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What Makes a Marketing Champion? An Interview With Matt Strain of Adobe

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Matt Strain is director of worldwide relationship marketing at Adobe, where after just three years he is recognized as a Marketing Champion who adds financial value to the company.

He has had a distinguished career in technology marketing and recently took time to share his thoughts about what makes him successful and offered advice to fellow marketers for getting ahead in our challenging and competitive field.

Roy Young: How long have you worked for Adobe and what is your role now?

Matt Strain: I've been with Adobe for nearly three years. I sit in the corporate marketing team and work closely with our business unit and field marketing partners to plan and execute our relationship marketing programs for our creative professional, hobbyist, education, and mobile customers.

RY: How many years have you worked in marketing overall? What's your educational and business background?


MS: I've been in marketing-related roles since I graduated Holy Cross with a political science degree in '86. After graduating, I headed to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, compliments of a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation. Shortly after landing, I pitched Apple on a short project and stayed with them for 10 years. As Apple's business grew I had the opportunity to work in education marketing, channel development, market development, country management, and technology licensing. In '96, just before Hong Kong returned to China, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I loved the optimism and experimentation of the late '90s. I worked for several startups that focused on information retrieval, e-commerce, and marketing automation. The experience of raising and spending VC funding was invaluable in learning how to evaluate risk in a very tangible, very focused way.

In 2002, intrigued with the micro-targeting opportunities of search, I joined Alta Vista as director of strategic marketing.

In 2005 I joined Adobe and have been incredibly impressed on several fronts: a strong focus on doing the right thing for the customer, developing innovative, world-class products and technologies, and taking a leadership position in responsible business practices.

RY: To what do you attribute your success in marketing?

MS: For me, success means working in an area that makes it exciting to get up in the morning. This requires great people, excellent products, engaged customers, and challenging business issues.

The broad areas that enable success are...

  • Customer insight—understanding what motivates my customers. This includes understanding what distinguishes a highly profitable customer from a less profitable one and how customers interact with one another in the online and offline worlds.
  • Understanding the data—Understand the analytics and financials that connect the customers with the bottom line. The integration of test-and-learn practices into marketing is part of this.
  • Use of enabling technologies—What are the new tools that help to connect with customers? How can we use technology to understand customers' behavioral and purchase patterns and help foster loyalty?

I also believe that true success means making a positive difference on a global scale.

RY: How have you had to transform as a marketing professional to continue to be effective?

MS: Again, this is the focus on the customer and understanding the link between customer motivation, marketing action, and measurable value to the company.

One of the most rapid areas of change is figuring out how to change how we engage with customers in a relevant, genuine manner. This means being able to answer these questions:

  • Where do customers gather (user groups, conferences, social networks, etc.)?
  • Whom do they trust and where do they get their information (companies, press, peers, influencers)?
  • How do they buy and why (retail, online, licensing, through a purchasing manager, bundled with other services)?

Understand, but remain curious/skeptical of the data. Customers and companies are complex, irrational beings that don't always fit well into a field of a database.

RY: In your career, what has been your most satisfying marketing achievement?

MS: My most satisfying and the epiphany moment came early on. I was young and selling to the heads of computer science departments twice my age in the universities in Hong Kong. We expected customers to pay while our main competitor, IBM, gave away entire PC lab. The turning point came on a warm afternoon at a picnic table in Wollongong, Australia. One of the icons in educational computing from Carnegie Mellon turned to my most important prospect and chided him, "What?! You don't have a Mac lab. How can you expect to have a world class program without Macs?" My job just became a lot easier. This conversation played out again and again over throughout the conference. Within six months, each of the universities in Hong Kong had had a Mac lab.

RY: Please describe one marketing initiative you are working on now that you find particularly exciting.

MS: I'm very excited about Adobe's Hosted Services Strategies and the opportunities this presents to engage with our customers in a much more relevant way. The merging of the online and offline worlds combined with Adobe's underlying technologies presents a tremendous opportunity to change the way people create and engage.

RY: Of the marketers you have respected most, what made them effective?

MS: I'm most impressed by marketers who remain curious, take educated risk, and strive to do the right thing.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Keith Reinhard, the Chairman Emeritus of BBDO. We were participating in a group of about 15 at a digital story telling workshop in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. We all met for the first time at lunch in Antigua. Within minutes, Keith, the "most mature" at the table, was engaged with Elin, a savvy 15-year-old, absorbing her thoughts on the pros and cons of various multiplayer storytelling platforms. This thirst for learning and understanding is just one example of what I saw throughout the week and is undoubtedly the same curiosity that led to his developing "You Deserve a Break Today" for McDonalds.

I also respect marketers who are taking risk and redesigning their business models that deliver a solid return while striving to make a positive impact on the world. Patagonia and Virgin are examples of this.

RY: What is the greatest challenge you and your marketing colleagues face today?

MS: Relevance. In a time when customers are inundated with messages and demands on their time, it's critical that brands are relevant, authentic, and engaging.

We're also entering a period where global issues are coming to the forefront of marketing. Marketers have to answer the question of what it means to "do the right thing" for the customers, environment, and shareholders.

RY: In general, what do you think is the single biggest constraint facing corporate marketing departments today?

MS: The ability to link marketing activities to an increase in customer value.

Specifically, one of my challenges (in 2008) is developing a model to track and articulate the value of social media and community engagement.

Today, the community is able to place judgment on our programs and products long before formal results are available. We see this today on blogs, review sites, and YouTube. Today on YouTube there are over 48,000 videos tagged with Photoshop and many that have well over 1 million views.

RY: What do you think are the factors most influencing the short tenure of today's CMOs?

MS: Setting and exceeding expectations. Unlike sales where you have a revenue goal or engineering where you have a feature set and ship date, CMOs struggle with defining and communicating their value. This can be especially true where change is measured across quarters or even years in the case of launching a brand.

RY: In your experience, what has made marketing influential and powerful in an organization? Please provide an example, if possible.

MS: In my experience, power comes from being able to connect what we do to a better customer experience and increased value for the company. Being able to assign value to specific customer behaviors—downloading a trial, attending a seminar, engaging with a rich internet application—allows us to show the value of marketing activities at all stages of the funnel.

RY: What changes do you expect to face in your work over the next three years?

MS: There are three main areas:

  1. Power shifts from brands to customers. An accelerating shift in power from brands to customers in which customers will have a stronger role in driving the conversation and ultimately how companies prioritize their marketing and product investments. The proliferation of product reviews, rating sites, and social media is driving this.
  2. Ubiquity across screens. The distinction between online, offline, and mobile products/services continue to shrink. Adobe's Open Screen Project, which is working to enable a consistent runtime environment across desktops, phones, mobile Internet devices, and set-top boxes, is an example of the development in this area.
  3. Integration of hosted services means the lines between products and services will continue to blur... [and] traditional products will have online extensions and more connectedness across online services.

At the end of the day, successful marketing will continue to be about delivering relevant, useful, genuine engagement with the customers.

RY: What do you like most about your work now?

MS: At the highest level we have the opportunity to change the world by making it easier for everyone—from professional creatives to hobbyists to teachers to business people—to more easily convey what is important to them. This could be the next great documentary, a killer Web site, an inspiring lecture, or an innovative business idea.

At the day-to-day level, I love finding new ways to engage with customers and being able to show that what we do adds value to customers' and the company's bottom line.

RY: What do you look for in people you hire and promote?

MS: Curiosity. Are they curious about the customers, the business, and are they continuing to learn?

Competence. Do they have solid domain expertise and a proven track record?

Adaptability. Are they a good all-around team player that can succeed as the business changes?

Sense of humor. Can they keep things in perspective?

RY: What was the best professional advice you ever received and from whom did you receive it?

MS: The best advice came as I was graduating from college and trying to figure out how to work abroad. While many professors recommended the safe route of joining a large company in the US and working a few years in the hopes of being transferred abroad, Professor Vanicelli looked at me, shook his head, and implored in a heavy Italian accent, "Matthew, Go. Go. If you want to work abroad, then why don't you go!?"

RY: How do you celebrate a job well done?

MS: After our recent wildly successful launch of Adobe's CS3 products, I took my team and key agency partners for a day of sailing in Santa Cruz. I wanted to do something that would get the team out their routine and in a dynamic environment. We then wrapped the day with a few drinks on the sun-drenched deck on the beach.

RY: If you weren't working in marketing, what would you be doing?

MS: I don't make a big distinction between marketing, sales, and business development. It's all about understanding what motivates people and engaging with them. However, if I weren't doing working in an office in San Francisco, I would love working on a mountaintop in Nepal.

RY: When you are not in the office, where can you usually be found?

MS: My family with two young kids is a huge part of my life. An ideal weekend day involves biking with my daughter, kayaking with my son, or hiking with the whole crew.

RY: Describe one of your favorite eureka moments as it relates to marketing. What was it and what was the outcome?

MS: It was early on at Apple when I realized that we (sales and marketing) are not in this alone. We have a community of customers and partners who want to see us succeed. The experience with Apple's University Consortium was a perfect example of how we can work smarter, not harder. It was also clear that we offered our customers a unique example—the opportunity to network with peers from around the world in a relaxed, non-threatening environment.

RY: What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning his or her career in marketing?

MS: Take risk early on—it will help you figure out what you want to do and will differentiate you from the pack.

Work abroad, especially if you're an American.

Surround yourself with great colleagues and many types of friends.

Ultimately, have fun, be inquisitive, and follow the customer.

RY: What are your final thoughts?

MS: It has been great to sit back and reflect on these questions.


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Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact. For more information about the book, go to www.marketingchamps.com or order at Amazon.

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  • by Jewel Sharma Thu Jul 31, 2008 via web

    The interiew is quite informative and reinforces the need to bring more customer orientation towards the marketing initiatives for a company. It gives the readers a clear understanding of what the future of marketing would likely be - a more customer dominated playfield.

  • by Ankur Fri Aug 1, 2008 via web

    The article clearly brings out what beginners and pros should do, though there is never a perfect formula but the article is very informative

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