How to Become a Transformational CMO: Rethink Your Category

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Before you can enter DocuSign's San Francisco-based headquarters, you have to sign in, but not with the traditional pen and paper. Instead there's an iPad with a customized app to confirm with whom you are meeting, captures your email address and extracts a promise of non-disclosure via your electronic signature. Many Silicon Valley companies use a similar a tech-forward system; few do so as an unavoidable yet compelling demonstration of their actual business.

The reason for my visit to DocuSign, a company whose e-signature applications are used by over 200 million worldwide, was to interview Scott Olrich, who promised a fresh perspective on the role of CMO. He did not disappoint. Believing strongly that marketing needs to put forth and drive a transformational vision, Olrich sited his work at Responsys, which he helped shift from an email company to a "marketing orchestration platform." Though he did not provide the details of the transformation he's initiating at DocuSign, it was imminently clear that the company will soon provide much more than signature capture.

How do you as the CMO make a difference?

My whole career is about rethinking the category. So, not living in the moment but asking where is this going to go? Where do our customers want it to go? Maybe they don't even know yet where it should go. And that's my job.

As a CMO, how do you go about "rethinking the category" and structuring your company?

Some people say, "I want to be a sales-driven company" or "I want to be a market driven company." And I've always said I want to be an 'orchestrated' company. What is an orchestrated company? Well first off, you have a clear narrative and vision of what you think the company should become. How you craft the products, and sales strategies, and everything, will be based on that narrative and vision. I fundamentally believe the best companies in the world are orchestrated companies. Thinking of yourself as an orchestrater, not just as a marketer, is both necessary and challenging.

Can you give an example of orchestration?

When I was at Responsys, I spent time talking to customers and they said, "you should just be the best email company." And I fundamentally believe you can't do that. You have to understand where the category is going to go. If you understood where the marketing world lived, you started seeing these various channels. People in San Francisco were sending emails, people in Chicago were sending mobile campaigns, people in New York were doing display ads. The problem was: those different functions and different channels weren't talking to each other. The marketing team was totally un-orchestrated. So, I had this idea: where is the category going to go, it's not going to be a bunch of people using single channels. They were going to need a platform that actually could help them execute a cross-channel. Setting that vision helped us and it drove the product we built. We didn't focus on building the best email product anymore. We focused on building the best marketing orchestration platform that could execute across channels. That was our view, our goal. You have to create a strong point of view and a vision of the future because people want to buy into the future even if they don't buy that whole vision upfront. That's critically important.

A larger promise makes a lot of sense, but how do you know you haven't gone too far?

I think that you need to show momentum. It's bad If you can't show proof points of where you're actually taking action. In the case of Responsys, we went out and we bought a mobile company to do SMS and we eventually bought a push company, so we could push messages to people's apps on their phone. You need to be committed to the vision. If we had a vision and we just executed like we were still an email company, it would have been very inauthentic. That is the key. If you don't do that, customers are going to say "hey, big vision, but no execution."

What challenges do you have in executing a transformation?

I frame the vision in a way that that that customers can understand it and believe, because they have to believe it. Then, immediately, you have to get very closely connected with your product team because those things usually take longer. You can have a narrative and a vision, but if the product doesn't deliver, that's a problem. So, I always spend a significant amount of time with the product leaders to make sure we get aligned on the roadmap that we're going to have. We also plan out ways to highlight proof points early in the process. And that's not just for our customers, we also want our employees to buy in, because a lot of companies have multiple visions. Some that work, some that don't work. You want to gain credibility really fast with all your stakeholders, employees, and obviously your customers. You've got to go get some quick wins. Align employees and the product with the vision early on.

What does narrative mean to you?

I'm very much a believer that a narrative should teach people and challenge people to think differently. I'm working on one now. You've got to go out there and say "hey, I know you came to me to talk to me about email marketing but let me tell you - you have a bigger problem that you might not know about today." When you start to enlighten people on a narrative that really challenges their thinking, they're immediately going to notice that your company understands current problems, but also looks for the next big problem. That's the important thing: having a narrative that challenges a customer's current thinking and actually reframes them to think about the bigger problem and how your offering is going to be the right partner for them, both now and in the future.

How courageous is your current marketing?

One thing right now is pushing for change in the company, even though it's doing extremely well at the moment. I think that takes some bravery. My whole career largely deals with prepping-up a company for the next big act. I'm not a person that lives in the world today, I'm always thinking about the future. I have to know what the future is, and I would really want to move the company to be positioned well for that future. But that takes some bravery and guts to say, "We're doing great, but we're not positioned for the next big wave and we need to do this and that to do that."

Is there a formula for getting that future vision?

You have to first create a point of view on what the future is. First, I talk to a lot of customers, and a lot of people, and then I create my own point of view. I eventually start presenting my point of view to customers and employees, rather than just ask them, and I start to see how they react to that point of view. I have a lot of confidence in that view before I start presenting it, and then I can fine tune it. Then you need to go align your product roadmap, you need to orchestrate your services around that.

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