Lessons learned from Adobe's shift to digital marketing

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright October 4, 2015
The shift to digital marketing brings big changes to the way you work, but the fundamentals haven't changed, Adobe's former brand chief tells diginomica

John Travis Adobe VP EMEA marketing 250px
John Travis, Adobe

Customers making the shift to digital marketing using Adobe's trio of Cloud suites — Creative, Document and Marketing — have the reassurance of knowing they are following in the vendor's own footsteps. While some fundamentals never change, the shift demands a new mindset, says John Travis, who spent eight years as the company's VP of brand marketing before moving to London this summer to take up a new role as VP EMEA marketing.

Travis took to the stage in front of customers at an Adobe event in London last week to give an insight into the lessons learned during a multi-year process of moving to digital, which now accounts for three-quarters of Adobe's global marketing spend. In contrast to the preceding product demonstration, this wasn't about technology but about organization and culture, as he explained when I met him afterwards:

These are the things I like to talk about, because I think a lot of the marketing events that people go to, [there's] a lot of technology, a lot of products.

It's the culture, it's the skillset, it's the other things, that I think are so critical to actually utilizing the technology.

Always-on marketing

Much of the culture change Travis spoke of is driven by the switch to what he called a mindset of "always-on marketing." The effects of having a constant stream of data coming through from digital platforms have been far-reaching.

  • Adobe's campaign management process has gone from multi-month planning and execution timescales to weekly meetings that review the latest data. Any changes agreed are implemented the next day and then measured for discussion the following week.
  • The need for accurate data on which to base decisions led to the recruitment of a cadre of new specialists to create a central marketing data team. This was crucial to ensure everyone works from a single, trusted dataset.
  • Most important of all, the new pattern of rapid-fire evaluation and response has brought in a culture of intensive cross-collaboration between marketing, product management, IT, and others.

All departments contribute to the weekly review meetings and there's a common sense of purpose, said Travis, which puts a premium on collaboration skills.

Team-building and [being able to] influence and get along with others, that's critical.

Those are things that when we first started transitioning, we weren't thinking about, we didn't realize the extent of the culture change that would take place.

Maybe it was easier for us, than maybe other companies who don't have such a collaborative culture to begin with, but still, for us, it was a challenge. It took a number of years to make happen.

The need for speed meant that, as well as the new data team, Adobe brought many creative and campaign management skills in-house that had previously been fulfilled by outside agencies. Adobe still works with agencies but the relationships have changed, said Travis.

We do more in-house because it's the only way we can react quickly. I can't call an agency every time I need to change something on an email. I just don't have time.

But what's interesting is I think our agency relationship is now even more strategic. They have also had to change the type of people they bring in to service our account, because I don't need the data analysts anymore. I need planners, I need creatives, I need thinkers, I need social practitioners.

It's a different world, for them as well as for us.

Co-creating the brand

Another consequence of having much richer, more immediate feedback is that the marketing team has had to let go of its traditional inclination to make sure everything was perfect before it went out. The ability to test different ideas and take a more iterative approach gives the opportunity to find out what works by trial and error — but it was a difficult adjustment to make, said Travis.

That was so much bigger than we realized, in terms of your willingness to put up five or six different web-pages, or let's run four different advertisements, try some new things.

That's risky, because marketers have always been somewhat risk-averse. That was another cultural mindset as much as a process change.

There was a similar adjustment to the loss of control required to participate effectively in social media.

The early days of social was very controlled — 'You can't say anything unless it's this exact message.'

That's not going to work, for a number of reasons. It doesn't scale, it's not genuine. If people are going to engage with Adobe, they want to feel like they want to talk to real people, have real opinions.

Adobe has now given employees the freedom to express themselves on social media, he said, with a center of excellence publishing best practices and messaging guidelines that they refer to.

We let employees get out there and engage. We don't control them, because we feel we want a genuine relationship with people. So that was also a change for us.

That social media engagement is a crucial part of the marketing mix today, with more than 25 million following Adobe on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It's a valuable segment in terms of revenue, driving almost a fifth of Creative Cloud unit sales, according to Adobe's data.

These are the people that engage with us and engage with each other and talk about Adobe, so we've been very focused on that. Not just the number, the number's great, but the value of the relationship and the conversation.

Nothing's changed?

These are all big changes, but Travis ended his presentation by reassuring his audience that despite all these new factors, the essence of marketing remains the same. He explained to me why he had taken this stance:

It's not about throwing everything that you've learned the last twenty years out the window.

It's about evolution, it's about transformation, but the foundation is still there.

Here's a brief summary of his five thoughts on this theme:

  • Brand still matters — but instead of tight control, you have to co-create the brand with your community.
  • Market research — the data now allows us to econometrically model campaigns pre-launch, fine-tune them throughout and then prove the campaign ROI.
  • Media — the mix has expanded along with the synergy across different media and the ability to embed direct engagement into new formats such as mobile.
  • The customer is king — but no longer in the context of individual, one-off transactions, they're now part of a self-directed community.
  • Creativity still matters — marketing will never be done by robots.

My take

The cultural changes that Travis describes are familiar territory to anyone who's made the move from conventional software automation to new digital platforms in any field. Instant feedback leads to more iterative projects, which in turn drives cross-functional collaboration. More engaged customers then demand more participation.

It starts with technology but the resulting transformation completely changes how everyone works. And yes, the basic fundamentals remain the same but the processes that deliver them are very different.

Image credits: Marketing direction megaphone to digital cogs © bakhtiarzein – Fotolia.com; headshot courtesy of Adobe.