Adobe CMO interview: Ann Lewnes on data, customers and marketing's product remit

In this in-depth and exclusive interview with CMO, Ann Lewnes shares her views on marketing as product, tackling customer engagement through data, digital transformation and what it takes to be a modern CMO
Ann Lewnes

Ann Lewnes

For Adobe’s global marketing chief, Ann Lewnes, the more things change in marketing, the more they stay the same.

“What hasn’t changed,” she says. “We did a survey six months ago and asked US marketers their perceptions and attitudes about marketing. Seventy-six per cent said marketing has changed more in the past two years than in the previous 50. That’s a telling statistic.

“When you look at the landscape, the amount of transformation is unprecedented. A lot of it has been catalysed by digital technology and data.”

But as Lewnes also points out, the fundamental principles of marketing – creativity, customer focus and insight, research, media and communication – are still very much in play.

“It’s the methods, processes and skills required that have propelled us into this new place we’re in,” she says. “How we do all these things is what has evolved.”

Lewnes was recently in Sydney for Adobe’s annual Digital Marketing Symposium and presented on what it means to run a modern marketing function, as well as the rising credibility CMOs are attaining with their c-suite peers. She caught up with CMO for an exclusive one-on-one during her visit.

As a SVP and CMO marketing to marketers and creatives in the dynamic and expanding world of marketing and creative technologies, Lewnes claims to have one of the best jobs in the world. But she’s the first to admit how challenging it has become in a digital and data-driven era, and just how much she’s had to learn over the nine years she’s held the CMO reins at Adobe.

Prior to joining Adobe in 2006, Lewnes was vice-president of sales and marketing at Intel and spent 20 years with the PC components business. In 2000, she was entered into the AAF Advertising Hall of Achievement and 2010, was awarded a Changing The Game Award by the Advertising Women of New York.

“It’s the best time to be in marketing – we’ve always been the dullards and people no one ever thought knew what was going on, but were spending a lot of money,” she tells CMO.

“Now, because of the data-driven state of marketing, we have much more credibility, we’re driving the business and we can quantitatively show that. No one has more insight into what the customer looks like or cares about. All of these things have made marketing a very scientific, respectable profession.”

In fact, in the words of Adobe’s CEO, Shantanau Narayan, marketing now has a better pulse on the business than the CFO, something that both delights and challenges Lewnes. Because with all of this process change has come great responsibility.

“Return on investment for marketing dollars is how I get my budget at the beginning of the year. We use econometric modelling to do that and the CFO and CEO are the people I’m accountable to for that,” she says.

Handling the modern marketing remit

One thing that definitely has changed is the concept of customer lifecycle engagement as the new marketing remit. CMOs are increasingly being asked to own the customer experience end-to-end, a trend that’s seeing them take a more active role in product development. At the Adobe Summit in Salt Lake City earlier this year, several of the company’s executives proclaimed marketing is inextricable linked to product innovation.

Lewnes agrees the experience you put in front of a customer dictates the relationship you have with them over time. One area this can be seen is in mobile apps, and the struggle marketers are currently having trying to find out what’s the best way to advertise on mobile devices.

“My feeling is the application is the marketing – the app is the ad,” she says. “Once you get someone to actually download your app, you have them. If you mess it up and can’t keep a loyal customer and someone from coming back, shame on you, because that’s the best marketing you’ll ever have.

“If you are a bank, for instance, and you have a great mobile app that enables your customer to check their balance, pay their bills, check their funds and so on every day, and they can do that really easily and joyfully, you don’t need to do more advertising online.

“The experience is more pivotal now than it’s ever been before, and it has to be consistent across everything. If you are going to an app then to a website, then to YouTube and viewing a video from a company, they all have to feel the same, and have to take you to the same place. It’s a tonne of work, but the experience is what is going to keep people going to back a brand.”

Another point Lewnes makes is that the first step into the product for Adobe customers today is almost always its website or app – platforms owned by marketing. Today, Adobe gets 1 billion unique visitors per month to its website.

“When you’re a cloud-based service, and when someone sees a display ad and comes to your site, if we are giving them the right amount of information they’re going to want to download a trial of our service or automatically buy it. So that first step in to the website is the first step into the product,” she says. “It should be one seamless continuum.

“It’s not unlike what others do. Coke, for example, has a machine where you can identify through Bluetooth what you’ve purchased in the past and the machine can mix you up your favourite and unique drink. All of these things are just better ways of identifying the user and using the information you have about them to make them a perfect product. The customisation and personalisation is critical to making the product more relevant and valuable to them.”

More and more, marketing has become intertwined with products

Lewnes saw many companies making the first step into the product about identification of the user.

“Privacy has to be tightly controlled and handled responsibly, but what we have learned is if you provide someone with an experience that is catered to them, in most cases they’ll be OK with it. They don’t like to be exploited. If you’re giving them something they find valuable, and personal in a way that’s comfortable and familiar, most customers will be welcome that.”

As well as the front-end customer experience into its products, Lewnes’ team is taking a more active role in back-end product development. As a user of Adobe’s Marketing Cloud and Creative Cloud platforms, marketing provides ongoing feedback and participates in regular sessions to help build the product roadmap.

“There are a couple of products we felt we should have on our roadmap, so we went with a spec and said we’d like you to build this and they’ve actually built them,” Lewnes says. “We stress test everything, and we are the beta or pilot user, so it’s a super-close relationship. Hopefully we can help sell too – we evangelise a lot as we’ve used everything, we know where the potential pitfalls are and we can help them talk about what training is needed, consulting and so on.

“More and more, marketing has become intertwined with products. Again, if you’re the first step from the customer, you have to be providing that feedback to the businesses, both in terms of what the product should look like, but also how the business is going.”

How to make customer data actionable: Lewnes reveals her methods for success

Collaborating with the wider business

It’s not just the product team marketing is engaging in a two-way collaboration with. It’s also IT. Lewnes agrees most CMOs wouldn’t have considered the tech team an ally a few years ago. Now, her and the CIO talk constantly.

“It’s natural for there to have been silos, and marketing was always a silo in business,” she says. “Creating that connective tissue to different functions, which we never had a connection with before, is vital.

“IT is a perfect example. Several years ago, we did everything possible to go around IT. In the beginning, the reason we came to that conclusion was that we felt IT didn’t really care about marketing as marketing wasn’t a strategic function. It wasn’t payroll, ERP or CRM.

“When marketing technology started to come about and people started to see what the value could be, it had to become a core system of the company. And now it has to be looped into the fundamental technology infrastructure. It’s a natural course of affairs that this will evolve.”

Peer-to-peer collaboration for Lewnes extends to the CFO, who now regularly asks marketing for numbers. “This could be how many people came to the website yesterday, as that helps convert people into paying customers,” she says.

At some companies, this collaboration has had to happen sooner because of digital disruption, while in others it’s going to take longer, Lewnes comments.

“I wish it would happen quickly with everyone, because the longer it takes, the further you fall behind,” she says. “In every category, there will be those who adopt quickly, and those companies will be the ones that outpace the market.”

There are going to be growing pains, as it’s not easy to transform yourself digitally overnight, Lewnes admits.

“You have to talk to your peers, talk to technology partners and try to figure out the best way to do it without too many errors, although everyone makes mistakes,” she says. “This is new, no one has done it before, and it’s not totally easy. That’s why I always tell my peers to talk to the people, and do a lot of case references, because you have to do it. So try to figure out the way to make the least mistakes.”

Marketers must also have the support of the CEO behind their efforts, Lewnes says.

“It’s difficult enough to do this even with this. I had the blessing of a CEO that was extremely supportive,” she says. “There is enough evidence that this is the way to do it, so a smart CMO should be able to convince their CEO it’s the right thing to do.”

Skillset adjustment

The skillsets required in the marketing function to cope with this new paradigm is another area of transformation for Adobe. Lewnes says a deliberate decision was made a few years ago that every marketing employee had to be digital first.

The vendor then reorganised around specialties. These include a social media practice, along with Web analysts, database analysts, and integrated campaign managers. In addition, most data synthesis has been centralised within the Marketing Insights Group, Lewnes says.

Putting in the technology for data-driven marketing in just the first step, Lewnes adds. “You need to transform everything – your organisation, the way you do everything, measure everything, and how you deal with your different constituencies.”

Up next: How Adobe makes customer data actionable plus how to achieve one-to-one engagement

Page Break

Making data personal and actionable

Data is the lifeblood giving brands the ability to personalise customer experiences and interactions, and Lewnes believes Adobe is close to realising that vision of one-to-one marketing as a business through its segmentation, data collection and profile building activities.

She points to the importance of having a lot of touchpoints in order to build a very precise view of your customer. “It’s not just media or your website, it’s purchase history, psychographics, and a whole base of data and then synthesising that into what we call a profile,” Lewnes explains.

“Once you have that profile, understand what it’s going to take to keep someone. That goes well beyond acquiring customers and to lifetime value.”

Through all of its profiling activity, Lewnes stresses the need to form insights that are both useful and actionable in customer engagement.

“People are collecting reams of data but they don’t know exactly what to do with it. Form the profile, then come up with certain paths for your customer,” she advises.

“What are you trying to do with that person? For example, if you are from Sydney, in a certain age group, work in media as a journalist and so on, I will understand you’re more inclined to use our Creative Cloud than Marketing Cloud. You may have come to our website but never purchased anything, so I’ll put you onto a particular path. Or if you’re a Creative Cloud customer, but you haven’t downloaded Adobe Illustrator, there’s another path I’ll put you on for that.

“There is a lot of rigour that goes into forming these profiles of people. What I would tell my peers is not to just collect data for data’s sake. Come to it with a goal at the outset.”

All of the clues and hints obtained through data should also be informing an action. Examples for Adobe could be a spike in people downloading one particular feature within the Creative Cloud, or people struggling and asking for help in one feature or aspect of the platform.

There is a lot of rigour that goes into forming these profiles of people. What I would tell my peers is not to just collect data for data’s sake. Come to it with a goal at the outset

“That’s an indicator that we need to do something to help people,” Lewnes says.

In all of this, strategy, and not data, comes first, she says. “Your strategy should be your strategy whether you’re a great digital marketer or not. Digital should be helping you accelerate your strategy.

“At Adobe, our strategy was to get more people to want to buy creative products and to move into a different business, which is Marketing Cloud. We used digital to help us accelerate those goals. If people are looking at it the opposite way, that’s the wrong way.”

Lewnes also has strong views on experimentation as a vital step that one should have an end date.

“We like Periscope right now and have been using it pretty effectively as it’s great for doing product demonstrations. For now, we think it’s great,” she says. “So do the experimentation, but at some point you need to wean out the things that are not working. That’s when you’re using your data.

“And one of my big things is critical mass. If you’re doing 5000 things and spending $1 on each, it’ll never get your anywhere.”

Single view of customers

The other core element in actioning data is how it’s perceived and utilised by the wider business. Lewnes says Adobe’s Marketing Insights Group has been set up as the collectors and distributors of data.

“We do it by campaign or product type, so there’s a Creative Cloud single source of truth group and it’s multi-functional,” she says. “It includes people from marketing, sales, customer support and the business unit, so everyone is looking at the same data.

“At the beginning, we’ll say these are the things we want to know. We might be interested in traffic, or conversion rates, or trial downloads. We’ll collect these things… as these are the things we know drive conversions.

“There is an agreement and alignment you have to come to with all the people in this group. Data is not so automated now that everything is triggered and just robots are doing marketing. It probably never will be, because you still need judgement.

“What we have tried to do is put together groups of individuals who take a 360-view of the data, with pre-defined variables, so it’s somewhat controlled and bounded. Data can go wild. While you should experiment with data as well as have more structured plans, first and foremost you need to know what you’re looking for and set those goals.”

Another myth Lewnes sees in this new age of digital marketing is that it takes less people to make happen. “You need a lot of people to do this,” she says.

“We have in-sourced a lot of everything, in particular creative. If you are a data-driven marketer with a website, and you’re testing constantly whether the content is working, you need someone right there to rewrite it. If you have a display ad that’s not working, you need someone right there to redo it.

“We have content people galore now – designers, writers, and a whole crew of creative services professionals that need to be constantly iterating. If you want to test you need five things to test. There is a tremendous amount of content required and that’s human resource intensive.”

Retaining creativity

Through all of this data-driven marketing, Lewnes remains convinced creativity is the most important asset for the marketing function.

“Marketing is still a creative, hopefully message-driven, somewhat subjective art,” she says. “What has happens now, which makes it fantastic, is that there’s an ability to put some science to it. But if you take away that lovely, whimsical art and just do email all day long, that’ll be a miserable failure.

“When it was just creative with no measurement at all, it was dissatisfying. If it’s metric-driven entirely, it takes all the joy out of it. If you can marry those two things – there’s no formula – but that’s the magic.”

Lewnes’ top attributes for CMOs

  • Brand strategy. “It’s extremely important to develop a strong brand and for that to be the guiding light for your marketing. You need that distinct, interesting space for your brand.”
  • Support data-driven marketing but don’t forget creative. “You can’t just be a data-driven marketer without being conscious of your brand, understanding your audience and what creative approach would work for them. And I don’t see a future where you only have analysts in the marketing department. You’re still going to need the right brain, left brain elements to be really special.”
  • Stay focused on communications. “When I hire someone, I always want to see something they’ve written. Marketers still need to express themselves really well. I can hire a lot of specialists, but to be a really great marketer, you have to start with strong communication skills.”

More CMO interviews

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO Australia conversation on LinkedIn: CMO Australia, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on Google+: