Adobe Summit 2021 - the marketing system of record takes center stage, but what do customers think?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 28, 2021
Adobe Summit 2021 day one was loaded with content, but one topic surged into my view: the marketing system of record. But why this term, and why now? More importantly, what do customers have to say?

Adobe Summit - Lincoln Financial
(Lincoln Financial (right) at Adobe Summit '20)

Virtual events are notorious for being light on news. I'm not sure you can say that about Adobe Summit 2021.

My colleague Phil Wainewright's keynote review is packed with updates. We haven't even delved into the "cookieless future" privacy debate - a topic of intense interest to Adobe Summit attendees.

Meanwhile, I was tracking Adobe's positioning of Workfront. Some Workfront fans expressed concern to me: that Workfront would be swallowed by Adobe, or appear as an afterthought, on a smaller stage somewhere.

That wasn't the case. Workfront received prominent notice in the keynote. Immediately following, Alex Shootman, CEO Workfront, an Adobe company, delivered his own keynote, Powering the Work Behind Customer Experiences.

Why a marketing system of record?

Why is Workfront central to Adobe's future? Amidst the "personalized customer experience" messaging we all expected, Adobe made one thing clear: it's time for a marketing system of record. Why now? I believe it starts with a problem statement. On a slide that circulated widely, Adobe laid it out. Marketing challenges are universal:

  • The pace of content is relentless - every customer touchpoint is impacted.
  • Customers demand more - personalization at scale must (somehow) be achieved.
  • Internal alignment is elusive - marketing teams must be able to adapt on the fly.
  • Wasted time causes burnout - manual processes and broken communication take their toll.
  • Compliance is critical - misery is just one audit or data privacy mistake away.

(The bold content above is Adobe's; the editorial after each one is my riff).

How can marketers overcome? Adobe believes a marketing system of record gives customers a leg up on all (Work)fronts. As Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said during his keynote:

With the combined strength of Adobe Experience Cloud, and marketing workflow tools provided by Adobe Workfront, we're announcing the first true marketing system of record. A marketing system of record provides one place for connecting and managing work across the entire lifecycle, a central unifying solution to share ideas, manage content creation, automate complex marketing processes, and allocate resources to drive exceptional marketing efficiency and effectiveness.

Yes, that is a mouthful, but the central emphasis on Workfront is clear (Narayen then shifted into a compelling interview with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla). Now, I can think of a couple other CX vendors that would take issue with the characterization of Adobe as the only "true marketing system of record."

To be bluntly honest, vendor smack talk doesn't concern me. What does concern me: how does the marketing system of record message go over with customers? During subsequent sessions with Adobe Workfront customers, I had the chance to find out.

Poly - "we rely on a marketing system of record for full transparency"

One frequent presenter: the team from Poly (formerly Plantronics and Polycom). During Shootman's keynote, he asked Jenifer Salzwedel, Senior Director, Marketing Operations and Enablement at Poly, for an update on how they've fared. She responded:

At Poly, our marketing system of record is what we end up relying on for full transparency and visibility - as to what the plans are, what currently is being worked on. We have the Workfront system of record. We will dip in and out quite often to see how things are going.

The pandemic put Poly's marketing workfow to a stress test like no other. Salzwedel continued:

We heavily relied on [Workfront] at the beginning of the pandemic. We had to quickly pivot, and look at what the plans were for marketing, and evaluate how were we going to shift gears, and all of a sudden target a whole new customer, which is the end user working from home, to make sure that they were aware of these great solutions that we make -  to help them continue to be professional and collaborate from home.

On-the-ground events were huge lead generators - suddenly gone. Saldzwedel's team had to press on, doing more with less:

We were asked to take on 75% more work over our normal run rate, without adding an additional resource to the mix. So that is trying to be as efficient as possible. That is a reflection of the automation that we've put in place. It's a reflection of everybody knowing where their work is, what needs to be worked on, and the priorities of that work.

Lincoln Financial Group - marketing systems must provide work visibility

This topic came up again in a joint presentation with Lincoln Financial Group, and their consulting partner, LeapPoint. Don McAdang, Managing Director, LeapPoint, hit on the issue first, with a comparison we heard often from Adobe on day one (McAdang is pictured left in the feature image above). If ERP, CRM, and manufacturing have systems of record, shouldn't marketing? As McAdang put it:

Everything that goes on in marketing needs a centralized work system of record. Our organizations have other systems of record, including those for finance, for customers, for HR and IT - it only makes sense that we also need a work system of record to manage marketing and enterprise work. Without this, it is very difficult to manage.

Legacy systems, spreadsheet-diving, and the chaos of email management aren't getting it done. McAdang shared his own end user experience:

I spent 15 years in marketing and creative services at Charles Schwab, where I implemented Workfront. Before we had Workfront, we actually used physical job jackets to facilitate the creative process, passing color-printed creative with approval sheets, and passing these jackets from one desk to another. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who came from that era of marketing.

Then the pull quote:

Can you imagine how marketing could even operate that way in today's virtual world?


Today, marketers need to collaborate beyond their immediate areas, across an enterprise - and sometimes even with stakeholders outside of their organization.

Big clue here: that means a marketing system of record isn't just for marketers - it must be expansive and collaborative. Otherwise, it's just going to be one more software island, submerged in the bog pit of martech systems.

Liz Tarter, AVP, Marketing Operations, Lincoln Financial, has experienced that bog pit firsthand (Tarter is pictured right in the feature image). As she told attendees:

Prior to implementing Workfront. We had an old FileMaker system we had used for about ten years. We realized it was not a tier one asset. It wasn't going to be able to scale to meet the changing needs of our business.

We needed a system that provided visibility into the work, so we could see who's working on what, and the turnaround times, and how long things were taking... We needed a system that was flexible. We wanted to be able to make changes on the fly, in terms of fields and reporting.

Lastly, we wanted a system that could take care of changes, and the type of work we were doing. We were shifting from more traditional types of work into more digitally focused types of work. We wanted to be able to continue to capture that type of work in a platform. Workfront was able to solve all these issues and criteria and requirements for us.

My take - a marketing system of record is not the final stop

The third customer session I attended, featuring Disney, did not explicitly mention the phrase system of record. But there was plenty of talk about the kind of marketing agility Disney needed - in response to a pandemic that disrupted a big chunk of their business model (I'll share more of their story in my next writeup).

All in all, I heard enough to confirm Workfront's central role in Adobe's forward plans. From the day one sessions, it's clear that "marketing system of record" is not a creation of Adobe's marketing team, but a credible concept that customers can wrap their heads around, and embrace. Even when they don't use the phrase, it's a big part of what they're pushing for.

For my part, I'd challenge Adobe to take this further. If we're serious about a transformed/resilient enterprise, we need an underlying workflow, and, perhaps, a universal data model across these systems of record (or, at least, an analytics and machine learning overlay on top). Establishing another system of record makes sense, but we should not lose track of this bigger problem. 

This is an area where Workfront can surely play. As diginomica contributor Brian Sommer put it in an email:

This Workfront/Adobe solution is more relevant today as the pandemic has triggered all kinds of changes in the nature of work... If how and where we work is changing, we need a different kind of toolset that connects people to the correct task at the right time.

So, what I'm seeing at this event (and elsewhere) is a need to rethink work and how it gets done. New solutions must take out the latency of work, the waste in out-of-date processes and the re-work... The old office automation tools weren't designed for this world - a post-pandemic world.

I realize Adobe's strength is in marketing and media. I hope they push their solutions outwardly towards more aspects of a business. Goodness knows that modern firms need this capability in more than just the Marketing department.

Well put.

Final note on integration: you may be wondering about the brass tacks of Adobe/Workfront integration. The good news for Adobe customers: via Adobe APIs and Workfront Fusion, there is already a proven path to integration. While I didn't see any sessions dedicated specifically to Adobe-Workfront integration, if you join the show this week and attend the Adobe Workfront sessions, you should be able to engage on those questions via real-time chat (unless the session is a replay). The customer use cases I viewed all spoke to this issue in some way as well. I'm sure you can catch those replays after the show as well.

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