Adobe global brand VP: Let go of perfectionism and control and foster creativity

Adobe's global brand chief talks exclusively to CMO about brand purpose, why human creativity will never be replaced by AI, and what marketers must do to spearhead CX

John Travis
John Travis


If there’s one thing modern marketers need to let go of, it’s perfectionism, says Adobe VP of global brand marketing, John Travis.

“Today, we live in a test-and-iteration culture, which I actually think is liberating,” the experienced marketing leader told CMO in an exclusive interview in advance of last week’s Adobe Symposium in Sydney.

“But for marketers like me who have been around for a while, that’s a big change. Our work doesn’t have to be 100 per cent. I still want it to be perfect, but we’ve become much more adept at throwing out different ideas, and jumping on things when we see they are working.”

This mental shift is one of three hefty changes impacting the way Travis runs Adobe’s global brand marketing team. Another is fostering skillsets to cope with rapidly changing market conditions and growing demand for holistic customer experiences.

“When you start thinking about total customer experiences, you quickly realise the organisation chart doesn’t matter anymore,” Travis said. “And dealing in highly matrixed organisations with blurred definitions of who does what takes a type of person and skill. We’ve worked at fine-tuning our team, training them, and bringing in new people when we have to.” 

Read more: Adobe: Representation, personalisation, experience vital to future of digital advertising

A third game-changer, Travis said, is the need for marketers to let go of control. This lies in complete contrast to the “stamp and control” approach he saw brands herald earlier in his career.

“I was raised in the days of ‘Intel Inside’, working to help launch that campaign, and it was all about stamp and control. Today, we’re guiding our brands,” Travis said. “Because modern brands really come alive with the customer is involved. We do tonnes of stuff to foster this, such as opening up our brand identity to our community, because to be a living brand, you have to live in real time.

“Part of that is also letting go of ‘brand speak’ and getting away from the academic nature of branding. We have to think more conversationally. Branding is very much a personal relationship, and we have to reflect that.”

Instilling brand purpose

Travis boasts of a 30-year career in brand marketing, working for 14 years at Intel before moving to Adobe 12 years ago in a brand marketing position. For three years prior to taking up the global brand helm, he managed marketing for the European region. Today, Travis’ remit encompasses traditional brand strategy, including brand architecture and identity, as well as corporate social responsibility (CSR), which he recently rebranded to ‘brand purpose’ and moved into the brand function.

While Travis agreed there’s plenty of talk about every brand needing ‘purpose’, consumers are exhibiting mixed feelings on how certain brands have gone about it. You only have to contrast the largely well-received Nike campaign with controversial US football star, Colin Kaepernick, to Procter & Gamble’s more derided attempt to tackle toxic masculinity with its latest ‘The best a man can get’ Gillette ad, to see it.

According to Travis, Adobe has always had purpose behind what it’s been doing, with a certain percentage of pre-tax revenue set aside for CSR, and active programs to activate employee volunteers for social works. The emphasis is on creativity, and Adobe focuses heavily on ensuring underrepresented youth from a socioeconomic, ethic, LGBTQ or disability perspective, can better discover their creativity.

John Travis, Adobe
John Travis, Adobe


“What we’re now seeing is an enormous level of expectation, both from customers and consumers, to have brands contributing to their quality of life, or they won’t shop from that particular company,” Travis commented. “But it’s also coming from employees: Culture is becoming the number one decision point for whether someone will work for a company or not.

“So it’s fundamental to the fabric of a company. And for me, the more genuine and inherent it is to what you do as a company, the better. You see some brands jumping on the trend and it becomes a ‘topic de jour’ and disingenuous.”

One company successfully tapping its authentic roots to demonstrate brand purpose is Lego, Travis said.

“The company is all about play, and the focus is learning through play. When you hear that and see what Lego is doing, you feel good about the company,” he said. “The more differentiated it is, the more genuine it is. I go back to employees – people want to contribute and work for companies that are contributing.

“You do want to be careful and respectful in how your market those activities. But it is imperative now.”  

To scale brand purpose, however, it’s not enough to put X amount of resources behind specific programs. For Travis, it’s about how to integrate purpose into the fabric of everything the company does.

“Digital transformation means we’re in a 24/7 relationship with our customers today. And what we’re seeing is the things we all care about in a personal relationship are now the values we care about with brands,” he said.   

Proving marketing’s worth

Yet almost in contradiction, digital transformation has seen many companies fall into the trap of accentuating short-term metrics and transparency over longer-term brand. Travis agreed even with all the data at our disposal today, there’s still constant debate between demand generation and brand building.

“I don’t see those as orthogonal; they go hand-in-hand. Brand building is an investment in the strength of the business,” he said.  

Adobe’s econometric modelling approach has been a big help here, offering a way to isolate brand versus demand investment and what would happen if the group reduced or bumped up brand investment.

“And it’s staggering,” Travis said. “At Adobe, we recognise that in the enterprise side of the business, we’re at an Adobe-level conversation. If you’re helping companies digitally transform and they’re betting their company on you, or you’re a key partner, you’re not having a conversation at a product level. It’s Adobe they want to hear from and trust.

“If they’re not aware we’re in the business, or don’t understand the breadth of what we have to offer, it’s another conversation. And our executives recognise that.”  

What’s more, SaaS companies have begun to recognise they’re creating a total branded experience, Travis said.

“When we made our huge transition a number of years ago from packaged software to cloud-based offerings, we moved 80 per cent of our global marketing budget to digital. If I were to go back to those times, I would have spent more time on brand fundamentals, such as my value proposition at the Adobe level,” he continued.

“That’s because we are now in an ongoing engagement with our customers. And if you don’t know who you are, how are you going to have an authentic relationship?”

As a result, despite the mod cons of digitally fuelled marketing, organisations still require investment into those core tenets of marketing, such as brand strategy basics and creativity, Travis said.

It’s these brand fundamentals Adobe is dialling up to cope with the rapid evolution of its value proposition off the back of multiple acquisitions in the digital marketing sphere, its shift to cloud-based offerings, and its sheer breadth in terms of scale. Travis cited significant current emphasis on marketing the parent Adobe brand through activities such as corporate sponsorship, brand advertising and marketing.

Many enterprises still aren’t aware of the breadth of Adobe’s enterprise martech offering, he said. What’s more, since launching its Creative Cloud proposition, more than 50 per cent of customers are new, sitting outside Adobe’s traditional creative professional audience.

This has made events like Cannes Lion and Sundance Film Festival key to engaging with broader enterprise, creative professional and youth audiences.

“I’m also looking at whether are we putting the most modern, forward-facing face on the company,” Travis said. “We’re looking at messaging, identity, marketing strategy, our communication and social work – not just in our brand specific work either. My team works with the campaign functions supporting all our audiences and products to infuse all of this into it.”

To get there, it’s important to have a vision stemming from the very top on where your company is going, Travis said.

“The second thing is having constant, almost over-communication. If you understand where you’re going at the highest level, and continually communicate that to employees, you find that some of the bumps that come along the way – and there will be quite a few – are things people can adapt to,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on communication.”

Up next: Marketing's role as customer custodian without control, plus the role of creativity versus AI

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