‘There’s still so much to do.’ Adobe CMO talks innovation, brand purpose and staying humble
Ann Lewnes has only worked at two companies in the last 33 years—20 at Intel and 13 as CMO of Adobe. This is an unusual track record for any professional but particularly remarkable for the revolving door that typically confronts senior marketers. But it is not her tenure that landed Lewnes in the Marketing Hall of Fame this year; it’s what she’s been able to accomplish, contributing to industry-leading growth at both organizations.
In our extensive interview, Lewnes speaks with humility about her recent accolades, passing along the credit to visionary and purpose-driven CEOs who gave her the latitude to experiment and build strong teams. An early adopter and then evangelist of digital marketing at Intel, Lewnes brought that same perspective to Adobe while recognizing the critical role employees and events play in building category-leading brands. Energized by Adobe’s recent acquisitions of Magento and Marketo, Lewnes is anything but resting on her laurels, noting “there's still so much to do.”
This past year, you were named as one of the world's most influential CMOs and elected to the Marketing Hall of Fame. How does that feel?
Well I don't know. I try to be humble. I think we've done some extraordinary things at both companies that I've been at. I've been fortunate to hit them both at a good time. I joined Intel just as it was really growing and the P.C. revolution was occurring—and Adobe just as the entire world wanted to become creative and wanted to measure the impact of marketing and understand what was going on in other digital channels. So, I attribute it a lot to my good timing but also to the amazing leadership of Andy Grove at Intel and then of Shantanu Narayen, my current boss at Adobe. And I've been blessed to be able to put together great teams at both companies.
Are there things that you wish you knew as a CMO 10 years ago?
That's such a good question. A long time ago, one of my first bosses told me, "Ann, you can't go to the mat for everything" and that's been a life lesson for me because I'm super passionate, and I always want to go and do the most extreme thing. Related to that, my current boss Shantanu Narayen said "there are flag planters in the world, and there are road builders. And Ann, you're a flag planter." And I think that really is very related to not going to the mat for everything. But I feel that my role has been to look out into the future, maybe make a crazy bet on digital marketing, and then be able to inspire the people around me, amass an incredible team, and try and get them there.
What have you learned that will surprise other CMOs?
One of the most important things is the blend of creativity and data. People ask me, does data kill creativity? The answer is an absolute no, because I've never met a creative that doesn't want to know how their work is being perceived. And I've never met an analyst that doesn't want to see the creative work harder. That's one of the things that I always encourage my peers to think about: don't go off and do these two things completely in silos. The magic happens when they're brought together. That's what we've done at Adobe that's really worked. We have analysts working side-by-side with creatives and brand marketers, and that's really what has made it work here.
Many companies are trying to be purpose-driven. What is Adobe’s purpose?
Our purpose is pretty simple and very grand. It is to change the world through digital experiences. When we first came up with it about 10 years ago, it was very aspirational. I think we've actually grown into it, and it's not just about enabling people to create and to use data effectively. It's about how they do it. At Adobe, it’s not just the “what”, it's the “how”. That's one of our internal slogans. How we do things is as important as what we actually accomplish. We're good people. And in the technology category we're known as being a really kind company. That's not always the case with a lot of other tech companies. We pride ourselves on it. We have a very aspirational mission, but I think we've done a pretty good job of making it happen.
Is employee engagement an important part of the way you think about your role?
Employee engagement is a huge part of what I think about and, in fact, the Employee Communications Group reports in to me, and they are in lockstep with our marketing efforts. And I am in lockstep with the head of that organization. From a recruitment perspective, your brand is so important. From a satisfaction perspective, your brand is so important. Our 20,000 employees are the biggest brand evangelists that we have. We want them to be out there, excited about the company.
What kinds of things have you done for employees?
We have a very progressive set of activities that we have been investing in. Whether it's very generous family leave policies, we just accomplished worldwide gender pay parity, which is unique, especially in the tech space. And we really celebrate these progressive policies, and our employees, as a result, are very happy. So, I think brand and people work hand-in-hand.
You recently expressed some surprise at how effective events are, so can you talk a bit more about that?
When I first came to Adobe, we were not doing very much digital marketing, which was shocking to me because I think we were doing much more at Intel. And when I looked into the ratios of how we were spending our money, events were a huge percentage. So, I said, “You know, we've got to stop doing all these events. I don't understand how we cannot be doing more digital marketing,” and initially we really pivoted a lot of the dollars from events.
Over time, it became so clear to me that events are the way people actually commune with each other. If you are a web analyst or a graphic designer, you want to be with your people. I think that live element of seeing the tech as we introduce it, of being with fellow analysts or fellow designers is visceral. Our events have grown every year, 20 percent, year over year. At our annual summit this year, we had 17,000 people live. The buzz and vibe at these shows is unbelievable; they get people super energized about the company, and they accelerate business. We also had 800,000 people stream it, which is extraordinary. And the same thing is happening in the creative space. So, I think that blend of offline events and online events and getting that ratio exactly right is what we're really striving for, but we're investing more than we ever have in events. Yes, I was surprised, but now, I've seen it for so many years that I know it works.