As a digital marketing veteran who has worked in the industry for more than 14 years, Sarah Kennedy, CMO of martech firm Marketo, has extensive experience of the skills required to make it in marketing.

She spoke to Econsultancy about how a love of tech and problem-solving helped her to accelerate her career, why marketers are becoming “technologists first”, and how they can better harness the potential of automation and AI.

Sarah Kennedy headshot

Telling stories with technology

Kennedy’s love of technology began at a young age. Growing up, her father was a passionate computer hobbyist who loved to collect PCs, and bought the latest models as soon they became available. This gave Kennedy access to technology from as young as seven or eight years old, and kindled in her a love of tech that would last her entire life.

“I probably didn’t appreciate how rare that was, at the time,” Kennedy reflects. “But I loved tech, and so I dug deep into it and spent a great deal of time with it.”

A lot of that time was spent playing games, and Kennedy’s favourite game as a child was Myst: a graphic adventure puzzle game legendary for its difficulty.

“It was one of the first games that brought together storytelling and technology,” she says. “I was too young to fully appreciate why I couldn’t solve every puzzle – and I never conquered it, sadly! – but it was really fun to not know exactly where you were headed, but to know that there were puzzles along the way that would challenge you intellectually.”

Ever since, Kennedy has sought out the same intellectual challenge in her career. I ask her whether her early gaming instilled her with a love of solving puzzles.

“Yes, I think that’s where it comes from,” she says thoughtfully.

Another of her passions was writing, and Kennedy describes an English teacher who “lit a fire in her” for telling stories.

“I loved the art and the science of it, of putting those words together in a way that was compelling,” she says.

As an undergrad, she majored in business journalism, balancing it out with management at her father’s recommendation. While at school, Kennedy continued to foster her love of technology, and it was in marketing that she found her two passions came together.

“The intersection of journalism and technology, to me, is what marketing has become,” she says.

The complexity of B2B marketing

Kennedy began her professional career as Marketing Manager for a real estate company. After spending a year in this role, she decided to branch out and get more experience working in an agency environment.

“I’d always admired the idea of going to work in an agency, especially early on in my career,” she remembers, “because the work is very intense, but you also get a lot of experience straight out of the gate. And that’s exactly how I experienced it.”

She went to work for a very small, independent firm based in Dallas, Texas, where she was introduced to B2B marketing – and was immediately smitten with it.

“I started to really understand the weight of supporting a business, or a marketer, even – who is pretty much betting their career on you as an agency. That was the first exposure I had to B2B, and I loved that, and the challenge that comes with this sector.”

Kennedy continued to pursue that challenge in the next phase of her career, working for Sabre Corporation, a travel technology company.

She started out at Sabre as an intern, on the advice of a professor who encouraged her to try working in a larger corporate environment. Kennedy spent ten years there working in different marketing roles, including as Head of Innovation and R&D (Research & Development), a position she was the first woman in the company to hold. Her last three years were spent working as the CMO of Sabre’s hospitality business, selling ecommerce platforms to the CMOs of luxury hotel brands like Marriott and Four Seasons.

Kennedy describes Sabre as “the epitome of B2B marketing complexity”. It was there that she found some of her greatest opportunities for learning, by spending time with technical colleagues in the Operations Research team; and also encountered artificial intelligence in its early stages.

“Sabre had an Operations Research team that basically invented what we know today as revenue management,” she says. “I would spend time with them, understanding everything from how our technology supported the weight of balancing a plane before take-off, to – whenever a flight is cancelled – how do you re-accommodate two hundred people who now have to go into the same seat class, in the most optimal way, in real-time?

“I get nerdy about things like that,” she laughs. “I love getting into the layers of data. At that time, this would have been four or five years ago, we were also dabbling in the early days of artificial intelligence, and how to use it in things like re-accommodation, getting smarter over time based on people’s preferences.

“I’ve always been drawn to intellectuals, I guess, and having that access to incredibly smart people with PhDs in Operations Research, who I could just walk up to and learn from – I knew it was rare, and so I took advantage of that and spent significant time with them.”

How having roots in tech benefits marketers

I ask Kennedy how her background in, and passion for, technology has benefited her in her marketing career.

“Oh, endlessly,” she replies. “Even being able to tell a story visually with Powerpoint, in the early days, was so invaluable.

“I would use Photoshop, or HTML, to visually represent whatever the message was – and I could do that hands-on, myself. I think that helped me accelerate my career, because I was able to do that without a lot of support and help, and use different media to communicate in a creative way. Being curious with tech was an important part of that.”

Growing up with a household full of computers must have been a huge advantage in getting to grips with technology, but what about marketers who don’t have the benefit of a technological background, or a hobby-level involvement in technology? Is it ever “too late” for them to get into tech?

“Not at all,” says Kennedy. “And I think – these days, we’re all interested. Everybody is immersed in tech, even though it’s not always obvious. We’re all passionate, and experts, in our own right; it just depends on where you find that path.

“I would also say that I know a lot of marketers – especially some of our most talented customers – are hiring people who fill those gaps for them. For example, they’re hiring teams of data scientists who can go in and really start to study the behaviour of their customers, or optimise pricing and packaging.

“The more important thing is that you know technology is important, and you hire the right people who can complement your skillset as a marketer – whether or not that may involve a passion for tech. But I think most marketers these days do have a passion for tech, in one way or another.”

As awareness of the increasing overlap between marketing and technology, and the need for closer union between the two disciplines, grows in the industry, many commentators have called for marketers to acquire more “tech” skills – such as coding. Does Kennedy think that marketers need to learn how to code?

“I think it’s helpful!” she replies. “But you certainly don’t have to. It’s more about the logic behind the code, that really helps stimulate your brain to think in a different way.

“It’s not so much about going on to write code in your day-to-day work – Lord help me, I would pity our tech team at Marketo if I was ever the one doing the coding! But I think that learning how to do it changes your mindset. It changes the way you think about business.

“So, if you have a passion for it, I would encourage people to do it – there are so many easy ways to learn. You can learn Python these days with an app on your cellphone. I think it can stretch your mental muscles in a way that is always helpful.”

Being technologists first

I ask Kennedy whether she believes there is any stigma, or reluctance, in the industry around acquiring technical skills.

In actual fact, she tells me, the issue is more that the rest of the C-suite has yet to catch on to the fact that marketers are becoming much more technical and analytical, and constantly requires them to prove their worth in that regard.

“For years and years now, I think marketers have faced challenges around having to prove their value, and being more data-driven and analytically-minded,” she says. “I’ve seen so many more marketers become analytically-focused and data-driven in their decision-making, but I’ve yet to see us successfully, as marketers, shift perceptions to reflect that reality.

“I think we need to shift the perception across the rest of the C-suite, and make sure we’re speaking the language of the other executives, to make it real for everyone.”

At the same time, Kennedy is optimistic that this mindset will change as marketing becomes known for being increasingly technological.

“I think the perception of marketers being technologists first – or at least, on an equivalent basis – will continue to grow. We’re now starting to see some CMOs who are changing the perception of what marketing is – for example, Mark Herron, the CMO of People’s United Bank. He started out in IT, and is now a CMO in the financial services sector, where he heads up a robust team with a ton of analytically-minded people.

“Palo Alto Networks is another one: they’ve invested a lot into data science as well as artificial intelligence, and we’re starting to see that become the trend among a lot of our customers. I believe that will only become more prevalent.”

Harnessing artificial intelligence

Finally, we return to the subject of AI. From her experiences with early AI at Sabre Corporation to her present role at Marketo, which offers a suite of automation tools and AI-powered insights, Kennedy has had plenty of opportunities to get hands-on with artificial intelligence. How does she think that marketers can better harness the benefits of AI in their day-to-day work?

“I would say: look at small steps that you can introduce, and small ways that you can apply it in your company. Artificial intelligence can be an overwhelming concept, if you try to approach it as a whole.

“We did this at Marketo when we launched Content AI: it was the first artificial intelligence-driven product that we brought to market. Essentially, it enables marketers to optimise the content that’s put in front of different audiences; it gets smarter over time, based on what type of response or action it drives.

“Audience AI is similar, in the sense that it chooses which audiences will be more apt to respond, or provide a better ROI on a certain campaign, or a certain topic.

“So, we’re making these micro-investments in AI that help marketers take it in a consumable, “snackable” fashion, and learn over time where else they can apply it.”

Shortly before my conversation with Kennedy, PricewaterhouseCooper released a major report stating that artificial intelligence and related technologies will create as many jobs as they displace in the UK over the next 20 years – which should assuage fears in many sectors that AI is going to make all of us redundant.

But what about marketing, specifically? I ask Kennedy whether she thinks that AI is of net benefit to marketers – particularly from a job creation or replacement standpoint.

“Oh, gosh, yes,” she enthuses immediately. “Again, using Content AI as the example – if you imagine having to go in and manually optimise the type of content that you’re creating, and to manually build a million different nurture campaigns that would provide the same experience that you’re automating – you just can’t do that without AI.

“I get very excited about the day that artificial intelligence allows marketers with high-integrity data to make decisions on a daily basis. It’s never going to replace the human element of making the decision; but it will accelerate a human’s ability to get the right data in front of them to make those decisions.

“If, on any given day, Peter – the Senior Director of our EMEA Marketing team – and I are asking the question of, ‘Where should we be spending our money, and on which channels, to drive [x] amount of revenue?’ That question is a difficult one to answer today for any company.

“Being able to make that assessment on a daily basis, and having it down and perfected to a science – that’s something that I get really excited about artificial intelligence enabling for us.

“It allows marketers to optimise spending their time where they can add the most value, rather than spending it on aggregating data, or merging a lot of different data silos together in order to be able to perform that assessment.”

Kennedy is clear on this as the true benefit of AI to marketers – to free them up to work on the things that are most important and that require the human touch. “There is no shortage of work that marketers would love to be able to prioritise. Artificial intelligence is finally going to unlock the time that has been taken by things that should be automated, and should be supported by AI.”

In order for marketers to be able to make full use of the potential of AI, however, Kennedy emphasises the importance of hiring people who can strategise, think analytically, and are good at solving puzzles – in short, all of the skills that come from having an interest or a background in technology.

“As a CMO – no matter what geography you’re located in – hiring people who are strategic thinkers, who can solve complex problems and who bring data to a discussion first is of paramount importance, as we think about this discipline and where we’ll be in 2020 and beyond.

“Enabling teams and marketing organisations to leverage artificial intelligence will be dependent on hiring for that skillset.”

For more opinion from leading marketers, come along to the Festival of Marketing, 10-11 October, London.