Microsoft: ‘CMOs are not comfortable with the growing role of tech’

Microsoft’s US marketing chief Grad Conn says marketers are being pushed into martech without knowing how to set up their organisations to manage it but believes that it will enable them to take control of the increasing revenue responsibility they’re facing.


There has been an explosion in the marketing technology available to marketers. The latest estimate from chiefmartech estimates that in 2016 there were 3,874 martech solutions, double the previous year. This year’s estimate, due out later this month, is likely to tell a similar story.

This is a concern for Microsoft’s US marketing chief Grad Conn. He believes “a lot of CMOs are being pushed into the technology space in a way that they are not comfortable with” and says “a lot of them don’t know how to set up their organisation to actually be able to manage it”.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Conn says understanding this “confusing tech landscape” is one of the big challenges facing marketing professionals today. And it is only becoming more important after controversies such as brand advertising appearing next to extremist content on sites such as YouTube.

Conn believes there is also an opportunity in martech if marketers can link it with “the engines of revenue”. He explains: “CMOs tended to be somewhat powerless in generating revenue so what you are seeing is CMOs investing in marketing technology to drive control and management of these levers so they can deliver revenue [and] keep their jobs.”

But warns that “too many marketers are using vendors to do their work” and advises them to get involved in the process of running marketing technology.

He says: “It’s not a bad idea to get your hands dirty – a lot of marketers like to be strategic but it’s also not a bad idea to go an run some ads yourself. Go and see what the interface is like [otherwise] how will you have any perspective on how to leverage it.”

Retrain teams rather than replace them

Before becoming US CMO, Conn worked in the research division at Microsoft. When he shifted to his current role and took on responsibility for leading digital transformation at Microsoft US, he brought his entire team with him. He was able to do that, he says, because the brand runs internal education programmes so he could retrain his team, rather than replacing them.

Conn says he “didn’t go in with the mind set of getting rid of one team and replacing it with another”. But he did come across issues in sourcing information outside the company as traditional marketing publications and conferences “weren’t covering this space” or were “sceptical about technology”.

Pretend you’re in school for the rest of your life.

Grad Conn, Microsoft

Conn wanted to learn from other organisations that had been through digital transformation. He says: “It was all about connecting to other people like ourselves and saying, ‘what’s going on on your side?’ and going through everyone else’s experiences – understanding the pitfalls was a big part of it.”

Constantly learn to stay ahead

Conn believes a lot of marketers are “getting themselves wrapped around their shoelaces” in terms of what they need to know and what they should and shouldn’t be doing, and says it should be more about “embrace and learn”.

Conn says there’s an issue in the marketing profession in reading and learning outside of hours. He likens it to lawyers having to read case law and doctors having to continuously go on courses.

“A lot of marketers say things like, ‘I don’t watch TV, I don’t like reading’,” argues Conn. “You have to study it like a profession and if you don’t want to, you should do something else – this is a profession that requires continuous study and investment if you are going to have any hope in staying at pace with it.”

“What you learned yesterday is already old news,” he warns.



There are 5 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. malcolm wicks 31 Mar 2017

    Did Grad Conn actually realise he was talking to Marketing Week when he decided to rubbish Marketeers and Marketing – oh and don’t forget Marketing publications and conferences too. Perhaps us marketeers should change jobs and run Microsoft’s Research Division – after all it must be easy if Microsoft runs internal education programmes.

  2. Tom Foremski 6 Apr 2017

    I know marketers that hate Facebook and Twitter and have vowed never to open an account! I tell them to calm down but that that they need to know those services by being on them — you cannot know them by reading about them. But such open attitudes to try it and see are very rare and generally are hard to change inside an organization.

  3. Amy Huson 6 Apr 2017

    I found the article refreshing. It documents the real world transition I’ve seen over the last 15 years. There are more channels, more messages and everything must be quantified. There is a lot of hype about “MarTech” and limited progress inside most organizations. Let’s just agree that “Revenue” is a team sport, so quantifying where marketing provides the most help is not a bad thing. But quantifying everything could be a fool’s errand.

  4. Auri Biswas 13 Apr 2017

    Interesting observations by the CMO of a corporate giant – whose experiences (or should we say, experiments) with Windows 8, and thereafter, have provided a lot of material for good case studies & discussions on product strategy.

    I believe, a deeper look at some of the generalizations made here about martech and marketers – would benefit readers in developing a more accurate understanding of the trends mentioned in this article.

    As an example, near the end of the article, there is an interesting quote about people in the marketing profession not “reading and learning outside of hours”. I would have thought that people with deep experience in the marketing profession would immediately point out that marketing as a term has now embraced sales and advertising/promotion – to the extent that in common parlance, it almost refers to the latter exclusively. Perhaps his assessment rests on that morphed notion of marketing.

    However, marketing at its core, is about strategy – understanding your customers, their needs, market trends, shaping products, competitive positioning, key messages, communications strategy, pricing and distribution, and finally promotion tactics and efforts. Marketers who are focused on the strategic tasks above, in my opinion, are intellectually curious, creative, and both eager and adept at learning new concepts and techniques.

    As is common in our culture, when a term becomes imbued with negative connotations over the years, we come up with a new term to remedy the image / perception issue. Thus, used cars became pre-owned automobiles, and salesman became marketing consultants (not just in the car industry, btw!). Continuing on that path, sales & advertising software became marketing automation!

    Most of martech currently is actually adtech. I applaud Marketo, one of the leading companies in that arena, for their honest and upfront statement on the top of their home page, clarifying that marketing automation is actually about advertising. Yes, with developments in AI and Deep Learning, new tools and capabilities will probably appear – addressing the upstream strategic tasks of the marketing process.

    In the interim, it would be great to see articles and quotes that provide accurate and insightful observations that cut through jargon & buzzwords that muddy the waters and continue to promote certain operational / tactical tasks of marketing – with the, perhaps unintended, result of diminishing the value and impact of the strategic side of marketing.

    Yes, execution (esp. promotion, advertising, PR) is extremely important – but when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it is good to remember that we need insight driven marketing innovation and strategy for real-world results.


    Auri Biswas.

    [I do hope the paragraphs are preserved as I typed them! ]

  5. Rachel Francis 4 Jul 2017

    I’m split over this article. Firstly, I don’t know any other profession that researches and learn more than marketers (maybe scientists!). I’m always reading, learning and trying out new things. However, I do see that with the shift over to technology, tech people seem to be the most important people in a business now and if they possess other interpersonal skills they seem to take over every area. The task for us marketers now is too become more techie and move away from just the strategy side of things to the action side. We need to know how to build websites, how to code etc.

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