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CMO Confessions Ep. 30: IBM Europe’s Alison Orsi

December 19th, 2019

Hello and welcome to CMO Confessions, our B2B podcast examining what it takes to be a leader in marketing and sales today. Everyone’s ready for the holidays, so our parting present to you is this fantastic conversation with Alison Orsi, CMO of IBM Europe. 

In this episode, Alison and I discuss how she — a natural world traveler —  came to be the CMO of IBM Europe, how IBM Europe approaches agile marking and why having a high tolerance for experimentation and failure adds up to marketing success.

This is a great episode, so I’ll leave you to get to it. 

As always, you can find the full episode of CMO Confessions on Podbean here and an edited transcript of our conversation below.

You can learn more about how Alison approaches marketing on her Twitter feed here and follow her on LinkedIn here

If you’re interested in listening to our growing podcast series, you can find all of our episodes right here in Podbean. Alternatively, you can also find us on both iTunes and Google Play stores.

Without further ado, welcome to CMO Confessions. Let’s chat.


Marketing in the US vs. Europe
Transforming IBM to the next frontier of marketing
World traveler to CMO of IBM Europe
Strategic components of becoming CMO
Embrace marketing agility
The agile mindset
Use failure as a learning opportunity


Joe Hyland:

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of CMO Confessions, a weekly B2B sales and marketing podcast where we explore what it really means to be a marketing leader in today’s business world. I’m Joe Hyland, CMO here at ON24 and joining me this week, all the way from West London, is Alison Orsi, vice president and CMO IBM Europe. Alison, how are you doing?

Alison Orsi:

I’m doing well. How are you? Thank you for inviting me.


Joe Hyland:

Yeah, thank you. I’m doing great. And thanks for being on the show. We really appreciate it. So I think your career path is super interesting and I’d love to talk about it just for a little bit. I guess the first question I have, I think it’d be interesting for our listeners to get your perspective on the difference between marketing in the US versus marketing in Europe. You’re obviously from Europe, or Europe as of now, but spent a lot of time in the US running marketing for a division of IBM out of New York. So, what were those differences, were they that pronounced and talk about those experiences?

Alison Orsi:

Sure. I’ve spent most of my career at IBM which has meant I’ve had the privilege to work for a US company and spent most of my time working in Europe, but I’ve worked in many countries in Europe and also had the privilege to travel internationally. 

And as you alluded to, I also spent the last three years living and working in New York and just recently returned to London. So I would say that many, many things are the same. And the way that we think about how we work, the way that we think about how we work together and collaborate, the way that we really try to put the customer at the center of everything we do, all of those things are the same.

Alison Orsi:

How to do them is slightly different. I would say what makes a great event in the US might not necessarily make a great event in Europe. Obviously in Europe now we have the challenges of things like GDPR which I understand is coming, there’s more legislation coming into the US shortly. But all of those things I prefer to see not as challenges but as opportunities. 

Actually things like that and things like the differing regulations and the differing cultural expectations and cultural norms are invitations for us to show up at our best and to really think about what is it that marketing can do to add value in the relationship with the customer, add value to the person that you’re trying to connect with. And things like GDPR and privacy rules and regulations really mean that you have to make sure that you deliver something of so much value that that customer is willing to share their details with you and continue a relationship with you. 

And so that to me, I guess is the biggest thing. There’s always fun. You know, my US colleagues had great fun keeping a chart of all the strange British things that I said presented to me on a card when I left and those kinds of things. But for the most part, I think we’re actually very, very similar.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, I think that’s brilliant on many fronts. I mean, you’re right, great marketing is about adding value it’s not about us or your own organization. It is about, as you said, putting your customer, or future customer, at the center of everything you do. There are some nuanced differences to the approach to how you disseminate a message and how you go about it, right. And a good point on the cultural differences. Language is amazing by the way.

You and I speak the same language, but I find myself pretty confused and perplexed half the time with British English versus American English. But you’re right at the end of the day, it is all about our audience and making sure that they are central to everything that we do. So it’s actually not that different.


Alison Orsi:

No, it’s, not, and I think it really is part of the journey that, you know, most organizations, if I speak to a lot of my peer CMOs, we’re really starting to think about how do we transform? What’s the next frontier of marketing and where do we need to get to? The part of that transformation journey has to start with being completely customer-centric. And so, most recently now we’ve been talking about how we drive NPS. And so, the marketing transformation that we’ve been on at IBM for the last few years, started with actually, how do we get more customer-centric? How do we really embrace NPS and make IBM an NPS led organization?

The next piece then is around really making data available to everybody so we can be data-driven. So we can become the most customer-oriented, data-driven and ultimately agile to the core marketing organizations. That’s kind of the journey that we’re on. And as we start to think about how do you put the customer at the center, but then how do you deliver the best value? Those for us are the keys to how you can deliver value.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, isn’t it? it’s exciting, right? Think about how much marketing has changed in the last, well, the last five years, never mind in the last two decades. You’re right. Marketing is at the center of the strategy of the organization talking about the next frontier and the customer journey and being customer-centric.

I don’t know about you and what it was like at IBM two decades ago. But where I started my career marketing wasn’t that strategic. You know it was more on the branding side in corporate communications. But I would say marketing was more the make it look pretty department, you know, make it presentable.

Alison Orsi:

We were the brochures and events department when I started in B2B marketing and you know, we built the right relationships and then opportunities with a very, relatively small number of very large customers. So our customer base has changed, customer expectations have changed, technology has changed. The blurring between personal life and work-life has moved forward at pace, enabled by technology. Who people go to for advice where people get their information; all of that has changed completely in the last 20 to 25 years.

So, and it continues to change really, really quickly. And so one of the things that’s beholden on us as marketers and one of the reasons that I enjoyed the career in marketing all this time is that we are continually changing.

The one thing that I tell my team is that the first thing you have to learn is to be comfortable with change and to be willing to embrace change and get on the bandwagon. Be curious, continue to ask questions, because that’s the thing that will help keep you and your career moving forward and keeping pace with the opportunities that are out there.


Joe Hyland:

Yeah, that is fantastic advice. If you don’t mind, walk us through your career path and along the way talk about some of that change and how marketing has transformed over this time.

Alison Orsi:

Sure. I spent most of my career at IBM, as I told you. I’ve described myself many times as an accidental marketer because my degree at university was in Geography, so actually all I wanted to do was travel the world. And so I ended up at IBM as a way to earn money to go traveling.

I worked for IBM for a few months or a year. And I left and went to South America and had a fabulous time and ended up back at my old job within a week of being back in the country simply because I needed the money and I actually said, this is great I can figure out what I want to do with my life, then I will leave and get a proper job. That was 25 years ago and I think one of my colleagues at IBM was in a marketing department where we were actually really focused on our business partner channel and helping run enablement sessions. So really thinking about our ecosystem and enabling our ecosystem. The thing that attracted me to the role was, of course, was that at that time our organization was Europe, Middle East and Africa, so EMEA.

And he was flying to a different country every week to run training courses for our business partners, which of course sounded amazing to be paid to travel. So I went to my boss at the time, I was in an admin role and said, I’d like to join that team, they’re hiring. And he said, but Alison, that’s marketing. I was like, okay, but you need qualifications.

Okay. So I went and got the qualifications, was allowed to move and discovered that I was actually quite good at it. And so for the first three years of my marketing career, I was flying, you know, two-three cities a week, all over Europe, Middle East and Africa, helping our business partners understand the value propositions and differentiators and how to sell our technology and how to differentiate our technology. And that was in the PC division of IBM at the time.

So from that, I spent 10 years in that part of the organization and moved from that ecosystem enablement into product marketing. And at that time, that was high-volume, relatively low-value compared to the rest of what IBM was doing. But I didn’t really understand or appreciate how big the organization was or what else there was available to me.

And so it wasn’t until at the end of 10 years I also had the opportunity to go and live and work in Paris for three years, so our European headquarters at the time was in Paris. So that was great. And that’s where I really learned how the first lesson for my career really actually made sure that you use the opportunity to do roles from lots of different perspectives.

Alison Orsi:

As I had spent my time sitting in a Europe role or in a UK role, kind of wondering what this European team was and who were they and why were they telling me what to do I’m in a big organization? Actually to then flip and sit and work in a European role, trying to enable and help the markets or countries be as successful as they could be, gives you a completely different perspective on the market and how to lead, but also how to operate in an organization perhaps like ours.

It really was helpful to truly understand you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and that works the same for internal customers just as it does for external customers to get your point of view across, and to understand how to work the matrix in a big B2B organization like ours.

Alison Orsi:

And then when I came back to the UK, after three years in Paris as the product marketer for our desktop and laptop product, I switched completely into a new bit of the organization that really focused on our customer sets. And so I ran marketing in the UK for what would be called our small and medium business division essentially. So again, the whole breadth of IBM, so flip, so everything that we did from hardware, software, and services, but for small and medium clients.

And then from there I moved into our technology services division, our business consulting division, and ultimately became the CMO for IBM in the UK. I kind of realized at the time, but every job that I’ve had along the way was actually preparing me for a CMO role because I’d done that thing of really understanding and learning what are the things that are all the different perspectives of things that we could do. What are the different types of clients that we have? I experienced everything from, as I said, high-volume, low-value to extremely high-value, really deep customer relationships, complex deals, multi-year deals that required multiple stakeholders and buying decision-making units that we’d have to address. So, lots of different angles and aspects. And every time we changed roles, something changed in the market; new technology would be available, a new way of engaging.

Our customers, in my career, have changed from, you know, trusting the vendor and the relationship that they had with their vendor through to really trusting their peers to get even 70% of the information that they choose to make their decision online before they, even before they’ve even engaged any vendor. And so all of those things have changed and we’ve had to change our approach, our understanding of the customer, the way that we deliver value to the customer.

And of course one of the things that’s been enabling us to do that over time is the amount of data that’s available to us and the way that we can use that data, and now obviously more so now actually how we apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to get even better at doing that in a way that differentiates us.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. Well, that’s fantastic. When there’s so much in there. First I’ll say it is, isn’t it amazing? And I think this is true in our personal lives and in our careers. Life is so often what happens while you’re planning everything out, while you’re planning your life, right? Like you want it to work just enough so you could travel.

Then all of a sudden, lo and behold, you ended up getting to travel because of your work and then on your career side, you’re right. I mean, cause I get asked this question a lot is, you know, what is the ideal path giving me the formula to become a head of marketing. And I don’t think that there is a formula and you know, you’re correct.

Alison Orsi:

I think I’d agree, every one of my peers at IBM as well, I think, you know, you need, every single one of us has had a career path and there’s been some serendipity involved in everyone that I know.


Joe Hyland:

Yeah. No, that’s right. there’s a lot of luck and chance, but I had a similar career path in that I didn’t have a master plan, but I ended up in product marketing, campaign marketing, demand gen events, channel, you name it. And then lo and behold, after 15 years I realized, “Oh, I actually know a lot about the kind of all aspects of marketing.” Perhaps I’m qualified to run marketing, right? So and, you don’t know until you try it.

But, talk a little bit about the, I’m curious about this one thing that you talked about, so you mentioned your stint in product marketing, which I think is, that is evolved of course a lot in the last decade as well. But, that’s interesting in a part of marketing where marketers get to do a lot more than a traditional campaign or brand marketing where you have to really understand the market’s needs, competition, pricing.

Do you think your time in product marketing set you up for the strategic components of being a CMO or did it not play a larger role than the other roles that you had?

Alison Orsi:

I spent most of my career in what we would describe as product marketing inside IBM and I think the thing that taught me was that you truly have to understand your customer and your market. You also truly have to know how to connect with the business and really understand what it is from what the business objectives that you were trying to achieve. And over time, product marketing has evolved to then really start to think about well how do I embrace NPS? How do I get direct customer feedback? Not just it filtered through the sellers who are kind of interpreting what customers are saying. We’re getting direct quotes from customers directly in your product sometimes.

And so for me, the notion of product marketing is incredibly important. But I would say having spent three years in what we call performance marketing inside IBM, which includes all of the demand gen and campaign management and everything else that actually, that’s equally important as well. The product marketing piece helps you with the art of marketing. It helps you with the value propositions. It helps you with the things that resonate with your customers.

That helps you understand your audience. The performance marketing piece actually helps with the science. That’s where a lot of the data sets and truly understanding what are the leavers that I can pull. How do I best engage with my audience, which is the way that they want to engage with us most? And it’s not about guesswork and qualitative feedback, but quantitative direct feedback that you can use that you can see through A/B testing and you know, just which route to market actually works best in terms of cost per click or engagement rate or yield rates. And so actually it’s the combination of the two that makes us the most successful.

Alison Orsi:

So in, in my career, actually, the thing that I value the most is the three years that I spent leading performance marketing most recently in New York because that really opened my eyes to the importance of data and actually not data for data’s sake, but the art of asking the question. I think one of the things I learned was, as marketers, as product marketers and performance marketers and particularly product marketers, actually the first thing we want is all the market insights that we can get and all the market research that I can find. I want to build a plan and I want to segment my audience and day-to-day-to-day to help me make some decisions.

And where we’re moving to now I think actually is that if you, if you wait too long and you do all that analysis, the market’s moved before you’ve even caught up. And it really is about how do I was reading in an article that we’ve got our relationship with data all wrong, right, actually. And if you think about how you do scientific exploration, you can look back at data, but if you only use the data set that you’ve already got, you only can discover what’s in that data set.

Most of what happens when you’re doing scientific experiments are you’re trying something new and there’s new data and there’s usually happy accidents which are where the big breakthrough discoveries come from. You apply the same to marketing. Actually what you want to do is use your existing data as my colleague would say, to not be stupid, right? And make the best assumption that you’ve got.


Alison Orsi:

But then the most important data you can gather is your live feedback from customers to get something into the market quickly, test your value propositions live, test your campaign journeys live, test your offerings live. And we’re getting more and more used, particularly now in the technology world, to putting out products that we then iterate on very, very quickly and improve with direct customer feedback.

So you get direct feedback on what features and functions work the best in your products or how they would like to consume your products or how they would like to interact with you. And it’s much, much better to get that feedback immediately and directly and to be able to respond as quickly as you can to that kind of data than it is looking at more traditional data sets. They’re important. Absolutely. But, but I’d encourage everyone to get into getting to market fast and really embracing this notion of agile in marketing is what I was saying,

Joe Hyland:

I’m so glad you brought this up. I read — it was like eight or ten years ago when the lean startup came out — and obviously it was about product development and very quickly bringing things to market so you can get market feedback versus sitting in a room pontificating on what the ideal product is and what people’s problems are. And I read the whole book and I thought this is about marketing. They’re talking products, but this is really about marketing and marketers need to be agile. They need to get things out as quickly as possible, and you need real market feedback and then you can adapt somewhat within a blink of an eye.

So, talk about how you guys do that. Like how do you look at agile? How does that change how you market in the last, I don’t know, five, ten years? And how quickly can you adapt?


Alison Orsi:

I think we’ve been on a journey to become the most agile to the core marketing organization globally. And I guess that journey started maybe three or four years ago. But there are many different ways and people think very differently about agile. And often when we talk about agile, we think about how you do agile. So you think about the rituals you think about that agile is all about daily stand-ups and backlogs and sprints and all this buzz, all this buzz language.

And you can do agile and pretend that you’re doing agile by going through the motions and that will probably give you some benefit. For me, agile actually is about, is a mindset shift and it’s a mindset, not a behavior and you want it to become a movement in the organization that people want to be part of. And what that means is that agile is something that you be rather than something that you do.

So we talk about being agile and that means that actually what agile for us is predicated on is a core set of values, which means that we all have trust, respect, openness and a little bit of courage to try something new. That allows us to collaborate very effectively in cross-functional teams. We are a little bit agile about how we implement agile and there’s a very prescribed way agile was designed for something very specific in terms of designing software. What we’re doing is taking the best bits and what works for us to really help us think through how it adds value in marketing.

Alison Orsi:

So we built agile squads. They are teams of individuals who have specialist skills and specialist disciplines that contribute to an outcome. You’d find product marketers, campaign marketers, digital strategists, event specialists, our agency teams, our ecosystem teams, social media coms, all working together in a team aligned to a common outcome and a common goal. When that team works together with those values, with this notion of experimentation, everybody being really clear on what is it that we’re trying to get done, everybody being clear on what the outcome is, but also then being clear on what’s the most important thing that we need to get done in the next two weeks.

When we start to have teams working in this way they have more fun, they get creative. It’s a little bit of a hard transformation, but once you get through that kind of first six to eight weeks, suddenly everyone starts having fun. The results start coming in. People get bolder. They try more wild experiments.

Alison Orsi:

I remember one of the first agile teams I worked with, probably four or five years ago now, went through that kind of early pain stage. It was a pilot. So, they set themselves a target to achieve in their first three months of work. They hit their three months target after eight weeks.

And actually by the end of three months did double what they thought they would do simply because they were working differently and thinking bolder and trying lots of new things. So I would encourage people to explore agile and embrace it because it is a very different way of working, but it unlocks so many things.


Joe Hyland:

So many organizations and I want to talk about how you’ve set this up so that people feel they have agency and they feel empowered to fail because you talked about bold experiments and bold testing. And as a part of any tests like some experiments will work and others won’t right?

That’s how you learn; that’s the point of it. But that has to start at the top. I mean, I think a lot of organizations are worried about failure and they want to hit 100% of their goals and they don’t want to miss anything. So, how drastic of a shift was this three or four years ago when you put this in place and did you have to tell people and did it take a while for employees to understand, “Oh, it’s okay if we miss the mark on many of our experiments?”

Alison Orsi:

Yes. I mean, I think it obviously it is led from the top and it has the full support and the drive of our CMO Michelle Paluso. But it also, it is prevalent at every level of the organization. And often people think about, “Oh my God, failure,” which means that I miss my numbers. That’s not what we mean. It means that we’re trying lots of things and we fail fast. And we use failure as a learning opportunity.

So you think about the example you were just talking about A/B testing. A/B testing doesn’t mean that I’m going to pick, I’m going to do one thing or another. And the fact that I’m doing A/B testing to know which of the variance I have is going to get me to my goal better. Which of those works better?

Alison Orsi:

So we don’t think about failure as something that means I’ve missed the opportunity. We think about failure as how we learn to get better and go faster. And so you don’t think about agile as one big change.

I think about agile as lots of little things and lots of little experiments and continuous experimentation, continuous iteration and this mantra that we have inside IBM, which is always better tomorrow, right? There is always something I can learn. Where am I today and what’s the one thing I want to do differently tomorrow? And if you think about agile in that sense and you’ve got everyone working in the same way, then you will continually improve.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, isn’t it amazing when you can get everyone rowing in the same direction? And I love the quick pace too, right? This notion of things not being bolted to the ground. I remember when I started in marketing and we had our annual kickoff and everything was planned for the entire year in January.

I have to say a lot changed by June, yet we stuck to that damn plan. And it was boring, but I don’t think anyone wanted to admit that we were wrong with the original plan. So we just kept doing the same thing even though it made no sense. So I think this is brilliant and I love that it comes right from the top. It sounds like the team is structured around it.

And you’re right, marketing should be fun. And what’s more fun than coming into work every day and truly not knowing exactly what’s going to happen because you’re agile, things will change.

Alison Orsi:

Right? I mean, and I will tell you that first team that I worked with once they’d figured out what it meant and it felt freeing and they were able to experiment. I mean, other people in the office were coming over to ask me to be quiet cause they were laughing so loud and having too much fun coming up with crazy ideas. Some of the crazy ideas they even tried.

So, who knew you could set up a pop-up shop in a cheap basement in London. I mean, that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from our brand, but we tried, we learned, we moved on and it’s become something bigger and better now. So, there are lots of little things that you can try.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, I love it. I think this is just amazing advice. Well, we’re half an hour in, so I want to honor the time. Alison, thank you so much for half an hour. The accidental marketer turns CMO. I love it. And again, thank you so much.

Alison Orsi:

You’re very welcome. Thank you.