CMO interview: How Adobe's APAC marketing VP led his way through the crisis

We talk to Adobe VP marketing APAC, Duncan Egan, about stepping into a new role at the onset of the crisis, what leadership approach he took, and why CMO-CIO alignment is so key to marketers gaining commercial success

It’s organisations boasting strong alignment between marketing and other functions – especially the CIO - that are going to get the great things done that matter most to the bottom line.

That’s the view of Adobe Digital Experience VP of marketing for APAC, Duncan Egan, who caught up with CMO recently to discuss his experience taking on a new marketing leadership position just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, his approach to team motivation in the face of the crisis, and his ingredients for ensuring marketing delivers to business and commercial outcomes.

Among his musts are fostering a strong CMO-CIO relationship and wider cross-functional alignment. “There is always going to be some tension, but it’s critical CMOs are aligned with the CIO and other parts of the organisation,” Egan told CMO. “The companies that are aligned are going to get more things done that matter to the bottom line. It’s that simple.”

While the contribution both marketing and IT can make on creating great experiences for external customers are obvious, Egan said it’s also key CMO and CIO partner to drive company culture and staff engagement.

“You should be creating great experiences for your internal customer. That is where IT comes in and where the joint collaboration can shine,” he said. “That joint experience of our customer – employee, partners, customer, prospect – is very important to think about. And it obviously says a lot about the brand.

“That relationship of marketing and IT is also going to make the company perform better, more efficiently.”  

Striking the right leadership balance

Egan joined Adobe as the VP of marketing regionally just 10 days before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Previously, he spent seven years with digital workflow vendor, ServiceNow, leading marketing across the region. As a leader who has come in to run a marketing organisation of 130 people across APJ, Egan admitted it was a confronting time personally.

“Everyone was looking at me, saying ‘What do we do now?” he told CMO. “My leadership style is oriented around hiring you as the expert and I will support you. Those few days in, I was the first to admit I’m not qualified to make all the decisions.

Duncan EganCredit: Adobe
Duncan Egan

“What I did was let the team lead. And they did a wonderful job. We had great discussions and debate, which I love – people have a voice and opinion and we talk about it. As a result, we were able to move mountains and to this day, not one person has complained about any of it.”

From skip level meeting to one-one-ones and ‘Tea times with Duncan’, an aspect of this leadership approach was being accessible.

“Connecting with the team and exposing myself to them as an authentic leader who is available and here to support the organisation is probably the biggest thing I focused on, alongside the business,” Egan said.

Aligning to a common goal

Another major factor was the permission to innovate. Egan said he witnessed this across Adobe’s customer base as the glue bringing alignment to marketing, technology and product teams all over.

“One customer was telling me for the last 24 months they had been trying to launch chat on their website. When Covid hit, it was launched in three weeks. The mandate and priority around aligning organisations – which was the biggest challenge, because IT or another function was too busy – happened, because all of a sudden there was this common goal,” Egan said. “Sometimes that is survival, sometimes it’s thriving, often times it’s inbetween.”  

Egan’s own approach saw him empowering his team to “go for it”. “I told my team: We are going to be sensitive, empathetic and cautious, but don’t be afraid to go forward,” he explained.  

“The other part from a cultural perspective is we are customer focused. People say it all the time, but when you go through something like this, you see the true colours of the organisation. It was good to see the focus on customer, employee and wellness in play here.”

Using data to make decisions

Driving marketing’s approach was looking at the data, seeing what story it told, and reacting appropriately.

“As marketers, we are not in the guesswork game. We are in fact-based conversations with sales and my sales partnership to drive good outcomes for the business,” Egan said. “So as well as empowering the team, it was about being clear on what we are doing, where we are going and knowing what matters using data.”

It was responding to such data signals that saw Adobe dial down ‘buy now’ styles of communication in favour of softer and more educational market messaging and activities. As an example, Egan pointed to a program of work in India in the early days of Covid focused on learning ‘with legends’. The sessions featured cricket stars talking about experiences and challenges they faced in the crisis.

“The numbers of executives and practitioners on calls was wonderful and the community appreciated the pause in time and to do something different,” Egan said.  

More recently, Egan has been looking at what ‘new normal’ means for the business and customers in order to guide and direct. Adobe has also purposefully been quick to come out and state its approach. One was the decision not to return to physical events internationally until July 2022.

“There wasn’t any ambiguity – there was clarity from the top, which helped me and the organisation to figure out where we are going,” Egan said. “We had the data and technology to say how we are going to do it, plus the alignment with sales to work through it.”

Recognising what’s not sustainable

As Egan put it, staff were happy to have a job in the early days of the pandemic, jumped on virtual meetings from 7am to 7pm and got the job done.

“Actually it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t a sustainable way to work. We have progressed from that operating mode to a focus on individual health, wellbeing and family,” he said. “I try to lead this by example. For instance, I coach my son’s soccer team and when we could do that, I was clear to the team that on Friday afternoons I wasn’t available. I recommended my team also do things and in one-on-ones I’d ask what each staff member was doing. All work and no play wasn’t right.

“Giving people the room to be able to put the phone down, get off technology, go for a walk and spend time with the family is key. It’s a constant opportunity for us as leaders to not only model that but reinforce it.”

Embracing digital

“If nothing else, last year has shown us the importance of digital,” Egan continued. Whether it was being able to work from home, or engaging with customers online, digital dominated the way we navigated through this crisis.

For Egan, the opportunity for marketers armed with digital tools was to lead the way and help either educate or re-educate the organisation on importance of marketing.

“For companies that were either on or partially on the digital transformation, marketers had the underlying data and could go in an have a fact-based conversation either on the journey, or the nuances within that journey,” he said. “In our example, we tended to go more towards an educational slant in some places.

“So I do think it was a great year for marketers by and large, particularly those digitally enabled who had the base infrastructure to be able to excel out of really what was a difficult, unknown future at the time. With clients I talked to, projects were done in record time and those that had that ability to connect with customers did very well out of that.”

Yet according to Adobe’s recent Digital Trends Report, 60 per cent of marketing practitioners surveyed would possibly or definitely go to a competitor if they had to interact with their brand or customer digital experiences.

“What it tells us is most people don’t have it right, especially in B2B,” Egan argued. “In B2C, there’s no choice because I’ll leave your app and go somewhere else. With B2B, its’s crystallised the importance of the frictionless experience. It doesn’t mean I have to know exactly what to serve you, but it would be nice. And when you’re ready to engage with us, how do we help you along your path to wherever you want to go.

“That’s the opportunity for marketers going forward, with data and systems to help ease that transition from becoming a customer to bigger customer, valued partner and whatever new products and services that might also represent.”

Read more: RMIT CMO: Marketers now have end-to-end job

Don’t underestimate the team

As to his overall biggest learning as a marketing leader from this past 15 months, Egan said it’s to not underestimate the power of the marketing team.

“I saw the power of what marketing can do. At the end of the year in an all-hands meeting, I thanked the team and showed stats on all that we’d done. Take out Covid, and this was an awesome year. Put Covid into it, and we soared past the moon,” he said.

“You need to give yourself time to pause, be aware, thank, reflect. As marketers our work never ends. It’s really important to take a breath, acknowledge, reflect, learn, be impressed and surprised. That’s what keeps us motivated.”

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