IBM's hire of AOL’s former president Bob Lord as its chief digital officer naturally begs the question: What will it mean for IBM’s collection of marketing applications? After all, Lord helped architect AOL’s transition into an ad tech platform – which eventually led to its acquisition by Verizon.
But while Lord’s duties at IBM will likely impact marketing tech, his role is more expansive.
An official statement from IBM elaborated without elaborating: “As our chief digital officer, Bob will accelerate and scale all aspects of IBM’s digital presence, operations and ecosystem. He will be responsible for the IBM digital platform, digital sales and marketing and our developer ecosystem.”
Jay Henderson, IBM’s director of offering and product management,was more colloquial: “He’ll help lead IBM’s efforts to market its products through digital channels.”
A developer ecosystem? Marketing through digital channels? It’s a bit of a shift for IBM, whose technologies typically require heavy customization. But as – cue that famous Forrester report – CMOs become the chief buyers of tech, IBM needs to make its products more accessible, which is why Lord’s role is so important.
“IBM hasn’t exposed its vision as well as Salesforce or Adobe, in terms of how [its marketing products] integrate and come together,” said Tony Bailey, SVP of technology at the digital agency Digitas. “Probably because IBM hasn’t brought together themselves how to make it work and market it. IBM has not over the years been very strong at getting out there and marketing what its software does.”
Salesforce, Oracle and especially Adobe all push a platform model. IBM is different, traditionally focusing on tools that, through heavy customization, can be bolted together.
Yes, IBM has a marketing cloud, at least by name. But while competing clouds represent an entire portfolio, IBM’s marketing cloud is essentially a tool within a larger umbrella of marketing tech.
Strictly speaking, IBM’s cloud-based marketing stack centers around email marketing inherited from Silverpop and mobile push messaging inherited from Xtify. There’s also, within the marketing cloud, Journey Designer – analogous to Salesforce’s Journey Builder tool – though Henderson noted that Designer is different because it enables collaboration.
Other applications often associated with IBM’s marketing cloud, such as IBM Digital Analytics and an ecommerce platform through WebSphere Commerce, are actually separate portfolios, said Henderson.
Of course, these tools are well-respected. But when AdExchanger asked various analysts and agencies why one should use IBM marketing cloud, the answers focused on specific functions.
“It really depends on which part of the solution you’re looking at,” said Shiva Vannavada, CTO at the Hearst-owned digital agency iCrossing. He noted that Silverpop is pretty powerful and well-integrated with IBM’s analytics offerings.
Bailey agreed that Silverpop is a market leader in its category. Constellation Research principal and founder Ray Wang said that IBM had “good analytics and transactional marketing automation.” And Gartner research VP Martin Kihn said that IBM’s collection has “strong marketing point solutions.”
But IBM needs to adapt as demand for marketing technologies evolves. “What’s happened over the past year is that the real value for marketers isn’t in the applications but in sourcing data about people and in assigning people – creating an identity layer,” Kihn said. “The applications are almost commoditized.”
Certainly, IBM has taken steps toward efficiently moving people-based data. Last October, it launched Universal Behavior Exchange (UBX), which acts like a subway, shuttling data across different IBM portfolios as well as third-party tech partners, like MediaMath or Turn.
“[UBX] provides an interface for connecting different marketing technologies together,” Henderson said. “So the marketer doesn’t have to get into giant IT projects. They can literally point and click and move data between applications.”
It’s a bit strange to hear an IBM-er tout ways to avoid giant IT projects. But that shift is happening out of necessity. The C-suite technologists who used to buy marketing tech had teams of developers, engineers and business analysts who could build and manage software around IBM’s various tools.
But the CMO doesn’t have either these resources or the luxury of time. CMOs, said Digitas’ Bailey, need tech that’s ready to go immediately and whose agency can perform the customization.
“A CMO doesn’t have a team who can spend the next 12 months on some internal project building this out, because in 12 months, he’ll be out of a job if he doesn’t address the customer experience problems happening on the front end,” Bailey said.
iCrossing’s Vannavada also notes that IBM is changing with the times.
“IBM typically charges a hefty sum for integration services, but their strategy is shifting to more off-the-shelf service,” he said, “and allowing IBM Interactive Experience (iX) to be part of the solution.”
Both Vannavada and Bailey see IBM’s in-house digital agency iX as a core part of this change. Just this year, iX went on an extremely uncharacteristic spending spree in February, buying three agencies in six days. At the end of March, it acquired Salesforce partner Bluewolf.
Those iX acquisitions, Bailey speculated, might be happening because IBM is aware it’s fallen behind some of the more consolidated clouds, which can package solutions in ways that are more attractive to CMOs.
“IBM’s acquisitions recently in the digital agency space involve picking up companies that can provide teams that can build upon their software, and who can also recommend other best-of-breed and packaged solutions,” Bailey said.
While industry observers note that IBM’s marketing portfolio still has some holes (a data management platform and paid media execution tools, and independent analyst Rebecca Lieb points out that it’s “conspicuously” missing content marketing components), perhaps those lapses can be filled if third parties have an easier time plugging into IBM’s software.
“We are working really hard to recruit and onboard new partners into our Universal Behavior Exchange,” said Henderson. “Those partners range from big brand-name companies we recognize to tiny start-ups.”
Ultimately, IBM’s real challenge – at least as it pertains to its marketing tech – is in clarifying its value proposition to a different type of enterprise buyer. Maybe CIOs never got fired for buying IBM. But CMOs have a much shorter life expectancy.