CMO Confessions EP. 19: Vonage’s Rishi Dave

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of CMO Confessions, a bi-weekly podcast series that discusses the secret side of marketing and sales in the B2B arena. In this week’s episode, I talk shop with Rishi Dave, CMO of Vonage.

Vonage, for those of you who don’t know, is a software-as-a-service specializing in cloud communications for business. The company got its start with voice of internet protocol, or VoIP. It’s been on a bit of a buying spree since then, acquiring several companies over the years to transform into a business cloud communications leader.

Vonage’s marketing efforts are headed up by Rishi Dave. Rishi has an extensive background in the technology field, starting with Trilogy Software, Dell and Dunn & Bradstreet before moving to Vonage. Rishi has some fantastic insights on what’s required of a CMO today — many of which you can find on his blog, Chief Madness Officer here.

In this episode, Rishi and I discuss the dangers of relying on one-size-fits-all playbooks, how complex and difficult being a CMO can actually be and how the presumptions a lot of us marketers have about industry standards (i.e., events and analysts) can actually be damaging.

If you’re interested in diving into Rishi’s career you can find his LinkedIn profile here. You can also follow his marketing insights and quips on Twitter 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.

Table of Contents

How Rishi Got to Where He Is

The Dangers of One-Size-Fits-All Playbooks

How Marketers Drive Top-Line Growth

CMO Expectations and the Problem of Complexity

On Events and Analysts

What Rishi Loves About Marketing and Working as a CMO

Where Tech Marketing Is and Where It’s Headed

Transcript:

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 today, joining me from the East Coast is Rishi Dave, CMO of Vonage. Rishi, How you doing?

Rishi Dave:

I’m great. How are you?

Joe Hyland:

I am fantastic. Where on the East Coast are you? Are you in New York?

Rishi Dave:        

I’m in New Jersey, actually. So, we’re not too far from the city, but we’re actually headquartered in Homedale, New Jersey on the Jersey Shore.

Joe Hyland:

Okay. There you go. Squeezed in between the Jersey shore in New York City.

Rishi Dave:

Pretty much, yeah. But we have, but you know, just to get cool points, we have a pretty significant presence in San Francisco, so it’s almost like a second headquarters.

Joe Hyland:

There we go. Okay You’ve climbed off a few notches again. Okay, cool. Tell our audience what you’re doing over at Vonage and you joined somewhat recently, right? So I think people would love to hear how the ride has begun.

How Rishi Got to Where He Is

Rishi Dave:

Yeah, it’s been a blast. So I joined Vonage five months ago and Vonage is in just a hypergrowth mode. I’m in an industry that’s in hypergrowth mode, which is basically cloud-based communications and cloud and communications APIs. And so it’s been really exciting. You know, Vonage was known a while back what it was founded on, which is a residential VOIP company.

But about four years ago, we signed a major transformation through both acquisitions as well as organic growth. And now the company is very much squarely focused in a SaaS communications applications and Communication APIs. And so it’s a super exciting space that’s in hypergrowth. And so, as a CMO, being in an industry that’s still early that’s blowing pretty significantly is really exciting.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. But there’s some brand equity right in the heritage of as you just discussed, kind of were Vonage has evolved from. So how much of that heritage plays a role in your current brand strategy, if any, or if at all?

Rishi Dave:        

Oh, it definitely does. We’re thinking a lot about not just the Vonage brand itself and kind of where it was founded in how people think about it. But, well, thinking about a whole portfolio of brands with the Vonage brand. On the one hand people kind of think of it as what we used to do in residential VOIP, although that’s changing, but it also has incredible top of mind recall that’s very positive. So people kind of know the name and they have a positive association. It’s always been an innovator. And so, after we have to weigh those things also, as I mentioned, we’ve done a lot of transformation to acquisition, really very successfully. What we also have are a lot of brands that we’ve acquired. And so we’re thinking a lot about how do we bring this portfolio together, of brands, and really drive the strategy forward in terms of what we do.

The Dangers of One-Size-Fits-All Playbooks

Joe Hyland:

Okay. Very exciting. So, I’m curious to get your take on this particularly given your experience.

Rishi Dave:

Okay.

Joe Hyland:

So you were just at D&B and I think had quite a successful run there — and we come back to that in a moment — and now have shifted gears and, and are doing exciting things at Vonage. I talk to a lot of marketers who feel they have a pretty solid playbook and sometimes that’s nice to have, a recipe and a certain approach that has worked well in the past, but you need to be cautious and ensure that you don’t apply a one size fits all approach to a pretty different segment with different challenges, different competition, et cetera. How would you respond to too many marketers talking about this overly simplified, one size fits all. Like, “Here’s my approach to a market regardless of the market.” It doesn’t matter, B2B, B2C old, new, nascent, established, um, et cetera?

Rishi Dave:

It’s a great question. I think that it’s not an either or, so it’s not a black and white where I either do a playbook or I kind of create some new approach from scratch. It’s actually both. And so what I try to do when as I came into Vonage is — of course I had a perspective based on my experience on running marketing organizations are on what works and what doesn’t work and how to approach marketing issues and problems — but I almost try to erase that from my head initially and try to really understand first and foremost the customers that we’re going after and then really think about the customer journey and what the pain points are on what the pain points are.

Rishi Dave:

And then, secondly, think about what are our current marketing capabilities. What do we do well? What do we don’t do well? What can we improve? What’s holding us back? And so I’d like to do all of that initially to really, before I started to formulate a hypothesis on what my strategy in playbook would be. And, as you can guess, it’s not exactly the same playbook that I had as CMO of Dun & Bradstreet. Nor is it the same playbook I had when I was a senior marketer that Dell, but it does draw on things that worked in the past in terms of when I’m implementing. And then secondly, you can draw on that base of experience to help assess how the current state of marketing because of I that those are valuable benchmarks to pull on. And then we see things that are different than you know that they’re different and you can start to look at why they’re different.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. I think that’s a great answer. Perhaps my question was a little leading indicating I didn’t think there was a one size fits all approach, but there’s not, right? I mean there were, there are certain fundamentals that very much hold true from industry to industry. But they’re wildly different scenarios, right? You might follow a certain formula to assess a problem and form your solution, but your solution will be wildly different depending on the problem.

Rishi Dave: 

Yeah, we will. But also at the same time, you don’t want to not leverage your entire base of experience. So that base of experience helps you identify gaps, right? So for example, you know what you’ve done something that’s been at a previous role. You look at the current situation, you see a gap. Now that you may say that gap is a bad thing. You may say that gap is exactly what makes sense. But at least you know, there’s a gap when you identify how to address it. But you’re right. End of the day, I look back on a number of marketing rules I’ve had the actual implementation was vastly different and the initial implementation changed a whole bunch as well as the market changed and the dynamics change. So, there is no playbook. I wish it was that stable.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, I wish it was that easy and that’s a great point. Even though it’s not just from company to company, even within the same role, market dynamics can shift in your initial hypothesis has to get adjusted. Right?

Rishi Dave:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

How Marketers Drive Top-Line Growth

Joe Hyland:

All right. I’m curious to get your take on marketers driving top-line growth because I think this is a wildly exciting time to be in marketing. I remember my first marketing role was basically ensuring that collateral was prepared for sales reps for trade shows and handwriting notes for sales reps and signing their names. And that was my way of impacting revenue. Many more marketing organizations are a little more strategic these days. But I’d love to hear from your perspective either your experience in driving top-line growth or your views on the role marketing should play.

Rishi Dave:        

Marketing is absolutely focused on top-line growth especially in, I can only speak to B2B, but it’s absolutely focused on top-line growth. I think that the entire purpose of marketing ultimately is to drive top-line growth both short, medium and long term. The reason why I say short, medium and long term is that as a CMO what gets a disproportionate amount of mindshare and discussion share is the brand stuff because it’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s things people don’t understand, et cetera. But you know what, that’s a minor part of the strategy that for the mid and long term it’s highly important. But if you look at the portfolio of things that a CMR focuses on, brand is a component, but there’s a whole host of other things that are really focused on driving top-line revenue of which brand is a portion of it. And so I absolutely agree and that has so many components from a component of analytics, demand gen, account-based marketing relationship with sales, measurement in analytics — I mean, there’s so many components of a driving top-line revenue that we have to think about.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, I think that’s brilliant. And you touched upon this a few minutes ago when you were talking about understanding your customer, understand the pain points. Marketing is — I mean, this is such a pivotal time for marketers and we’re really at the tip of the spear, so to speak and the advice I’d give to marketers, and particularly those early in their careers know, your market inside and out, know the competition, know your customer, know your customer, know your customer — if you do those three things, you’re going to be in a position where you can help the strategy of an organization and can help drive revenue. And that’s how you become strategic.

The Politics of Marketing

Rishi Dave:

Absolutely. One thing I would add to that too is that you have to have — so you referred to marketers early in their career — the advice I also think a lot about is you have to have a lot of fortitude in grit. This podcast is called CMO Confessions, right? So, one thing that I find is, being a CMO or being in marketing — and I am biased — but it’s one of the hardest jobs in the B2B enterprise.

And the reason why is that you’re at the nexus of everything. You’re working with every organization. You don’t always get the glory, right? When things go well. But you definitely get the blame when things don’t go well. Many times. And so much of it is not just driving the numbers, driving the demand gen, driving the brand metrics, but also driving significant relationships across the company. And that’s a lot of complexity that you have to deal with. And so it’s a very complicated, difficult job. And it becomes more difficult as you move up in the ranks.

Joe Hyland:        

Yeah. That was quite well said.

Marketing is amazing, the amount of touch points you have to have within an organization to really do it well. And you’re right, it’s like being careful what you wish for. I think every marketer’s dream, particularly ambitious marketers is to have more of an impact on the organization. Well, when you get a seat at the table, the real table, you deal with the adult problems of the organization and they’re not easy to solve. And you’re right at, at bigger — and this is something, I don’t talk about much with many marketers, this is actually all size organizations — but as you rise up the ranks at larger and larger companies, it is amazing how imperative relationships are. Because you can’t get it all done yourself. You just can’t do it.

Rishi Dave:

You cannot, you cannot. Which you can at other organizations. So, if you’re a great salesperson, you can crank and you can get sales done and you can blow away your quota and you become a rockstar — if you’re a great salesperson. I mean, that’s a hard job, but that’s a different kind of job. And you know, other groups are similar — not true with marketing. I mean, you cannot succeed unless you in a highly specialized technical role, as a marketer without having a whole set of relationships within the company who you work with and who you bring along.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. And we even find that — so we don’t an enormous team. We have about 25 or 30 marketers on our team. So medium-sized marketing team. And even within our marketing team, relationships are so important because our demand gen team is pretty reliant on our content team to ensure that they have the materials they need to set up programs and campaigns and likewise through different responsibilities. And yeah, those relationships across the organization become more and more important. Right? So and we’re a 400-person organization, company-wide, not 4,000. So I think it just becomes more important the larger you get.

CMO Expectations and the Problem of Complexity

Joe Hyland:

Okay. So, speaking of CMO Confessions, let’s talk about things. Let’s go to the love-hate portion of the discussion. I want to hear about things that drive you crazy. It can be in marketing today, it can be in your role, but what just keeps you up at night or annoys the hell out of you?

Rishi Dave:

So, what annoys me or drives me crazy is the overly, like how people assume that the CMO primary job is brand, right? Yeah. And everything else is secondary. That’s what you get a disproportionate set of questions on.

I think that that’s challenging because in reality, as we talked about before, you’re driving top-line revenue, you’re driving growth and brand is one of the many tools you have in your quiver as they say to drive that result. And, and so that kind of drives me crazy because it just gets a disproportionate amount of mind share. And people interpret it all different ways and everyone has an opinion, right? That drives me crazy.

Rishi Dave:

So that of things that drives me crazy. The things that I find really difficult is complexity comes in really easily in marketing. And so you have to constantly beat down complexity and simplify. And then as soon as you simplify, complexity starts creeping in again. Because it’s just the nature of marketing, right? It’s like all the technology we have, all the campaigns we run, all the requests we get from all our partners with whom we want to have good relationships with. It comes in and it comes in extremely slowly, like a slow-moving glacier you don’t see coming. And I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs of the CMO is to keep that complexity at bay and then really simplify, simplify, simplify what we do. I think that’s the hardest thing.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. I agree. I think one thing that’s interesting, what you were talking about, is there’s lots of opinions towards marketing. Like everyone out there has an opinion on advertising strategy and you’re right, it’s always on the easy thing easy. It’s always on the visible things. It’s always on the brand or their website or someone, one of our, I won’t name any names, someone recently sent me a picture of the bins at security at TSA in airports — and there was some advertising and they said we should do this. And I was like, well yes, we could do that. I’m not sure if that’s actually going to, for us, we’re very, very growth-oriented organization, I’m not really sure what the metrics would be on how that’s going to drive us forward. But everyone has an opinion whereas you and I are not walking up to a full stack engineer and having ideas on the next sprint.

Rishi Dave:        

That’s right. Another great example is, “Oh, our competitor’s doing ‘X’.” And it’s like, we have a different playbook than the competitor. If we had the same plans will be a lot harder. But you know, I can’t tell you, like I mentioned when a hyper-growth environment, we actually have, you know, strong competition. But it’s also, of course, to what you said earlier, your customer, know your competitors, know your market. And so, we know our competitors, but how many times around the company, do I hear, “This competitor did ‘X,’ we should do ‘X’. This competitor did ‘Y.” Why are we falling behind?” We’ll, we’re not falling behind or ahead — it was us choosing not to do those things. So, that also drives me crazy as well. Big time.

On Events and Analysts

Joe Hyland:

One of the first things I struggled with in marketing — this was maybe 15 years ago — the first time I heard this was on trade shows. And if we don’t go to this trade show, people will think we’ve gone out of business. All of our competitors are there. It’s like what? That is not justification for us to attend and spend 50 or $75,000.

Rishi Dave:

Well, it’s funny you say that about events. So I know we’re getting in and talking B2B, but that’s a complex issue. I find, as a CMO, because you can justify at the event. You can justify going to every event, you can also justify not going to every event. And there’s a lot of science and all that, but end of the day, a subset of apps and do an event strategy, some of it’s mathematical, some of it’s emotional, some of it is “the competition is there.” I think that’s another thing that drives me crazy is that an events strategy is one where every single person in the company has an opinion.

Sales teams want to go to every single event. You can always justify the ROI of an event. “Oh, we paid whatever, this much to go to the event. And we sold one deal and huge ROI. By the way, we probably would’ve sold them anyways.” Right? So, there’s so many reasons to go to an event and it’s hard not to go to an event. And that’s another one where complexity creeps in and you wake up one day and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to this huge amount of events. Is that the right strategy?” And so that’s another one that I think is drives me crazy.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah, an adjacent one for me in a category that you get a lot of opinions on if you should be involved where it’s pretty difficult to measure the impact and the value is analysts. I’m curious to get your take on this. Because I’ve been at companies where we have great analysts coverage and analysts really can be strategic partners that can also be a black hole. And those analyst fees can start adding up and have pretty questionable return.

Rishi Dave:

Yes. Well, we’ve had a good experience with analysts. Yeah. So, we spend a lot of time with analysts and we have good analysts, but you’re right. With analysts it’s not always measurable, but you have analysts who are — when you have analysts who are covering you and understand what you do at a kind of a visceral level and can repeat it and talk about it and can also be your partner when you have challenging problems. Sometimes you get wrapped up and your inside culture and a good analyst will kind of help you and provide you with an outside-in opinion without having to talk to thousands of customers. And those cases, but you’re right — the fundamental thing here is that they have to be a good analyst. That’s the thing: there are a lot that are not good.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. And you’re right, they can be incredibly powerful if you find yourself in a bit of an echo chamber at work where perhaps you can’t get out to talk to enough customers which is a different problem. You really need to hear some difficult truths that you’re not getting internally, right?

Rishi Dave:

You know what’s funny about what we’re talking about? So, I was just thinking about what we just talked about, which is what drives us crazy. Like you would think that we would say something like, “You know what? Data. Clean data drives me crazy. Or, like, managing a marketing technology stack.” You know, that is hard and challenging, but it doesn’t drive me crazy. But it’s hard. What drives me crazy, if you think about what we just talked about, it’s the stuff that has that human emotional irrational component to it. That’s the stuff that I think drives CMOs crazy versus just difficult problems to solve. All the things we talked about, the relationships, the events, the opinion on the brand, all that. Those are all human, emotional elements. Which marketing has a lot of it.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. I think that’s interesting. And it kind of, for me, gets into what I love is problem-solving. And so I think at its core that’s what we’re doing, right? You’re right, you need to take in your sets of experience and hopefully hundreds of data points on things that have worked and things that haven’t. But ultimately just because your competitors showing up doesn’t mean you should because they have a different strategy. They’re trying to solve a different problem. You’re trying to solve something pretty different at Vonage than you did at Dun and Bradstreet. And Dell was in a completely different situation. My last company was in early-stage startup and we were trying to create a new category. Now I’m at ON24 and webinars are more of a legacy category and we’re trying to make them more relevant and exciting and it was just wildly different scenarios, but ultimately it’s problem-solving.

Rishi Dave:

Absolutely. I totally agree.

What Rishi Loves About Marketing and Working as a CMO

Joe Hyland:        

Okay. Let’s dig into some of the things we went, we went through the hate or the frustrations. Let’s lean into some of the things you just love either about the current role or just the state of B2B marketing today.

Rishi Dave:        

Yeah. What I love about B2B marketing is the combination of left-brain, right-brain. So I love the fact that it’s highly technical, highly analytical, highly mathematical. You get to work with technology and determine technology strategy. At the same time, it’s extremely creative in terms of the content you create, the emotions that you elicit from the messaging, the actual creative itself. And so I love — that’s what ultimately love: marketing’s combination of that technical left brain and that creative right brain and bring it together in service of a customer. I just love that. That’s ultimately what I love about marketing. What I love about this current role is. The hypergrowth markets that we’re in. And the excitement that associates with that because we’re defining new things that don’t exist constantly every day. And that’s really fun for me. But it’s also challenging. High growth environment is also challenging, but it’s also exciting.

Joe Hyland:

Yes. Growth and scale. I love growth and scale and I tend to like things that are intellectually stimulating but are hard. Wouldn’t it just be easy, if you could flip a few buttons or turn a few dials and massively see the growth you’re looking for? It’s just not that simple, right? Scale is hard. A growing, growing at a rapid pace is not easy. If it were, more organizations would be doing so.

Rishi Dave:

Yup. Well, yeah. And the last thing I would say is you have to be in a space that excites you, right? For me it’s the space we’re in terms of the one space we’re in is communication APIs. Which is really about all these developers who are out there, who are kind of creating new applications, new mobile apps, new website experiences, new SaaS apps who need the embed communications into their apps. Are kind of leveraging our APIs. And the kind of apps we have for voice, video all that stuff. It’s just a really forward-looking, right? And really changing the nature of how companies communicate. That’s exciting for me. Because you think about the amount of apps that are being created and technologists being created, it’s just really exciting and you feel like you’re on this hypergrowth space.

Where Tech Marketing has been and Where It’s Headed

Rishi Dave:

We have a whole SaaS business, a SaaS app business around communications. The whole movement of the whole world into a SaaS model on AWS and all of that it’s super exciting. And we get to be part of that. And we don’t know what direction we’re going to go in three, four years from now. It’s really exciting. It’s exhausting, but it’s exciting. Back to kind of advice for younger marketers, it’s like you got to love the space.

Joe Hyland:        

Yeah. For everyone listening, Rishi and I first talked in 2012 and I had just taken over for a SaaS startup here in San Francisco running their marketing and Rishi was still at Dell. And what I loved about you then, Rishi and I love just now as you were talking, is the passion that you have. So when we talked back then it was on scaling digital marketing and you had some recommendations for me. And now it’s on APIs in the communications space. I mean, I just went back seven years in my mind. But I think that’s really important. To excel at something you need to love what you do because you need to immerse yourself in it. You need to throw yourself into your work. And if you don’t enjoy it, you probably won’t do that great of a job.

Rishi Dave:        

Absolutely. You know, it’s funny you talked about 2012, like, I just think about what we were talking about back then. That’s a great example of being in an exciting space. You know, if we had recorded those conversations and played them back now, we would be laughing our heads off. Because all the junk we had about B2B digital, like we will say things like, “Oh, you know, content marketing could really help us drive XYZ” and all of which are completely accepted now. But that’s, then they were like innovative and taking big risks and it’s just like, that just shows how rapidly these things change.

Joe Hyland:        

Yeah. I mean at the time I was standing up HubSpot and we were literally just turning on email automation and doing some pretty basic content. And now, seven years later, and it feels like 70 years later in terms of technology that we have at our fingertips. But, you know, it’s interesting. So from a technology standpoint, things are very different in just seven years. In terms of what we talked about at the start of the conversation, the core challenge I had back then was understanding inside and out, the challenges of the audience we were serving, the persona that we were trying to market to. And it’s a different persona that I serve today, but, ultimately, it’s that same process.

Rishi Dave:

Definitely. Yeah. It’s interesting. The fundamentals are the same. The execution is different. I mean, that’ll never change. Knowing the persona you’re targeting, knowing their pain points, knowing how to address them — that’s been happening since the 50s. It’s the execution that’s become, that changes every single day. But you’re right: the fundamentals never change.

Joe Hyland:

Yeah. And it’s not that the strategy is ever easy. So I in no way want to trivialize that. It very much starts there. But the road, particularly out in the Bay Area, is littered with people who have come into organizations and made pretty bold promises and can’t deliver because it is, in fact, the details, the operations, the how you plan on getting something done that is what delivers the results. It’s not necessarily just the exciting whiteboard and then you drop the mic and walk out it, I wish it were that simple. It’s, it’s certainly is not.

Rishi Dave:

The funny thing about what you said is I agree with you and that’s why it’s important, as a CMO, when you’re giving your vision or the goals for the organization, they have to be as simple as possible. And I challenge myself on that. I’m still not good at it, but you want to lay out as simple goals as possible. Now, the execution will be incredibly hard because if it was easy, then you wouldn’t be there. But if even the goals that you set and the vision you set is complex, then it’s only getting more complex. It’s like you have to start with a simple kind of simple goals that you want to go after, that everyone understands that straight forward, that puts calm in people, and then the execution becomes complex. And so I always, I try to challenge myself to actually get to the essence of what we’re trying to do as an organization so that we’re all kind of pointed to the same thing and we all understand it and then we know how to execute against it.

Joe Hyland:        

Yeah. It’s amazing. And by the way, that’s great marketing, right? I mean, it is part of what we need to do is take a really complex subject matter and boil it down to such a simple talking point that anyone can get it. And yeah, I agree. In terms of great leadership and great communication. Regardless of political slants, look at how, how some of our political leaders are just masterminds in terms of the simplicity in which they can communicate a message. When you’re right, the underlying solution is as far from simple. So, well, listen, Rishi, this has been wonderful. Thank you. Thank you again and I really appreciate your time today.

Rishi Dave:

Thank you. Great to chat again.