Carol McNerney, CMO, Information Builders: Marketing through digital and business transformations

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If you begin a career in marketing and have ambitions to go to the very top, you want to become a chief marketing officer (CMO). Or at least, in most companies you do. For others, it is a question of semantics.

IBM, where Carol McNerney, CMO at business intelligence software provider Information Builders, cut her teeth, had traditionally been cut up into silos, with vice presidents (VPs) in charge. Indeed, it was only 2016 that the Armonk giant ‘officially’ hired its first CMO, Michelle Peluso. Before then, McNerney was a senior marketing manager and executive assistant to Abby Kohnstamm – former SVP of Marketing at IBM and CMO at Pitney Bowes – serving as what she calls an ‘informal link’ between the boss and the staff, as well as finding out what it would be like to head up marketing at such a large company.

During her time there, spending time in disciplines from branding, to comms, to technical marketing, McNerney noted the two different approaches to marketing – and how the approach she took saw her cut out for the CMO role. “Some of my peers wanted to become a VP in a particular discipline,” McNerney tells MarketingTech. “I found myself very intrigued by all of the different disciplines, including product marketing, and I really wanted to be more of a generalist.

“That’s what shored up my interest in the CMO role, because you understand and appreciate all of the different marketing disciplines, but then you’re able to pull it all together at a higher level.”

The CMO – or then SVP – job at IBM was, however, not where McNerney’s future lay. While promoting from within is the norm – only one of the nine IBM CEOs appointed since 1956 has come from outside the company – the company remains a major eye-opener for any recruiter’s CV. Besides which, the timing wasn’t quite right.

Subsequent experience followed within the wider realm of technology, from Bloomberg to Kohnstamm’s current employer, Pitney Bowes, before most recently taking the chief marketing role at Information Builders.

Ironically, while there was the transition at IBM, McNerney’s work at Pitney Bowes was during what she called a ‘major transformation’ to becoming a digital company. As for Information Builders, the company’s appointment of Frank J. Vella as CEO at the beginning of 2019, succeeding the 43-year tenure of founder Gerald D. Cohen, suggests a natural transition in itself. Change represents opportunity, however. “They’re the best kept secret out there,” McNerney says of her current employer.

This is primarily down to Information Builders’ data and analytics technology, providing an end-to-end analytics platform for decision making. McNerney’s previous role, as CMO at letting agent Savills, required her to report to the president with social media and website updates. Nothing off-topic there, but when the inevitable questions came around quarter-over-quarter analysis, or real-time data, it required a fresh report and a new meeting. “When I sat down with the Information Builders team and they showed me these dashboards that were embedded into the actual reports I was running, I could go live into the data,” she says. “That was beyond anything I’d ever seen.”

As a result, while McNerney admits she is not an expert in the industry, bringing the user’s perspective of what works – and, crucially, what has previously been problematic – is key. “I do think that’s the perspective I’m bringing,” she says. “I think a lot of times it’s not atypical for a technology company [to] focus more on the CIO and the CTO – and I think there’s a real opportunity to go after some of the C-suite functions like chief marketing officer.

“Having that perspective, and explaining how I used data and analytics and where I was frustrated – I can bring that.”

One area where Information Builders is looking to push its marketing this year is through its cloud capabilities. The company’s performance release in February emphasised ‘strong momentum’ driven by cloud growth, and now allows users to download a cloud-based version of its product to test out.

Yet it is the message of unification which remains key, and is where the company sees itself as ahead of the competition. Increasingly, McNerney notes, companies are getting past the glitz and glamour of gorgeous graphs – and getting into the gritty side of the data. “If you look at this space, a lot of people have gotten caught up with the romantic idea of these beautiful slides and charts and graphs,” she says. “It’s great to have that, but if the underlying data is not good, then you’re really not getting much information analysis because it’s based on poor data.

“The vast majority of our clients come to us because we can do all of this at scale,” McNerney adds. “I talk about this best kept secret – a lot of people may go onto a website, such as a bank or credit union, and not even realise it’s Information Builders’ embedded data and analytics platform when they’re accessing their information.”

With experience across various large technology organisations, McNerney has plenty of advice for those who are looking to take up senior marketing mantles, be they the all-encompassing CMO or more specialist SVP.

“I think as I’ve progressed through my career, one of the things that I think is really important is that you really understand the solutions of the company, and where you’re going,” says McNerney. “You have to believe in the product and understand that they can bring real value. Many mentors, not just within marketing but sales, field operations, CEOs of former companies, have always given me the advice to look for a company that has a strong foundation and has a great product.”

For Information Builders, this is an evident truth – but there is one even more vital step. “Probably more important than anything else is culture,” says McNerney. “You can have the greatest strategy in the world, but if you don’t have a culture that acknowledges the fact [companies] need to change and they need to transform, I think that’s a very hard place to go into.

“I also look for companies that have strong groups, the dedication of the employees to serving the customer, and that have long-term clients,” McNerney adds. “As we all know, it’s much more expensive to get brand new clients than work with clients you have, and continue to provide more value to them. If you see a company who has long-term clients, it’s a very strong signal that they’re doing the right things for their clients.”

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