Why this IBM marketing veteran switched gears to jump into a tech startup

Willow’s first-ever CMO, Michelle Zamora, talks about leaving the comfort of Big Blue and venturing into new markets and new territories

Michelle Zamora
Michelle Zamora

IBM industry veteran, Michelle Zamora, is over the moon about jumping into startup land and using her fine-tuned skills in building business strategy and driving growth.

As the inaugural global CMO of Willow, Zamora is tasked with spearheading the marketing strategy for the tech solution startup as it strives to take its digital twin technology and intelligent building management to the global market.

Zamora’s portfolio covers all areas of marketing and communications, branding and category creation, business strategy, CRM, client and employee experience, and the development of a partner ecosystem. She described the new role as “invigorating”.  

She’s no stranger to the IT and marketing industries. She brings over 20 years of marketing experience to her new role at Willow, most recently as IBM’s head of marketing across banking and insurance, IBM Watson and blockchain.

“I absolutely credit IBM for helping me build the science of marketing and really understanding the framework and methodology of marketing. But to now be able to work in much more of a startup mode is exciting,” Zamora told CMO. “It’s agile and quick to make decisions. I can leverage all the science of marketing, but in a much more agile and fast-paced environment.

“I’m also excited to be able to build a team of people. It’s about celebrating the people we have, but also bringing in new people, new wins and new ways of marketing into the organisation so we can take advantage of this amazing journey.”

Willow has doubled in size in the last 12 months and expects to see that level of growth over the next few years.

Its ‘Willow Twin’ platform is an enterprise solution aimed at revolutionising the development, operation and experience of the built environment. Zamora explained the company’s vision is to create a new digital environment for the physical world, where buildings and infrastructure are more interactive and adaptive to their inhabitants, and are able to continually improve their productivity and efficiency over time.

Right now, the company is in the midst of a rebrand and is being combined with design and architecture firm, Ridley. The rebranded single entity, known as Willow, is Sydney-based and will have a total of 250 staff with offices in New York, London, Tel Aviv and Manila. The rebranded outfit will officially be revealed in September by CEO, Josh Ridley.

“Willow is creating a new category, using this amazing history in architecture and design to bring to market a technology solution that’s never been seen before,” Zamora said. “The company is bringing together AI, cloud and blockchain to revolutionise the built environment.

“Brining the two companies together is very much around our history and showing our strong ties and experience in the property market, then bringing that through with the innovation of technology.”

Thanks to her experience, Zamora said she’s gained a real understanding of how to take marketing and technology and apply both to the transformation of an established industry.

“Having so many years working in channel sales and channel marketing, this will allow me to help formulate Willow's partnership strategies and our ecosystem to build a community and embrace the level of growth the company is already seeing,” she continued.  

Experience across IT, AI, data and insights will be particularly beneficial in guiding Willow as it launches an entirely new category within the built environment, Zamora said.  And there’s still plenty of mindsets to change and work to be done.

“It’s fascinating because it’s definitely an industry where there are still files exchanged in USBs and paper and so the potential for automation and transformation is huge,” she commented.

“We’re just on the cusp of seeing real change. We’re seeing the New South Wales Government starting to talk about wanting to create innovation hubs and smart building hubs. This is the perfect time to see a USB-led industry transformed into a truly innovative opportunity.”

Between 2010 and 2020, smart buildings are expected to create 37.2 petabytes of data, Zamora pointed out.

“There’s an opportunity to tap into all of that data and create actionable insights and really change our experience of the built environment,” she added.   

Technology heritage

Looking back at her time at IBM, Zamora said she’s proud of a number of achievements, including her involvement with the vendor’s artificial intelligence platform, IBM Watson, and helping clients change business models with the power of enhanced insights.

The Jason Grech campaign, in particular, which won nominations at Cannes and various other distinctions, involved using insights from Watson to create the world’s first cognitive couture collection. The initiative saw Big Blue partner with Melbourne fashion designer, Jason Grech, to understand his 12-week design process for the runway, which typically involves looking at fabrics, colours and styles for 10 weeks then moving into the design aspect for the last two.

Zamora noted APIs created looked at fashion trends and history across Instagram in order to predict the colour and style that Grech should be leveraging. IBM Watson also mapped architecture, along with photos Grech was inspired by in order better predict what would be successful on the runway.

“In doing so, he was able to storyboard his design in five days. It was one of his most successful collections,” Zamora said.  

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