Interview: Alterian CEO on martech consolidation and uniting digital with direct

Global chief of new-look cross-channel campaign management and real-time interaction vendor shares his plans to win against the platform play
Robert Hale

Robert Hale

Alterian’s global CEO, Robert Hale, is the first to admit the martech/adtech landscape his organisation re-emerges into today is very different from the one it faced four years ago, when SDL acquired the business.

But while he sees the rise of all-in-one players such as Adobe, Salesforce, IBM and Oracle as competitors with a brilliant marketing touch, Hale is confident there’s still opportunity for a best-of-breed solutions provider in the B2C, mid-market space.

“For us, it’s about differentiating from the large platform players,” Hale tells CMO. “By story, they dominate the market. And if you’d asked me three years ago, I would have listed that as a much bigger problem: It was their size and their story against the small player.

“Those platform players have had three years of telling the story and going to deployment. Like any large platform player, it’s very expensive, and it takes a long time to draw value and get one of these up and going because they’re based on a series of acquisitions. What that has left is a bit of backlash and opportunity for mid-market, best-of-breed to come in and say we’re going to solve this part of your direct or digital problem. That is a key value proposition for us.”

Earlier this month, SDL announced it had divested its cross-channel campaign management division as an independent martech player under former branding, Alterian. The news came more than four years after SDL first purchased the business, and several months after the UK publicly listed company revealed its intention to offload the division in order to refocus on its core language translation and content services offerings.

SDL is also in the process of divesting its ecommerce offering, Fredhopper, and social intelligence division, which came from Alterian but was spun out of the campaigns division post-Alterian acquisition.

CMO caught up with Hale, a former Alterian employee, during his visit to Sydney last week to discuss the product set Alterian is bringing to market, the ongoing debate between platform versus best-of-breed, and how he sees the collision of martech and adtech playing out.

Tackling the next marketing challenge: Linking digital to direct

For Hale, the new-look Alterian proposition is about taking the group’s digital marketing heritage and core technology competencies around B2C campaign management, customer analytics and email marketing, and evolving it to help CMOs tackle the next big challenge: Digital to direct.

“We come from a direct marketing heritage, and that traditional world continues to be a challenge and continues to grow. But the next CIO/CMO issue is direct to digital – they’re the next two silos,” he says.

Alterian’s answer is its real-time interaction management engine, in development over the past 18 months and now being tested by a number of customers worldwide.

“Once you get past the buzzword, what we’re all really admitting is that consumers won’t play nice in channels or stick on the journey we mapped out for them,” Hale says. “And if that’s the case, what do we do as a technology provider to help marketers to engage with the expectations of these consumers. For me, that’s this chasm between digital and direct.

“What we’re looking at is how we extend what the best practices of campaign management, and the learnings from there, into this new real-time world.”

The key to Alterian’s real-time engine is also assuming it has to live in an ecosystem the vendor does not control, Hale says.

“I don’t want to say our solution magically takes care of the integration problem, but it’s designed to assume it has to live with other systems, and even be within someone else’s campaign management system,” he says.

Another area of investment is in the user interface layer. “Our tools were considered power tools for power users, with a lot of functionality, but you’d better know how to use it because it’s all turned on,” Hale says. “That can be very daunting to an email marketer or digital campaigner. So that user layer is another one that’s been 18 months in development and we’ll have a completely new user experience coming out in Q1 2017.”

Both of these capabilities are an evolution of the campaign management, email and customer analytics that sit at the core of Alterian’s solution.

“We still have a key differentiator in that we’ve had customer analytics that are actionable. Rather than a separate customer analytics, you can grab, drag and drop into execution,” Hale says. “While that that has been a differentiator, there’s a lot of extra investment we can make in that to expand it, make it better and take back some of our heritage.”

In addition, Alterian is looking at ongoing investment into infrastructure and local hosting in order to drive scale and efficiency.

But while Hale recognises the line between martech and adtech is blurring, he’s not leaping to extend Alterian’s reach into adtech. The real-time interaction layer is about interacting with all the adtech, without building the adtech itself.

“That space is in a lot of flux right now from the impact of ad blocking, viewability and so on. There is a tonne of startup ideas over there, but I don’t think it’s gone through enough iterations to know how it’s going to consolidate,” he comments. “Our view right now is that we have the layer to interact with it, then we’ll see how it evolves.”

Why Alterian needed to stand alone

The reason why Alterian can still command a relevant place in a cluttered vendor landscape is partly because of its direct heritage, Hale continues.

“As a brand, you fundamentally need to understand consumer as an individual, to personalise and interact,” he says. “I need to interact at digital speed, but at the bottom of that interaction is understanding you. Digital, on the other hand, is coming more from the billboard and anonymous side, which is now trying to drill down. They’re going to have technology and best-practice problems.”

But the intention is not to rebuild Alterian, it’s to build off its legacy. Under the management buyout, Alterian shifts from UK public company to US-based, privately owned organisation with offices in Denver, London and Sydney. Outside of this, it’s building up partner relationships to support other international markets.

Historically, Alterian’s sweet spot was mid-market, with a mix of channel and direct sales including agencies and marketing service providers. Moving forward, it remains focused on the mid-market, with key verticals including travel and leisure, retail and financial services.

As the person leading the buyout, Hale points to several reasons why the acquisition didn’t work within SDL. One was the difference in target c-suite buyer and capability set.

“SDL as a language business at its core with content systems around it, it’s primarily B2B and selling to the CIO,” he explains. “We are B2C that sells to marketing. There wasn’t a natural upsell. There was some crossover in direct clients but not a massive amount. So the same reason it didn’t work executionally as an acquisition also made it more practical to separate them.”

Up next: How to choose between platform versus best-of-breed

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Platform play versus best-of-breed

Alterian isn’t the first company to be divested and resurrected as a standalone business. Another is marketing resource management provider, Aprimo, which was acquired by Teradata but sold off earlier this year as part of a divestment of marketing applications assets. Last week, Experian also announced plans to divest its campaigns business.

Hale suggests this trend ties back to the platform versus best-of-breed discussion. “This is nothing more than the next level of that reality,” he says.

“SDL and Teradata went for a platform play, and it was probably marketing more than technology that couldn’t execute on that story. Their second choice is to focus and divest what isn’t core.”

Ultimately, Hale believes marketers – at least from mid-market and down – want the option of a best-of-breed solution that can play within a diverse ecosystem of martech and adtech tools. Certainly, recent reports suggest this is the case.

A study by Walker Sands Communications and in the US released in October, found best-of-breed marketing technology stacks are leading the field, with 48 per cent of those surveyed building stacks made up of multiple point solutions. These marketers also were getting the most value from their tech stacks, with 83 per cent rating their companies’ ability to leverage the full power of their tools as excellent or good.

“Marketers are never going to be the uber master of a one-all, catch all platform, because there are tonnes of investments into siloed, best-of-breed solutions, especially between the two sides [martech and adtech,” Hale adds.

Coping with a consumer-controlled universe

For Hale, the challenges marketers face right now as they shift from creative thinking towards a more data, analytics, measurements and ROI-based universe are being driven by a changing consumer.

“In general, the biggest challenge marketers have gone through is that it’s all consumer controlled,” he says. “We can do journeys, mapping and analytics, but the idea that you can push the message and control it is gone. Social media and other changes we’ve seen out there have changed that.

“The marketers that have endorsed the fact that consumers are empowered and are realigning their businesses to interact based on that kind of relationship, are having better success with the ones still trying to control the message.”

Hale says he’s surprised how many marketers still don’t leverage campaign management very well with analytics to meet this need. “It’s not hard, it’s time consuming to take it to the next level. It’s not a technology problem – these systems are 100 per cent dynamic. You want a completely different message, with timing? It’s very doable but you have to understand them,” he says.

According to Hale, there is a “liberation” in accepting consumers are empowered. “The nice thing about solution selling is I can just ask you what you want and if you’re empowered, then I just need to be able to interact with you,” he says.

“Real-time starts to force that, because it starts to assume it’s user controlled. All the interactions you’ve done online – the things you did on the website -need to filter back into the customer journey map. There are still logical things to follow up on as a marketer, but it changes based on what the consumer did. But without tying it together, I’m back to a disjointed experience.”

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