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April, 2024

Harnessing AI for brand gain not brand bust: Adobe’s global CMO of Digital Experience Eric Hall on customisable AI, trusted data, tech incrementalism and selling the platform story

What you need to know:

  • Customisable tools that provide brand safety, use trusted data sources and sit within the applications marketers use every day is the focus for Adobe as it grows its portfolio of embedded generative and predictive AI capabilities across Experience Cloud.
  • Adobe global CMO of Digital Experience, Eric Hall, says CMOs need to be able to rely on structure in the technology they use to protect their brands and believes Adobe’s platform play and investments into data governance and practical AI are helping the vendor become an even more compelling proposition for marketing teams.
  • Hall also believes Adobe has made such strides forward on integration, it’s no longer defining perceptions of the vendor’s solutions, even as many marketing teams continue to struggle with disparate systems.  
  • Yet building out the brand narrative for Adobe remains the work in progress for the martech vendor, and Hall admits there’s still plenty more to be done building best-in-class B2B marketing capability and moving away from a sales-led heritage into one that emphasises Adobe’s enterprise credentials and platform story.
  • The CMO is also keen to see companies shift away from “incrementalism” and project-based technology mindsets in favour of getting bolder around tech investments and innovation.

The last thing any marketing leader wants is a bunch of people on their teams already guilty of going off brand doing more of it on their own or with agencies. And that’s one of the fears marketing leaders are staring down right now with generative AI and the promise of quick, easy proliferation of imagery and content, agrees Adobe global CMO of Digital Experience, Eric Hall.

But even as AI offers up infinite creative production that finally could allow marketers to realise personalisation at scale, Adobe is making sure the way it brings these capabilities into the tools meets the structured, brand governed requirements of modern marketing teams.

This year’s Adobe Summit was a showcase of the martech vendor’s increasingly solid platform strategy and its efforts to introduce practical, brand-safe application of predictive and generative AI directly into the tools marketers are already using. A year on from making its first foray into gen AI and nearly a decade on from first bringing AI and machine learning into Adobe Experience Cloud through Sensei, the vendor used this year’s event to showcase embedded and customisable AI within existing applications across its stack, from campaign management to journey optimisation, experimentation, analytics, customer data platform management and content and creative production.

Adobe is also extending its seven-year partnership with Microsoft to start connecting its marketing stack with Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Office applications through a single, AI-driven Copilot digital assistant.

“As a CMO, you need to be able to rely on structure in the technology and what you can count on. When you have AI as a technology on its own in some consumer access experimentation zone, the question is: What are my teams going to be doing with that? That’s the part that sounds scary,” Hall told Mi3 in an exclusive Australian interview during the event.

“There are CMOs where nothing annoys them more than some team going off and doing something with some agency that isn’t read in on the latest brand standards. They go do this thing and it makes a round trip back somehow into marketing, then they have to spend more money in cycles to fix it. And you’re wondering how that happened. That happens everyday, all the time and at any company size.”

By contrast, being able to train AI on brand standards so it can firstly compare content, imagery and assets against those guidelines and design systems to say whether the output is compliant or not, then also guide the user back towards brand guidelines makes for an “interesting, useful use case” of AI for Hall.

“Compare this with AI that’s controlled, is understood, and has very good structure around it. What it’s being allowed to do has human governance on top as well as other guardrails. That’s what I am looking for and what anyone who’s a marketer is going to be looking for.  And it’s brand safe,” Hall said. This is what Adobe’s now pitching with its Custom Models and Services within its content supply chain solutions.

“It’s not AI giving me proliferation and chaos, this is AI that can evaluate a bunch of data really fast, and give me a useful output that says whether things match up or they don’t and apply to a very specific idea, which is brand standards.”  

As Hall explained it with a nod to his Digital Media CTO colleague, CTO, Ely Greenfield, much of what’s happening with predictive or generative AI is the computer saying whether something matches, or conversely, what comes next.

“It’s answering that question a billion times and with more and more complexity. When you can apply brand standards and say I want these things to be evaluated against this brand criteria, and write rules for that, things get very useful. You can make the AI useful to you if you know what you’re trying to accomplish it,” Hall added.

Alongside customisation, getting real value out of AI as a company requires you to have base-level models trained on data you can trace, Hall continued.

“You have to know where the data came from. Adobe has taken a lot of steps to do that, and we are indemnifying customers to say we’re so confident, we’ll write it into our contract,” he said. “Then it has to fit into your actual workflows, and has to be in your applications. It can’t be a side project; that’s not how people get the rest of their jobs done.”

You have to know where the data came from. Adobe has taken a lot of steps to do that, and we are indemnifying customers to say we’re so confident, we’ll write it into our contract. Then it has to fit into your actual workflows, and has to be in your applications. It can’t be a side project; that’s not how people get the rest of their jobs done.

Eric Hall, Global CMO Digital Experience, Adobe

Beyond the martech integration narrative

This year’s Summit marks Hall’s first as global CMO for Adobe’s Digital Experience, although he’s spent nearly a decade in other parts of the business. Among his jobs was advising marketing and IT departments on how to go forward in terms of use cases, tech they needed, and complementary data and change management required to make the tech effective.

What Hall has also witnessed is Adobe’s Digital Experience business evolving out of a product-led approach into a platform play. Both inputs are now informing his approach as a CMO.

“We’ve gone from a world where we had a lot of point solutions operating somewhat independently. When I first came to Adobe and was in professional services, the biggest challenge was anything integrations. That was the theme for the longest time. I lived that,” he commented.

This integration challenge remains an acute one for plenty of marketing teams today, as a recent Forrester study on martech showed. The analyst firm found integration is overtaking functionality as a key solution selling point, with almost half the marketers it surveyed wanting to reduce the number of providers they use.

Yet Hall believes Adobe has made such strides forward on integration, it’s no longer defining perceptions of the vendor’s solutions.

“What’s happened – quietly almost – is a lot of that has gone away. Because of Experience Platform, because we have built applications on top of it, and because we’ve done a number of other things to be smarter about how we think about product and certain engineering decisions, that problem of lots of point solutions that don’t integrate doesn’t really define Adobe anymore,” he claimed.  

Nevertheless, Hall has watched many companies try to do best-of-breed implementations controlled through internal IT.

“It wasn’t illogical to do that. But what’s happened is companies have found themselves in a technology cul-de-sac. They have built out on all these different point solutions and now they’re maintaining integrations on the IT side and that gets harder and hard, messier and messier,” he claimed. “So Adobe has become much more of a platform, and companies are realising they need much more of a platform.”

With all that as context, Hall said his approach as CMO is about becoming a best-in-class B2B marketing operation.

“Like a lot of B2B companies, we were always very sales led and not necessarily thinking about being best-in-class,” he admitted.  “But the second big piece is I said look, the platform moment is here. The tech is here and ready; the need is palpable. Therefore we do need to start having bigger, CIO and CMO-level conversations about the capability of our platform, its scalability, and the level of enterprise trust I think Adobe has earned over the years.

“There are lots of ways we can point to that – investments we made into privacy and data protection, for example. That puts us in a position to have a legitimate conversation with CMOs and CIOs that says Adobe cares about this more than anything else, we are the most comprehensive set of digital marketing tools, we are the only platform built to meet this level of use cases and scale required for enterprise organisational size. That’s not a product story, it’s a platform story.”

To boldly go where you haven’t gone before

In the near term, Hall’s key priority is ensuring Adobe is more visible in “a lot of different spaces where folks are showing up”, while better understanding where they are at.

“The hard thing about enterprise software is everyone is at a different point in their level of maturity. They’re all on a journey, fighting for budgets, fighting legacy,” he said. “What very few companies do is realise their technology roadmap is often failing because it’s incrementalism.

“So many companies are in a stuck mindset around the fact they have all this legacy tech they spent so much money on. But this is just how technology works. No one is running around with their 1999 Nokia flip phone not getting an iPhone because they spent $300 on it when they bought it. That’s not the mindset we have as consumers generally.

“Companies I think are often missing an opportunity to get bolder and make bigger bets. And they often need to be CEO, board-level decisions or very strategic CIO conversations. Our goal along with our partner community is to convince people to do big, interesting bold things. Because we see it paying off.”