NetSuite's Fred Studer - a CMO calling 'BS' on marketing, but does everyone buy in?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 23, 2015
NetSuite's CMO wants to call 'BS' on marketing and move to conversations with customers, but that's a mindset shift that not everyone is able to make.

Fred Studer
Fred Studer

When last I met up with Fred Studer, he was a man who looked in pursuit of a stiff drink and a long sleep.

That was on the last day of the SuiteWorld conference in May and the NetSuite CMO was coming down from a three day event that had been markedly different to previous conferences staged by the firm.

Last week I caught up with Studer in a rare moment of downtime at the Dreamforce conference, where there was evident admiration for the sheer scale of the Salesforce event. While Salesforce and Oracle close down downtown San Francisco, SuiteWorld is still on a smaller scale, fitting comfortably for now into the San Jose Convention Center.

But while the scale may be smaller, the ambition is not. Studer was brought on to NetSuite last December with a brief to do some radical rethinking about its approach to marketing. I spoke to him earlier this year about his thesis around telling stories around the corporate campfire rather than hard-sell pitching and NetSuite name-checking in presentations.

It was that principle that was intended to underpin this year’s SuiteWorld and, as I noted at the time, there was certainly a tangibly different vibe to the 2015 conference. Studer says that this was also the feedback from the sales team, some of whom were understandably nervous about being moved out of their comfort zone.

But Studer has a mandate from the top:

[NetSuite CEO] Zach [Nelson] is a good marketer. My goal is to move the company into a modern marketing structure and to create more modern marketing. Zack told me, ‘You’re called the CMO so you’re allowed to do these things’. That hit a confidence pivot and gave us all a positive feeling to pursue this new narrative.

It’s a shift in his mindset as well, he admits:

Like Zach, I’m a marketer who trained under [Oracle CEO] Larry [Ellison]. Marketing at Oracle in those days was not so much about the wider market trends. It was about teaching the field sales operation what they had to say. They needed unbreakable customer messages so that they had the confidence to go out and pitch them.

At NetSuite, the challenge is to introduce field sales to disruptive ideas and platforms and enable them to have a different sort of conversation with customers. That’s an important transition to make and one that not everyone’s going to be able to cope with. Studer explains:

We haven’t kept everybody. There were a lot of people who just weren’t going to make that jump to light speed.

Even in the best of all star sports teams, they often fail because people don’t want to play together. They all have stardom in their past and they want that reflected. It’s not an inability to collaborate, but a lack of desire to. You have to find your all star quality individuals and get them to co-operate.

But those individuals need to be ready to throw off conventional thinking, he adds:

You have to basically be ready to call bullshit on our marketing profession, which has been built on making things seem better than they are. One of the key pivots has to be marketing with integrity.

Out of marketing?

That sort of thinking meant that Studer, who left Oracle to move to Microsoft, nearly slipped out of marketing altogether. He says bluntly:

When I left Microsoft, I did not want to do marketing anymore. I was interested in product strategy or business development roles. The marketing profession had been bastardised by bad marketing. It wasn’t bad people intentionally doing bad things, but that’s just the way it was.

Does SAP have bad products? I don’t think so. They have a massive set of products that are very complex and a lot of customers were left with the wrong expectations about things that didn’t do what they were expected to do.

What changed his mind with NetSuite was finding a broad and fairly blank canvas on which to work, but at a company that had a well-established product line and customer base as well as a big enough revenue stream and an executive team that was willing to try something new and acknowledge one truth:

NetSuite didn’t have the recognition it deserved. People hadn’t heard of it to the degree that they should have, both in the US and in Europe. We do have strength in Europe, but it has come from the US. We’ve positioned ourselves at global companies who are based in the US. The functionality of OneWorld enabled us to do that from the US.

More recently there have been moves to up the presence in Europe, with the acquisition of UK-based Venda and the (nearly there) opening of a data center in the region. (More likely to come on that topic next month when Netsuite hosts a cloud day in London.)

There’s even talk - at last - of a CMO for Europe, someone who can evangelise the gospel according to NetSuite. This is something that has been sorely lacking in comparison to the likes of Oracle and Salesforce when they made their moves into the European markets:

It would be someone who isn’t just good at executing on campaigns, but who understands the pain points of regional needs and can work to communicate our ideas and stories. We need to be having conversations that can become content.

For his part, if he gets his way, Studer might yet shake off the CMO title:

I want to change the title to Chief Customer Advocate. I want to be a story creator and then create the communities around which stories can be told. I want us to be co-authors with our customers. If we do that, then we can get to the position where we don’t even have to be the stories.

Actually, he concludes, stories maybe isn’t the right word:

We need to have conversations with customers that can become content. So it’s not a story so much. People attribute stories to fiction. Marketing needs to have integrity.

My take

Studer's admission that not everyone has been along for the ride on the re-invention of NetSuite's marketing is a stark confession that speaks to the determination to get this right by the senior management team at the firm. As for the intention to get a CMO on the ground in Europe, I can only applaud this move. Companies such as NetSuite, pitching into international markets, need a dedicated 'evangelical' voice on the ground to set out the stall all year round. This has been something that NetSuite has lacked over the years and has most likely contributed to the lack of due brand recognition to which Studer alludes.

Disclosure - at time of writing, Oracle, NetSuite, Salesforce and SAP are all premier partners of diginomica.

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