While it is often easy to miss the significance of changes as our business or career evolves around us, take a longer perspective and suddenly you realise how radical the change can be.

That’s our take-away from a recent interview with visiting VMware CMO Robin Matlock.

VMware is one of the most critical companies in the long arc of the digital transformation story, though as an infrastructure business that largely deals with the technology leaders it tends to get less exposure. But given VMware’s history — initially as the pioneer in virtualisation and more recently as a provider of critical cloud software — very little of what digital achieves happens without some involvement by its systems.

Now part of Dell, as a global marketing enterprise VMware faces the same storytelling challenges as its counterparts across all sectors. And while technology may be second nature to the company, the challenges of marketing technology are as familiar to Matlock as they are to her peers.

Which-50 started by asking Matlock something nobody ever asks a CMO: What are you and your team doing well?

“VMware marketing has proven time and time again, that we can position this company in new markets, and we can make ourselves very relevant. Sometimes I feel like we are actually ahead of our capabilities, because while we are always investing in capabilities we haven’t always arrived at the end of that [investment].”

A core competency of her team, according to Matlock, is that they are able to tell a narrative that is highly credible, relevant, and clear.

As an example, she offers the concept of “software-defined” which is now part of the standard nomenclature of the technology industry. “That was VMware. I was in the front row when that was announced. We first called it ‘software-driven’ though the language changed to ‘software-defined’ within a few months.”

She also says the strategic vision of the team has stood the test of time.

“We have what we call the VMware Vision on a page to position the company. It’s about how we support any application type, running on any cloud, for any consumer, on any device. It’s four years old, and it has evolved, yet it’s still how we paint the vision of the company to this day.”

“That’s damn good marketing.”

Matlock is a career B2B marketer who has seen the role evolve significantly, though she notes some things haven’t changed. For instance, marketing always has its gaze beyond the horizon — which is also what makes its impact harder to measure.

“Sales organisations are focused on this quarter, and maybe they’ve got their nose above to look for next quarter, but they really have not figured out what’s going to happen to three quarters out. Marketing, however, is really the eyes and ears about what’s going on in the market down the road. And we put a lot of energy on driving perceptions.”

There are other things that haven’t changed either. “You’re driving education and you are driving awareness of things you cannot monetise yet,” she says, and that task is getting harder because of the complexity of the marketplace, and with all the new channels.

“Understanding the customer in that also, I think was an old part of the job and still a part of the job, right? Really being the advocate for the customer, and bringing that voice into the company.”

New challenges

But there is also a big difference today for the contemporary CMO. “I do think that in some ways, we need to be data scientists. How we understand the customer is really about understanding all the data that is bringing together that puzzle about the customer, what are their needs and their wants, their future, their behaviours, and then painting that picture.

“If marketers fail to effectively synthesise all that information — which includes both the data they personally control and the data they don’t — they can’t effectively understand the market.”

It is also easy to lose track of how much marketing has changed even in a contracted time frame, like the last five years, she suggests.

“There’s such an explosion of innovation in the whole martech world. There’s almost too much to consume.”

And while marketing cloud vendors like to talk in terms of universal stacks, the truth is that the marketing technology infrastructure that exists today is built from parts and pieces, she says.

As a technology CMO, Matlock has the benefit of understanding how hard it is to get everything working together seamlessly under the bonnet. After all, that’s a problem VMware helps its customers solve.

She says the marketing technology industry still has a way to go to try to deliver on its promises.

“There are still too many pieces and parts that are not working together. And a lot of them have grown through acquisition. So even the big guys like Salesforce and Adobe, they have grown through acquisition. I know what that means and  I understand how that works because I work for a technology company.”

Many of the clouds are aggregations of acquisitions, and that brings integration challenges for the marketing technology providers, she acknowledges.

“They put the narrative out that says the systems work together, but the code is separate, the architectures are different,” Matlock cautions. “They now need to integrate them. And I think the industry has a way to go to really deliver on the promise of the martech platform.”

On the upside, she says this is the direction the market is taking.

The data divide

Matlock’s no-nonsense view of the capabilities of technology also extends to data. As the CMO of a global enterprise like VMware, she understands the issues her marketing peers face in other such enterprise-scale businesses.

Established businesses face challenges that digital newcomers can overcome from the start. “If we were building the business today from the ground up, then you would build the systems and the data fabric with the end state in mind.

“But when you’ve been in the market for 22 years, your systems, your data is in silos. So part of the challenge is not so much the external signals. That’s a whole new set of data coming in.”

Instead, marketers need to honestly acknowledge and deal with complexity to really help their company succeed.

“Data is key, and how that data is all stitched together. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to really make those systems work really well together.”

That’s not just about the martech stack, she said. “That’s something about data architecture, and you know, kind of the science of data.”

She stressed the need to always be willing to change. “You have to keep evolving, right? Because there’s a whole new set of capabilities, that if you don’t keep evolving, you’ll be obsolete before you know.”

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