CFO World

Adobe insights chief: What it takes to build a world-class marketing insights function

CMO chats with Adobe VP of marketing and customer insights to find out what make him tick, how insights are being deployed by the martech giant, and where impact is most being felt

Ask any CMO what skills they’re investing in to support the modern marketing function, and chances are a big one will be ‘insights’.

It’s an inevitable trend. With data increasingly lying at the heart of every decision a marketer makes – from the way they build and optimise campaigns, to measure marketing performance, to how they understand the customer and interact with the wider business – there’s a clear need for experts that can turn raw data sets into insights informing such decisions.

During the recent Adobe Summit, CMO had the opportunity to sit down with the vendor’s own VP of marketing and customer insights, John Copeland, to find out what it takes to run insights within the CMO function. We also asked him how his team is working across the business to supply customer insight, and tips around building a strong insights team.

Prior to joining Adobe, Copeland headed up insights online marketplace, eBay. Before this, he spent 20 years in consulting, many at McKinsey and Company, helping clients upskill insights and analytics capabilities.

Today, he oversees a team of 100 employees supporting Adobe’s digital experience and digital media businesses, including market researchers, analytics professionals and data science expertise.

How would you describe the state of insights within the marketing function today?

We’re seeing more modern marketing functions bringing together the classic market research function with the analytics functions. And we find a lot of benefit in doing that. I try to skill my team so if they’re deep in one area, to build their skills in the other. That’s because analytics tells us a lot about what’s happening, who’s doing it and when it happens, but it doesn’t answer why.

Market research is what helps us understand the why, and both overlap on the who. However, with market research, we have to rely on what people tell us, versus the behavioural data where we can actually see what they do. Sometimes they line up, sometimes they don’t.

Can you share examples of programs your team is working on?

We have people on marketing analytics, which encompasses the impact of our marketing investments. That’s not just dollar amounts, but also creative and what’s working versus what’s not. We partner closely with teams building content and those spending money, to try and direct what’s working, which channels, which regions, what weeks of the year and so on.

John Copeland
John Copeland


We are also across customer analytics. We have built segments of customers, driven by behaviour. We’ve combined research and analytics to tag all customers in our database – 20 million plus – into that framework. This means we can look at our KPIs not only in terms of financial and behavioural metrics, but by these segments as well.

From a strategic perspective on the digital media side, for example, we tend to think of customers in terms of what their needs and goals are. We have five segments in that space, from creative professionals to more hobbyist or episodic users.

This is particularly helpful when we’re trying to increase retention. One thing we look at is how engaged people are in products and how we can get those less engaged to be more engaged. But if you were to just look at variability in engagement for Photoshop, you’d be mixing together professionals with the hobbyists.

What we bring is the notion that you shouldn’t expect to turn a hobbyist into a professional with that level of engagement. We take the aggregate data, break it down in to those individual segments, and ensure we’re looking to turn a less engaged hobbyist into a more engaged hobbyist.

What skills sit within Adobe’s insights team?

My team consists of analytics professionals – people who came out of consulting – data scientists and market researchers. They represent in many ways the voice of the customer, either from an analytical or research lens, and their fingers are on the pulse of what customers are doing and thinking.

We are a centre of excellence within the global marketing organisation. More recently, we have deployed our resources much more closely to business stakeholders to determine what experiences will be. We’re seeing a lot of impact from that.  

How are you working to grow the sophistication of your insights team?

We recruit based on a ‘T’  profile. Everyone knows at least a little bit about a lot of insight and analytics topics, or the top of the T. Then there’s some part of the T where they go super deep, such as qualitative research or econometric modelling.

Part of what we’re doing this year in create fatter Ts: With the things you know a lot about, you increase the depth of that breadth. With things you know very deeply, meanwhile, we’re trying to help you increase your breadth.

This is about trying to disrupt as little as possible team momentum while making sure they have a breadth of skills that allow them to be successful even if they are deployed in a new role. For example, instead of doing research that applies to acquisition, you could be doing research around retention. It’s the same skills but you’re applying them to a different set of outcomes.

The other thing we’re doing this year is supporting what Adobe calls our internal ‘growth squads’. The emphasis there is increasing engagement and maintaining engagement post-acquisition.

What we do know is in the first four weeks of subscribing to our product, there’s a lot in a person’s behaviour that tells us whether they’ll be a long-term customer or with us for less than a year. My team does a lot to identify what those attributes are, then works with a cross-functional team of marketers and product people to overcome those.

One barrier with Photoshop we’ve found is it’s a really complicated product. When we get a new customer who wants to play with photos, they almost immediately want to try Photoshop – we’re the Kleenex of photo editing. But it may not be the best product to start with. In fact, Lightroom is a much better product for that.

Part of the growth squad’s mission is figuring out how to change the customer experience to start customers in the right product to begin with. When we get them there, it’s about what breadcrumbs we can lay out for them to follow, to make sure they’re successful early on and continually engaged.

Another part of what I do is help continue to reinforce our organisation’s problem-solving skills. One of the things the growth squads will do in the absence of direction is try and solve a million different problems. I came out of management consulting so I know there is a classic structured approach to problem solving. As a team, it’s about trying to focus all that creative problem solving of marketers and product people in a fairly constrained space because we know if we unlock it, it’s going to really move the needle.

Are there particular skills or tools that drive a more sophisticated approach to insights?

At the highest level it’s about being inquisitive and asking questions. I compare it to being a reporter: When we do segmentation work, I tell the team to try and answer who, when, where, what, why and how.

Beyond that, specific skills tend to be either very quantitative or more qualitative. Some people like to go into depth about understanding people, even if they’re looking at quantitative data, then there are those keen to understand things on a macro level.

In terms of more advanced skills, we’re getting a lot more impact out of our data scientists thanks to a new structure. Last year, we had data science as a centre of excellence within our centre of excellence. While helpful, it meant this team was another staged removed from the business.

We’ve now broken that up and assigned data scientists to different teams. One might work with acquisitions, another with Photoshop, a third with a growth squad. That allows them to get much closer to understanding the questions the business has. Then they can apply the tools in their toolkit to solve that problem.

Up next: How Adobe's insights team is better orienting around customers, and how to get your culture to be data-driven

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The clear message from Adobe Summit is if you’re going to improve customer experiences, you need to look at every type of data across the enterprise. How is this being reflected by your team internally?

Unlocking the millions of pieces of data we have on how people are using our products is really helpful, particularly as it relates to retention. On the Digital Experience side, we have product adoption scores, which look at how widely deployed things like Adobe Analytics in a customer organisation, as well as what percentage of seats are actually being used and how often. It’s another leading predictor of retention.

Then there’s the sophistication of usage. We’d expect customers over time to get increasingly sophisticated in how they use such products. When we’re getting information back and it looks like someone has stalled somewhere, that gets pushed to the customer success team to act on. This is about ensuring end customers are getting value from the investment. It’s usually received very openly so as a result, we’re trying to scale that more.

It’s a similar story on the B2C side, where we’re doing things like our customer engagement index. Usually there are two issues here – either the customer finds the product too hard, or they have run out of ideas. With the latter, we’re building out a number of marketing campaigns for Creative Cloud connecting our products to people’s personal passions.

How much of a challenge has it been getting people to accept the insights you’re generating?

A lot has to do with the culture. Adobe is generally very collaborative, so if someone is reaching out with information that might be helpful to you, it’s welcomed.

What I do tell my team is don’t just go to a stakeholder with a problem. It’s beneficial to provide potential solutions, too. If we know our NPS [Net Promoter Score] is down, or this particular group of customers isn’t happy, it’s a good idea to have 2-3 ways the business owner might solve it. Usually, the business is appreciative and if anything, they tend to pull us in closer and want to work with us on an ongoing basis.

Having Adobe’s data-driven operating model in place is also very helpful. That by definition gives us an aligned set of KPIs, single source of truth and we know who is responsible.

In your exposure to Adobe’s client base, how would you rate their ability to utilise insights? Where do things still commonly fall over?

From a marketer’s perspective, the data can sometimes look and feel constraining. If the marketer begins to feel data constraining creativity, that can be a problem. It’s also about taking that holistic view.

From the insight’s team’s perspective, we still see a lot of what we’d call the ‘so’ versus the ‘so what’. Insights teams will bring data to the table, but they won’t necessarily go to the next step and say therefore, here’s what I think you should be doing. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t had training; sometimes they don’t feel it’s their place.

With my team, I try to always have that ‘so what’. Put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes: What would you do if you saw those insights? They may not be accurate at first, but over time, insights people will zero in on what’s important to stakeholders and the scope.

Insights, like many skillsets, comes by apprenticeship and is built through repetition. The opportunity to practice not just on what we see, but also what we think you should do with it, is the real responsibility for world-class insights teams today.  

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit as a guest of Adobe.

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