3 tech CMOs on what it takes to be a marketing transformation leader

Adobe, Nvidia and Marketo marketing chiefs share their lessons from orchestrating marketing transformation


There’s no doubt about it: Marketers are being asked to be change agents within their organisations. And it became apparent at this week’s Adobe Summit that technology marketing leaders have been successfully doing just that.

During the week, three high-profile CMOs and digital marketing chiefs – Adobe’s Ann Lewnes, Nvidia’s Alix Hart and Marketo’s Sarah Kennedy – shared their respective stories of transformation, what role they needed to play as marketing chiefs and the lessons in leadership that could just as easily apply to every one of their marketing peers.

Here are some of their key experiences and words of advice.

Adobe CMO, Ann Lewnes: Take risks, focus on results and get your team right

Adobe CMO, Ann Lewnes, sees herself as a risk taker in general. “Our Adobe CEO, Shantanu Narayen always says there are flag planters and road builders, and you need both,” she told attendees.

“I’m more a flag planter – I have a vision and intuition of what is possible, then I surround myself with the best people who can help build the road to that.”

And therein lies one of the big lessons Lewnes learnt as she’s helped transform Adobe from packaged software company of creative and document management solutions to a cloud-based powerhouse encompassing the Creative, Document and Experience Clouds.

“You need the right people to make a transformation to be truly successful,” she said. “You need right and left brainers and the inbetweeners. We reskilled where we could and brought in new skills when we need to. Market researchers were reinvented into data scientists. The media team learnt to love new ad formats and programmatic, and designers became content machines to keep up with digital’s demand.

“We brought in data scientists for media mix modelling and attribution analysts, as well as digital natives. And we looked for new mindset and people who are not afraid to experiment and challenge the status quo.”  

Improving processes was another critical part of transformation for Adobe, and hefty cross-company collaboration and accountability was vital. One big step taken was introducing a company-wide data-driven operating model aligning all teams to Adobe’s digital vision. This single source of truth and dashboard is mapped to the customer journey, from discovery to buy and renew.

“While we contribute to every phase of every part of the journey, we are 100 per cent accountable for that discovery [acquisition] phase,” Lewnes continued. “If we don’t meet targets every week, the whole thing suffers.”

Which is why Lewnes’ top piece of advice for marketers is to “focus on results: That’s how you’ll be evaluated”.

“In order to quantify why digital marketing was the right thing to do, we had to really provide a lot of substantiation and evidence constantly on hat the value was, how was the media performing, how much traffic you’re getting to the website – very detailed stuff, non-stop,” Lewnes said.

Adobe's Ann Lewnes (right) with Marketo's Sarah Kennedy
Adobe's Ann Lewnes (right) with Marketo's Sarah Kennedy


One of the first points of measurement for Lewnes is Web traffic. Adobe’s owned site boasts of 9.2 billion visitors per year.

“That traffic is the origination point for everything,” Lewnes said. “You come to the site, you try something, buy something, you come back to understand how to use products then you renew. Traffic is the first step across B2B and B2C so it’s the first thing I obsess about.”

Lewnes has also fostered a strong test-and-learn culture and said tests can exceed 50 per month. “We test everything – the buy button, global navigation, entirely new business models,” she said. “We’ve built always-on strategies on every channel, and we set a very high bar for creative.”

Thanks to these efforts, marketing never been more highly valued, Lewnes said. “With that respect and credibility comes insatiable demand for what we do: More emails, more social for buzz, more events, more tests to optimise every experience,” she added.  

“We have finally proven our worth and now feeling pressure to go bigger and better. Many of you feel it every day and we get it and we’re right there with you.”

Nvidia global head of digital marketing, Alix Hart: Intelligent engagement

Graphics processing vendor, Nvidia, has also been in the midst of a marketing transformation for the last three years. The company uses both Adobe and Marketo martech platforms and is also the technical partner for Adobe’s artificial intelligence engine, Sensei.

For 25 years, Nvidia has built its business on the GPU, advancing the video game industry and putting its Geforce gaming brand at the centre of that community.

“It turns out parallel computing is great for something else: AI. GPUs can process orders of magnitude of data at extraordinary speed, taking processes and programs that may have taken months to computer to just days, hours or even minutes. So today we’re a leading computer platform and we’re strongly entrenched in the B2B space,” Hart said.  

“We’re behind self-driving cars, the GPUs accelerating apps in the datacentre, and an AI computing platform – a set of hardware, software and libraries for leading researchers, data scientists and academics globally. Our customers are fearless – they’re the Da Vincis and Einsteins, solving problems not possibly to solve a few years ago because the compute power wasn’t there.”

Hart said it’s a must Nvidia marketers engage with purpose, inspiring the market with how systems can be used to accelerate their work. To do that, engaging is something long-term, takin place online and in person.

“In one word, we have to be intelligent, listening and responding with just the right content not only relevant to their industry, but the specific work they do,” Hart said. “This is our north star – to deliver intelligent experiences to each customer, from avid gamers to AI researcher.”

Three things dominate how her team has been moving the needle. The first is building a customer data platform to create a single customer view.

“This brings together digital data and in-product usage data to connect the full journey,” she explained. “Secondly, we focused on building a data-driven experience. We overhauled every bit of the experience, from website to email templates to new nurture journeys for every customer persona. We improved lead scoring models with Marketo and pulled in predictive scoring tools enhanced by the data science team.

“We built programs specifically designed for the middle of the journey, where we most look to engage, to share industry innovation, invite customers to seminars and training and celebrate their work. We also partner closely as we build these experiences with our sales team, to vet new predictive models and get feedback directly on what is working, as it goes through the sales journey.”

By iterating with sales, early in the process, both teams have learnt together and are moving faster as a joint team, Hart said.

The third step has been transforming insights. “One challenge we had was around social listening. For our customers, we wanted to have a good sense of how those conversations are happening in their own communities socially. Our model was predicting social sentiment more inaccurately than it was accurate,” she said.

“So we partnered with the AI research team, which created a new model. They’ve improved the accuracy of our sentiment to over 80 per cent. Now, we’re building models around brand trust and anticipation.

“We have also been working on a customer segment scorecard so we can understand engagement upstream with each segment and we can optimise our content faster.”

Three years in, Hart admitted it’s still hard work. “We often rely on team heroics to deliver on segments and marketing programs,” she said.

“But this is where being fearless really resonates. We’re passionate about our north star. And it gets better and better – the tools not only connect and become more integrated, they become smarter.”

Marketo global VP marketing, Sarah Kennedy: Keep your eye on customers, community and your calling

Fearless is the focus of the Marketo business and something its CMO, Sarah Kennedy, has taken to heart as she worked to transform the B2B marketing automation business.

It’s work that’s included rebuilding critical parts of the marketing team, rearchitecting the team’s instance of Marketo, and reinventing the marketing organisation “in a way that pointed us to the future, but respected the incredibly rich heritage of one of the most beloved companies in B2B marketing”.

“I was constantly surrounded by annoying stats of CMO tenure rapidly declining. There were moments in the last two years where I thought I could become one of those statistics,” she said. “But the reality was the type of transformation Marketo needed was big and bold. It should have felt risky and uncomfortable, as it did, because that was the job.

“It’s often our jobs to lead change, be transformation experts and do whatever it takes to guide the org through it, no matter how uncomfortable that change may feel. Fortunately, I had a CEO that allowed transformation to thrive.”  

At the heart of Kennedy’s “forever truths” are authenticity, engagement and customers. Her first key lesson in being a CMO is that the “customer is always the answer”.

“Every time I faced an obstacle this year, and every time my team had to make an impossible trade-off or felt stuck that journey led me back to the foundation: Customer,” she said. “I urge you to design a path that always leads you back to the customer. Give their voice to be your foundation.”

Kennedy’s second pillar is the community. “I am energised daily by how our community supports one another,” she said.

“We are better together. Communities, not companies, own the brands of tomorrow and build the leaders of tomorrow. The first step is to engage the most passionate members of your community and never forget whose story and brand it really is.”

Kennedy’s third pillar was what she labelled every marketer’s “calling”. “Your calling is the single most important thing. You need to be ready to lead, now. To be a catalyst for growth and take ownership of every step of your customer’s journey,” she urged.

“I see it across many marketing customers: They’re making every experience epic. Other marketers haven’t found their voice yet and have stood in the shadows. But I’m telling you to raise your hand; it’s marketing’s time to lead. Your company, communities and customers need you to do so in order to thrive.”  

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit as a guest of Adobe.

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