How Adobe Stays Fresh as a Renegade Marketer

­After 13 years at Adobe, Ann Lewnes has demonstrated a knack for being a renegade marketer, and keeping her marketing fresh and effective. The same can be said for her 2 decades at Intel immediately prior. That tenure is exceptional, but somewhat unusual for the marketing field, where there’s more pressure to rotate staff in to bring new ideas to the table. But, it isn’t her tenure alone that landed her in the AMA Marketing Hall of Fame, it’s what she accomplished during said tenure.

In this interview, Lewnes discusses with humility her recent success in the world of CMO awards, and shares how her collaboration with visionary and purpose-driven CEOs gave her room to experiment and build strong teams. As an early adopter of digital, a strong proponent of event marketing, and a devotee to the nurturing a team of employees, Lewnes is working on cementing her legacy and continuing to build on it.

The Marketing Hall of Fame—what an accomplishment.

Well, I don’t know. I try to be humble. 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.

Is there anything you would’ve liked to know, as a CMO, getting started?

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.” 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. 

Companies are trying to emphasize purpose more—is Adobe as well?

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.

How has employee engagement factored into your marketing?

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.

How have your own employee engagement manifested?

We have a very progressive set of activities that we have been investing in.  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.

Can you discuss your more recent event efforts?

When I first came to Adobe, we were not doing very much digital marketing, which was shocking to me—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.

What shifted?

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 seventeen thousand 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 eight hundred thousand people stream it, which is extraordinary. And the same thing is happening in the creative space. Getting that ratio of offline events and online events 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.

You published an article with Kevin Lane Keller in April called the 10 Principles of Modern Marketing in the M.I.T. Sloan Management Review. We don’t have time to cover all 10, but let’s start with the one that you think will surprise most CMOs.

One of the most important things is the blend of creativity and data. And I know that people ask, it’s the eternal question, does data kill creativity? And 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. And so, I think 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. And I think that’s what we’ve done at Adobe that’s really worked. We have side-by-side analysts working with creatives and brand marketers, and I think that’s really what has made it work here.

You talked about this new type of customer relationship. Where are marketers coming up short in this area?

In the technology business I will say it’s a little bit simpler because we do have very engaged customers from a digital perspective. They’re online and they are letting you know what they think pretty frequently. I would say it’s important to figure out, again, what the high value conversations you can have with your customer are. One thing that we’ve done very effectively is co-create with our community. And now this isn’t going to always be applicable across all industries, but I’ll give you a couple of examples. Our community and creative community love to make things, and they love to show off the things they make. And so, we give them weekly challenge is to show off their work. So we’ll post a social challenge. We just did one with actor and now director Zach Braff where we asked folks in our community, “design a poster, and Zach Braff is going to pick the best poster and make a short film about it”. And so, we get thousands of amazing submissions from people who want to show off their work and then we pick a winner, and that person actually got to work with Zach Braff on a film. And there are endless challenges. We’re doing one now with a very cool young female musician named Billie Eilish, and that’s a totally different segment because this is gonna be a much younger audience that wants to engage in that activity. We’re doing them literally every week.

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