Marty Homlish Knows Why CMOs Don't Last

If You're Not Embedded Into Corporate DNA, You'll Never Succeed, He Says

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Martin Homlish is a rare breed of CMO who can measure his tenure in years, not months. Following 15 years at Sony, where he led, among other things, the launch of PlayStation, Mr. Homlish joined SAP, a business-software company, in June 2000.
SAP AG Global Chief Marketing Officer Martin Homlish
SAP AG Global Chief Marketing Officer Martin Homlish
Nearly eight years later, as global chief marketing officer of SAP AG, president-CEO of SAP Global Marketing and corporate officer of SAP Group, he is leading a company whose brand value was $10.9 billion in 2007, up 77% since the year he came aboard, according to BusinessWeek/Interbrand annual brand rankings.

On the heels of receiving the 2008 BRITE Jury Award for "Big Thinker" from Columbia Business School, where he is a guest lecturer, Mr. Homlish sat down for an exclusive interview with Ad Age to discuss his tenure, the critical issues for which CMOs are responsible within an organization, the talent required to staff an effective marketing organization, and why and how marketing must be a fundamental cornerstone of any business.

Advertising Age: You've been in your position for seven years. That makes you an anomaly among CMOs, whose average tenure is little more than 24 months. To what do you attribute your staying power?

Martin Homlish: I actually think that what we've been able to do is continue to reinvent marketing at SAP. I just spent an hour on the phone with our deputy CEO; I shared with him something that we're doing in two weeks: We are creating a virtual trial of a Sapphire event that we will be launching within our own marketing community.

We have a lot of bright young people working for us in the marketing organization. There is a lot of need for people who understand new media, for young people who will push us. I had this vision that I would like us to be able to leverage the power of new media -- whether internet, satellite TV, VoIP -- and find a way that we could leverage all of that and create a virtual event. We've never done this. This is literally creating a model -- testing it for our internal people. I would like to be able to scale this.

So back to your question of why am I still here: The answer is we really haven't gotten stale. We continue to push, and I continue to surround myself with the brightest and the best and, quite frankly, a lot of young people who eat, sleep and breathe this new connected economy.

The other thing is, I am personally inquisitive about new technology and new markets and the social implications of new technology. I spent 15 years at Sony. I led the launch of the compact disc, of PlayStation, of GPS navigation. I've always been a gizmologist. I drive our IT guy here crazy because I want this, I want that.

I don't think it's a matter of age; it's a matter of attitude. And here on the marketing side, I've always pushed it, in some cases sooner than the company is ready. When I got here, we had no marketing team. We had a product-marketing team but no brand-marketing team. It was an engineering culture. It was all product- and engineering-based. One of the things I think we've been able to do over the years is speak to and become the voice of the customer. And what's important is not understanding just the customer but the end user, the person sitting in front of the screen.

Ad Age: Where are you finding the "bright, young people" you referred to?

Mr. Homlish: At university, in the agency business, and we have a very robust internship program here that I personally sponsor. We probably bring in 20 to 25 interns a year. We pair them up with an executive sponsor. We give them an actual project. And then they report their findings out to the senior leadership team.

One of the other things we've done is hire someone out of our technology and development side -- he was responsible for actually building customer demos. His role now is working directly for me and interfacing with board members and my office and all of my staff.

Ad Age: You seem to have a lot of responsibility beyond brand advertising. What do you believe CMOs must take charge of within their organizations in order to be successful?

Mr. Homlish: I believe that as the CMO, I truly am responsible and accountable for nurturing, growing and protecting the brand of this company. I don't own the brand, I don't define the brand, but I am responsible for nurturing, growing and protecting it.

And I also am responsible for providing recommendations to the board regarding directions for the brand. And I am responsible for the voice of the customer, our partner ecosystem and the voice of the SAP community, and sometimes you have to make some tough decisions. For example, when we do a Sapphire event, I review every piece of creative for that event. I review every sign, I review the color of the carpet on the floor, every slide that goes on the stage, every seat. And given the standards, whether it's the CEO or a sales trainer, if the slides are wrong, I will say, "Change the slides; they do not conform with the brand message."

Ad Age: You work for a B-to-B company now, but you previously worked at Sony, handling such consumer-facing marketing initiatives as the launch of Sony PlayStation. Based on your experience, is the B-to-B world kinder to CMOs? Meaning, do boards and shareholders have more patience when it comes to seeing results?

Mr. Homlish: Behind every B-to-B company is a consumer. The way you communicate to that person, you have to communicate to that person as an informed consumer. The line between B-to-C and B-to-B is blurring; it's disappearing.

I have to show results every year. Every year I present a plan to the board, the board approves it and then I live or die by the plan. And we've beat every plan for the last seven years.

Responsibility for short tenure, I put it right on the CMO. If you really don't understand the responsibility you have in owning the power of the brand, and you don't communicate that to the board, you will never be successful.

Successful marketers truly must understand the convergence of product, brand promise and experience. It is their responsibility to get the company to understand that convergence. Anyone sitting in front of a screen using our software is probably also using Google, is on Amazon, on Facebook; so that experience in the Web 2.0 world -- that is their experience. And those are the experiences that help the influencers in the B-to-B world make a decision.

That audience, that Gen Y, is going to be our future target. So what has that audience grown up with? Instant communication -- the communication is absolutely critical. You can't talk at them, you must talk with them. So as B-to-B marketers, you'd better be sure you understand that, and when you do tell the truth, you'd better tell them in a voice that is right for that audience.

Ad Age: How would you characterize marketing's role or status within your company? Is it fundamental to the way it operates as a business or do you find yourself having to defend it or make a case for its importance?

Mr. Homlish: If you work at SAP, you either make stuff, you sell stuff or you help people make or sell stuff. Marketing is in the middle. Our job is to provide insight to the people who make stuff. Then our job is to take what they've created and translate the features and functions into stunningly clear business insight for the right audience at the right time with the right voice and the right message. But then we help the people sell stuff. We extract insight, and then the real secret is taking insight, converting that into foresight and then converting that into competitive advantage. Then you go back to the people who make stuff and say, "Here's what you could be doing better."

You can't be a CMO and be successful if you don't understand the business of the company and if you are not directly embedded in the DNA of the business of the company.

If you bring value to the executives and the organization, then it's pretty easy for people to say, "You get it." It's not that complicated. Before I came here, at Sony, I was not a CMO. I was a line-level business manager, president of five different operating companies at Sony. I ran the P&Ls. I always loved marketing, but my whole career before I came here I was a line-level manager. So whenever I approach my CMO-ness, I totally approach it from a business-first perspective, because that's the way I was trained. I understand what it's like to run a subsidiary.

The final thing is, my people know that we and marketing are a services-based organization. Our only reason for existing is to provide services for this organization. We do not create marketing for the sake of marketing.

Ad Age: What is the most basic marketing tenet or philosophy you work by?

Mr. Homlish: It's so simple: The most obvious and most important is to be a truth teller. You cannot market to any audience if you can't speak the truth as that audience sees the truth. So the first tenet is to understand the audience. And the second tenet is once you understand the audience, tell them the truth. And then tell them the truth in a language they can embrace and then tell them the message with a call to action. So if you're selling business software, at the end of the day, the goal is to sell more stuff, make more money, do it with less expense. It doesn't matter what we're selling but it's got to be visible in the audience that were talking to.

To tell the truth is the single most important tenet. And it's not about just telling the truth but it's about telling it in the right way. This is always a challenge for marketing, and sometimes what happens is people push it too far and too fast. So even if companies are telling the truth, the delivery mechanism might not be believable. For example, a car company decided to use a heavy-metal rock band as their spokesperson for this audience, but their target was white, male, upper-middle-class and age 55 to 65. They were telling the truth about the vehicle, but if you were the target audience, you probably couldn't relate. The voice of the target audience was probably 35 to 45; the real target was 55 to 65. And what I believe happened was there was no resonance with the real target audience, and there was a counterproductive backlash from the audience that understood the campaign.
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