Acoustic CEO: What we’re doing to be the best-of-breed marketing cloud alternative

In his first Australian media interview as chief, Dennis Self talks through the transformation of IBM's former marketing cloud business to a best-of-breed player

It was a little over 12 months ago Acoustic entered the martech scene, a freshly branded marketing software offering spun out of the IBM business.

Supported by a US$150 million investment from new private equity owner, Centerbridge Partners, the business pitched its new brand name as reflecting a commitment to listening, understanding and solving the modern marketer’s challenges around data-driven marketing and demand generation.

Then the hard work of transformation started. In June, the group appointed Acxiom’s former CEO, Dennis Self, as its new chief with a remit to lead Acoustic into its next phase of evolution. And the vision? To become the largest independent, full-scale marketing cloud and a credible alternative to the big guns of the enterprise marketing software space.

Self is no stranger to company or technology change. During his time with Acxiom, Self helped orchestrate a significant transformation of the 50-year old data marketing business, then led the sale of Acxiom’s marketing services business to Interpublic Group in a deal worth US$2.3 billion.

As Self told CMO in his first Australian media interview as Acoustic CEO, working with many of major marketing cloud providers in recent years gave him insight into the competitive market. As he considered his next professional role, he says he could see the strong opportunities for Acoustic.  

Acoustic’s flagship offering is the Acoustic Marketing Cloud, which incorporates Acoustic Campaign (formerly Campaign Automation, which in turn has its foundations in Silverpop and IBM Watson Marketing); Experience Analytics (formerly Tealeaf and Coremetrics); Content (formerly Content Hub); Personalisation (formerly Real-Time Personalisation); Journey Analytics; Digital Analytics; and Exchange (formerly Universal Behaviour Exchange / UBX). The company also offers Lifecycle Pricing and Lifecycle Promotion tools, formerly DemandTec, as well as Acoustic payments (formerly Payments Gateway).

Self told CMO Centerbridge’s investment provided the funds to integrate and rev up this collection of offerings into a differentiated best-of-breed alternative for marketers.

“I could also see the significant transformation going into play, from go-to-market to product transformation, back-office and talent transformation. It was a vibrant set of transformation initiatives,” he says.  

“Over the upcoming year, we are going to drop lots of new functionality and really start to turn up the volume and amplify the story of Acoustic. That’s going to be our way of coming up against the heavies in this market and take our place in the marketing technology space.”   

For Self, the customer sweet spot for Acoustic is the upper mid-market. “We have some big customers we work with today and can go into enterprise, but our sweet spot and where we want to position ourselves is that upper mid-market space,” he says.

Here, Self shares the plans for Acoustic, an update on the transformation, and what’s on the roadmap over the next 12 months.

What investments and changes have been made in the last 12 months to gear up Acoustic?

Dennis Self (DS): We’ve had to do a lot of work to come off the IBM machine, from branding to the demand generation, business development and ISR activities. I call this building out our ‘demand generation engine’. Then it’s been everything downstream from that – whether it’s our field sales or customer success teams, it’s been about getting the right processes and people in place to take the care of existing customers.

Take our platform transformation, which has been a heavy lift. We’ve moved off the IBM Cloud [formerly known as Software] and moved to the public cloud to take advantage of the scalability and flexibility of being a cloud-ready software player.

We’re also modernising the front end. All of our offerings - Silverpop, Coremetrics, Tealeaf – are all branded under Acoustic, and every one of the tools will work seamlessly together. We’ve ripped and replaced the user interface to achieve this. Our Content is deploying in October, followed by Analytics between November and February, then Campaign drops in June. So we’ve worked hard on that front-end modernisation, with the back-end cloud transformation supporting these efforts. That’s been about shifting from old school technology to modern architecture. We also have demand marketing and pricing and promotion assets, which are going to be on the public cloud as well.

The third step was to stand up the company to run standalone. To do that, we have had to implement new ERP, CRM, finance and services platforms and we have Acoustic as our demand generation system as well.

The fourth leg has been talent transformation and a significant amount of work has gone into upgrading our workforce.

Where has staff investment had to be made in terms of skills and capabilities?

DS: We had 1100 staffers come over from IBM, but very few from a back-office perspective. Also, when it comes to product and engineering, those were folks that knew the IBM way and IBM Cloud. We needed to hire to suit the new technologies we’re using moving forward.

In our go-to-market, we did pick up field services and more of those down the funnel roles. But upper funnel, in terms of marketing, demand generation, inside sales representatives – all of that is net new.

Are you confident Acoustic’s integration story over the next 12 months is such that it will compete with the more integrated stack approach being taken by the likes of Salesforce, Adobe and Oracle?

DS: When many of these players talk about integration, they’re talking across a very wide stack. For example, with Salesforce, you have Marketing Cloud, Sales, Service, Commerce and Community Clouds. Our integration is specific to serving the CMO and marketing function.

We are very focused on being the ‘connected marketing cloud’ and a platform for CMOs by CMOs. Our inaugural advisory panel of 25 customers is helping us realise this vision. The name of our company, Acoustic, is all about listening. We want CMOs to tell us how to grow our technology for the future and create the roadmap through the functionality they need.

In terms of our go-to-market approach, it’s about being best-of-breed. We will have companies we partner with for sales, services or ecommerce specifically, and platforms we can quickly integrate into and plug-and-play with in order to serve that entire front office, from product innovation to customer service. But our sweet spot is the marketing part of that story.

There’s increasing recognition marketing platforms have to tie into wider and existing business software stacks in order to be truly successful. To what extent do you see this informing how people will view Acoustic as an option?

DS: In a conversation the other day, one of our customers said to me Salesforce is our CRM and that’s not going away. However, that customer was less convinced the Marketing Cloud was serving them well and wanted to double down on Acoustic, particularly when they had seen the demo of what’s coming out with our new user interface. They’re coaching us on how to rev the offering so we can park right up next to these big enterprise players.

Other players might offer CRM or ecommerce and that’s ok. We have to have the story to show this Marketing Cloud is interoperable with whatever a customer decides they want to go forward with.

Looking at our Exchange [formerly UBX] platform for example: We can ingest data feeds coming in from all these other technologies and clouds out there. That would allow us to pull up as the marketer’s platform of choice while integrating with that front-end office set. It’s also about the back office, and we need to plug in to the likes of Workday, Oracle and even NetSuite to ensure we’re providing that seamless enterprise.  

Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) have been the martech darlings of the last 1-2 years. How does Acoustic’s Exchange/UBX offering fit with this growing category?

DS: Yes we have to [link into the CDP proposition].

We have three core offerings under the Acoustic banner: Campaign; Analytics, which is compartmentalised into journey analytics, digital analytics and experience analytics; then Content – we have a headless CMS and see a significant market opportunity for that in this space. Wrapped around these offering are things like personalisation and services.

Then there is Acoustic Exchange [UBX]. We’re evaluating that right now to figure out what our customers want this to do. We could go down the path of building or acquiring a CDP. Another potential scenario is using Exchange as a meta CDP that can connect to any other CDP. We’re giving that consideration as well. But Exchange is a very powerful offering allowing us to ingest first, second and third-party data to saturate Campaign tools and enable data-driven marketing.

That is part of our next-gen offering and we want to amplify that so we have a richer story around both known and unknown data. All of that matters to achieving a single view of the customer in campaign and analytics tools.

Another important feature of Exchange is the AI [artificial intelligence] component. That is where you are going to see us blow things out of the water when it comes to data ingesting, curation, analytics, decisioning and orchestration.

We have also brought on a general counsel to serve as our chief data ethics officer as we want to move very deep into this data-driven marketing space.

What is the biggest challenge facing Acoustic then – is it awareness, the IBM legacy, connecting to the upper mid-market, capability understanding?

DS: I think we have overcome the biggest challenge. I was in front of 25 customers at our advisory board who have known us for a long time – one was the first customer of Silverpop. They had been complaining IBM never invested in these assets. They were fabulous assets but they were atrophying because IBM would not invest and integrate and do all the great things we’re doing now. They were very excited by our plans and were actively contributing.

So the big challenge has been overcome by virtue of carving Acoustic out of IBM. The challenge now is executing on the plan successfully and as quickly as possible. Our customers want simplicity and seamlessness, to ingest data better than in the past, and strong customer support. We have an opportunity to do it, and they want us to get on with it.

While much money has been pumped into martech, CMOs are still frustrated as they can’t get their jobs done seamlessly and frictionlessly. We have a line of sight in the next 6-9 months where we’ll be able to pull away because we will give marketers ease of use and seamlessness across core offerings and will have partners supporting us. This should pull us away from the other marketing clouds.

Open, simple, integrated, modern, best-of-breed and connecting - these are the things we’re thinking about to make it easier for the CMO and marketing functions of these companies.

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