CMO interview: Calling bingo on the technology sector

Forrester's global marketing leader shares the strategy shift occurring thanks to technological change and how it's impacting the role of the CMO

As the CMO at a company focused on helping clients make better technology decisions, it’s no surprise to Forrester’s Victor Milligan that much of his time is spent providing that same service to marketers.

Milligan started his career in management consulting, before taking on a variety of marketing roles. For the past three years, he has been chief marketing officer at Forrester, a Boston-based firm that provides technology-focused research, data, custom consulting, peer groups and events to organisations and executives.

Over his career, he has witnessed the evolution of the technology sector not just in terms of its impact on the marketing profession, but on organisational systems and processes.

“The difference between technologies of the past and this current set of technologies is these are a set of technologies which will change the way companies work,” Milligan says. “So the decisions are not technology decisions, they are strategic and operational decisions that are inherently technical.”

Strategy versus technology ownership

Milligan says CMOs are being asked to take a more strategic role in their organisations. Hence he is frequently drawn into conversations with marketers who are expected to not just have a greater appreciation for technology within the marketing function, but also of the technology strategy of their organisation as a whole.

“They are not just driving the go-to-market strategy, but also the internal operational strategy, to ensure the company in its structure and operations can deliver on its commitments to its customers,” Milligan says. “That has not naturally been a comfortable role for some CMOs. And often you have a dissonance or separation between what is being asked of the CMO and the political power they wield within the organisation.”

While he describes the current market for technology as customer-led, Milligan says the market is also unusual in that numerous new technologies are being introduced simultaneously, such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things.

“The challenge is that the supplier dynamic means that in some cases the technology supplier knows more than the technology buyer,” he says.

Hence marketers in the technology sector are inadvertently making life more complicated for the customers they are trying to service. “There is a universe of buzzword bingo,” says Milligan.

“When marketers don’t understand the clients they serve, they will default down to product attributes. When they do that, they look for the most valuable language possible to describe the same apple or the same banana.

“And so if I can call my banana an ‘AI banana’, that is a more valuable banana at that point in time. But you tend to confuse the market. It might create some short-term gains in leads or sales, but I don’t think in the long run it places you where you want to be, which is as a partner to your clients, helping them solve the harder business problems that will take years to solve.

“The smarter buyers know the difference and they are doing proof-of-concepts to cut through the fog. But I still feel the technology provider market could benefit from pulling back a bit from the buzzword game.”

Embracing the matrix

Milligan’s own role as CMO at Forrester has seen him reorganise the marketing function itself to better take advantage of many of the new technologies at his disposal. His first actions focused on making marketing more consequential and impactful, starting with dismantling the hierarchical nature of the function.

“It was not set up for speed, it was not set up for agility, and it was not set up to make every person in marketing valuable to the outcome,” he continues. “One of the first things I did was move the operation to a matrix structure and away from the silo structures that used to dominate marketing. And it unleashed the talent across the teams and created a premise for other things to be done.”

Changing the structure meant Milligan could get better leverage out of technology investments, to free up people to spend more time thinking about the harder, more complex problems by moving them away from manual processes.

“More and more of our tasks are being leveraged by technology, and more and more of our decisions are being enabled by analytics,” he says. “Marketing shops have tended to have been built on a somewhat manual basis. And you can think of that as technology debt, in that you are really not getting the true value of the technology. What you have done is baked in a set of manual inefficient processes.

“As we head to various forms or personalisation, you really can’t do any form of personalisation at scale without technology. Without it, you move to the cardinal sin of marketing, and move towards unintelligent scale.”

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