO, for the CEO to make decisions and reflect back?” Mulcahy asks. “That’s suddenly a powerful place for a CMO to be. Those new types of CMO have to have a lot more technology budget, more discretion to make changes, and are expected to make changes. They also have more of a seat at the table.”

Blazing the marketing trail at Salesforce

Mulcahy was officially appointed Salesfore’s global CMO role in February after acting in the position for eight months. He’s been with the vendor even longer than that, and most recently built the financial services go-to-market and product strategy.

Before Salesforce, Mulcahy was head of technology industries of the World Economic Forum, working closely with CEOs at global technology companies, along with thought leaders and government figures.  

An initial priority as CMO has been creating a tight relationship between sales and marketing, bringing more transparency and science to pipeline and activities.

“It’s very easy in any marketing organisation to have centres of excellence in each team. And also to have a lot of art in marketing. For me, it’s been pushing that dial from art over to science,” he says. “The more you do that, the more you end up collapsing, or reinforcing, the relationship between sales and marketing. It’s a muscle you need to keep working.”  

Another major focus has been evolving Salesforce’s educational and communication efforts to be more industry-led and customer-oriented.

“As a buyer and executive with a problem, you don’t have time for someone to speak generically to you, you have to be much more relevant immediately,” Mulcahy comments. “It’s not just as a technology buyer, either. As a general consumer, brands have to get you at the right time with the right value proposition. We’re seeing marketing in general become much more hyper-personalised.”

The attempt to not only speak the language of the customer, but recognise the end user as the hero of the story is the logic behind Salesforce’s ‘blaze your trail’ initiative. The ‘trailhead’ concept and related campaign work is all about shining a spotlight on the achievements of individual customers, foster pioneering thinking, and help educate them in the rapidly changing world of technology innovation.

One of the challenges Salesforce faced as it shifted from market disruptor with CRM, to big enterprise software player, is to find ways of differentiating itself from the pack and staying true to its brand heritage of ‘fresh thinking’ and ‘innovation’, Mulcahy says.  

“Salesforce has always been guerrilla, fun, customer centric. Yet over time, we have tightened up our top button, put a tie on, got a nice suit and it’s been reflected in our brand,” he says. “It reached a point where if you took the Salesforce logo off our brand look and feel, it could be anyone. We needed to get back to who we are and that differentiation.

“Secondly, everything about our brand needs to scream that it’s all about our customers, not about us. It’s also got to scream irreverence, a slight cheekiness and eschewing of the rules. Plus it has to be inspiring.”

The idea of ‘trailhead’ is that everyone is on a journey, Mulcahy says. “The promise of a subscription business is one of once you buy us, you’re on a journey with this. That is now part of our brand,” he says.  

“We also have millions of users, hundreds of thousands of which are super users. As we looked at these people who are so emotionally engage to the brand, we realised… That relationship transcends their paycheque provider. Our job is not to just sell them software, it’s to help those people grow.

“We need to provide learning and journeys that help people to understand how to use the products they’ve already bought, and what to buy next.”

Adding learn for free as a value proposition into the digital strategy has been a big shift in this direction. “What we want to do is create a learning experience, not just a buying or product experience. We’ve been overlaying the value proposition into our offerings. That’s new territory,” Mulcahy says.

Also vital are Salesforce’s events such as Dreamforce, which is held every year in San Francisco and attracts more than 100,000 delegates. Mulcahy describes these events as “big tents”, where the vendor’s ecosystem can come together and share ideas.

“We want people to feel like they’re doing something pretty amazing. They’re not just looking at the old world and improving it, they’re part of this big transformation to the age of the customer, where we’re moving from a product-centric world to a customer-centric one,” he says. “That’s not just buying technology and good luck, it’s a major evolution of thinking. It’s turning your company inside out.

“The people doing that aggressively are the people we want to connect with.”

The third component of the go-to-market model is Salesforce’s philanthropic efforts, which Mulcahy says has taken on a whole new level of importance in the age of the customer.

“We’re not just in the age of the customer, or of cloud, we’ve also entered the age of equality,” he says. “Much of our philanthropic model is about being a company that tries to erase the lines between corporation and society and be more reflective of the society we live in. That’s been an interesting evolution as well and it’s being more amplified in our marketing than ever before.”

Building the new-look marketing strategy

To fulfil these ambitions, Salesforce needs truly integrated marketing, Mulcahy says, and he’s working to ensure teams from corporate communications to social, field campaigns and events all come together much more deliberately.

“The drumbeat and cadence of getting communications out to market needs to be really constant but much clearer than ever before,” he says.

The first step is structure, Mulcahy says. “It’s very easy to do a lot of marketing,” he says. “But it’s dangerous if marketers are doing three things in order to make one successful, because they don’t know which one is working. I want less marketing, but better marketing, and marketing that’s integrated.”

Processes introduced by Mulcahy now see teams communicate on a regular basis and with transparency, and ensure every person has a clear understanding of where true north lies.

“I have reporting at the beginning of the week so it’s clear what is going on, and sales and marketing are aligned on what the priorities are,” Mulcahy says. “That has a massive impact on the day-to-day life of a marketer as they’re clearer on what they have to focus on. But they also know they have to report on it and talk about it.

“In many cases, marketers are so busy doing, they’re not communicating what they’re doing. They also want to wait until it’s completely baked, which is such a disaster. If only more people knew that campaign was half-way through, there were problems and they’re trying to fix it, someone could come in and help. It’s the biggest area of improvement.”

A complementary component is how to celebrate success effectively. “I’ve started to communicate more holistically about what all other teams are doing,”Mulcahy says.

“In many organisations I’ve worked at, we celebrate success of individuals, but I want to celebrate the success of teams. It’s the team that gets things done. It’s possible for marketing to go and hit marketing specific pipeline targets, and generate interest in areas where sales is not aligned. In which case, sales will perhaps not hit their numbers. It’s a perfect example of how dangerous it is to have disconnected targets.”

How to be a successful CMO

Likewise, being a successful CMO is about understanding your role on the wider business team.

“You’ve got to clearly prove the things you want to focus on are really important to other people and get them to become your customer,” Mulcahy advises. “More and more, we are going to live in organisations where you don’t own the lever, you are massively matrixed. The best CMOs will be amazing communicators, even better facilitators and collaborators who give credit to other people.

“My success is the sales leader saying marketing is amazing, they help me do their job. It’s not me saying ‘check out how awesome my marketing team is’. It’s a fail if I have to do that.”

When asked if marketers are still looking at the wrong metrics to gauge success, Mulcahy points out it’s all too easy to “look at the dial next to the lever you can pull”.

“Everyone wants to look at the piece of stuff they’ve delivered. It’s much harder if your impact is a component of the success of the sales team,” he says. “At the end of the day, the share price going up is probably related to products being sold, and more customers buying stuff. A marketer’s job is to make that happen.

“Some things we can directly influence – let’s say about 30 per cent. But 70 per cent of pipeline is generated through a bunch of things that it’s much harder to take credit for directly.

“It’s not that marketers looking at the wrong metrics, it’s just that it’s very hard to look at the right metrics. I’m constantly looking at how to uncover any form of dashboard that will help me look better at that 70 per cent.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Mulcahy also thanks his work outside of the marketing function and in product development, operations and innovation, for helping him understand the role of the CMO.

“I joined from an organisation that was not-for-profit, then I moved to set up a skunkworks to do innovation, then I worked on building a product,” he points out. “I’ve looked at the business from lots of different angles. In each one of those, I generally had no resources and the only way of being successful was convincing other people that what I was doing was more useful to them than some of the options they had elsewhere.

“Marketing does have to build more of an invisible hand capability to be truly powerful, you’ve got to give up some of that facetime and become a better influencer,” Mulcahy concludes.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu    

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