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Few CMOs remain at a single organization for very long. But Ann Lewnes, Adobe’s chief marketing officer and executive vice president of corporate strategy and development, is an anomaly. Her tenure spans an astounding 16 years, but will conclude next month when she retires.
In Silicon Valley, Lewnes led Adobe’s marketing organization as it transformed into the globally known digital behemoth it is today. The CMO sold the market on the company’s SaaS model and shifted its media investment into digital channels. Lewnes has been planning her departure for months, she told Adweek, and notified the company before the end of the year. Yet, she leaves Adobe without a new marketing leader to guide its global organization.
As a result, Adobe is searching for someone to fill Lewnes’ position. That individual will step into a very different organizational structure than the one Lewnes led for most of her Adobe tenure. In fact, a media agency RFP Adweek obtained describes the department as having recently undergone a “radical transformation” that streamlined regional marketing units into a single global entity.
“Initially, we were very centralized and that made sense,” Lewnes said. “Then we kind of decentralized [the marketing organization]. I think we’re looking for a much more efficient, cohesive model that has a strong center, but also empowered leadership in the regions.”
This, Lewnes said, will emphasize Adobe’s brand and messaging without compromising on its marketing efficiency.
Lewnes beat the odds
Over time, what it means to be a CMO changed significantly, to the extent that yesterday’s marketing geniuses might fail, should they now reassume their roles. A keen understanding of technology, partnerships and a crowded media space is crucial, not to mention the creative excellence and managerial intelligence that have always been on the top marketer’s job description. The new requirements make becoming an effective CMO a tall order for most. Few stay in the role very long, with CMOs in the U.S. departing their organizations on average every 40 months, according to a Statista study from late 2021.
That makes Lewnes, who assumed the role at Adobe in 2006, an exception. She’d previously served as Intel’s vice president of sales and marketing.
At the time she joined Adobe, the brand was still selling package creative and document desktop software. The leader oversaw Adobe’s marketing transformation when it moved its products to the cloud and pivoted to a subscription model.
“Our specialties were creative software, which we sold in boxes through a channel structure,” Lewnes said. “The company was, I would say, in a state where we needed significant growth … We decided to do something at the time that was crazy, because we were a very, I would say, conservative, but profitable company.”
The company’s digital transformation paralleled Lewnes’ own journey to digital-first CMO. In 2010, she risked investing 75% of Adobe’s marketing budget into digital channels—a prescient move considering how important digital investments are to today’s advertising economy.
“Marketing really became a force, and we’re responsible for driving all acquisition across the business,” she said.
While selling digital software to a still-hesitant customer base, the CMO took a customer-first approach and made Adobe its own case study. Using the company’s own products like Creative Cloud for content development and Experience Cloud for measuring KPIs, illuminated its customers’ needs.
“We talk about ourselves as ‘customer zero,’ because we use a lot of our own tech,” Lewnes said. “But without the people and process changes, you’re not going to get the value.”
Lewnes and her team executed that strategy through celebrated campaigns like Photoshop’s 25th anniversary spot, “Dream On.” After acquiring analytics company Omniture, Adobe became a digital marketing leader, standing out with pithy taglines like “Marketing is BS” and “Do You Know What Your Marketing Is Doing?”
A serious attention to detail and commitment to measurement and attribution also defined Lewnes’ strategy. A marketing and customer insights group became what Lewnes called “the brain trust and the center of our marketing.” The group calculated Adobe’s marketing ROI to help the CMO understand “down to $1” how much money to invest in marketing, in order to meet Adobe’s revenue goals.
“We’re changing out skills, and talent and processes—and these are not things typically that are particularly sexy—but that’s what made us be able to do this kind of marketing transformation,” she told Adweek.
Lewnes’ championed DEI initiatives during her time at the company, marketing Adobe’s “Diverse Voices” platform to spotlight underrepresented creators’ work.
The Adobe marketing org’s ‘radical transformation’
With Adobe’s success, its marketing organization sprawled.
Lewnes described the marketing organization as having a central strategy in the beginning. But when Adobe needed to grow, regional revenue became important. “What works in Germany doesn’t necessarily work in Japan, doesn’t necessarily work in Korea,” she said. The CMO considered how the brand’s regional marketing groups might have autonomy, while still tapping into Adobe’s guiding principles and relying on its stewardship. Over time, though, that strategy became less effective and most recently, Lewnes opted to reorganize and simplify what had become a complex and far-reaching department.
“What can happen then is, you can over distribute it, and it leads to inefficiency and also the potential for some misfiring on brand and what we want to convey internationally,” she said.
The changes resulted in Lewnes’ erecting a Global Center of Excellence and a Global Media Stakeholding Team, according to the RFP document Adweek obtained. While committed to a new, centralized strategy, Lewnes told Adweek she designed the new model to better equip regional groups to act on the overarching strategy.
These recent changes will impact Adobe’s expectations of its partners and how it interacts with the broader marketing ecosystem. It’s currently leading a global media review, and its agency incumbent Wavemaker is defending the business. It remains to be seen how Lewnes’ departure will impact the media review and its outcome, let alone how Lewnes’ successor will align with its chosen partner.