Building Better CMOs
Building Better CMOs
Heather Freeland (Adobe) Transcript, Part 1
Heather Freeland: The speed with which content is moving and technology is moving that we have to keep pace with, multiplied by channel, by audience, and by market, is virtually impossible to keep pace. So we've had to fundamentally rethink how we're building content to keep pace with this. And if we didn't have a solid operational backbone, we'd be hosed. I mean, to put it bluntly.

Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get stronger and smarter. I'm Greg Stuart, the CEO of the nonprofit trade association MMA Global.

And that voice you heard at the top is Heather Freeland. She’s the chief brand officer at Adobe and previously worked at Lyft, the Gilt Groupe, and Facebook, where her very first product was launching mobile ads. She also worked at the agency Digitas, MTV, and more.

Today on Building Better CMOs, Heather and I are going to talk about climbing the career jungle gym, how Adobe is staying ahead of the curve on generative AI, why advertising is overhyped, and so much more.

Now, this podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have. Heather Freeland from Adobe is going to tell us how to do that, right after this.

GS: Hey, Heather. How you doing?

HF: Good, good. Thanks for having me.

GS: I've been looking forward to this one for a little while because, unlike many of the CMOs I talk to, your... Well, I'm sure everybody else's product matters to consumers, but your product matters to this industry tremendously.

HF: Yes.

GS: In fact, I can still remember in my early days when Macs were first introduced into the agency, and Adobe were the underlying tools that the more, let's say, progressive of our creative team...

HF: Yes.

GS: Got super fixated on trying to apply and use.

HF: Absolutely. One of the first ways we became known and loved.

GS: Yeah. What was the first product, would you know offhand? I realize you weren't there, but do you remember what the first product was for Adobe?

HF: Our first product was PostScript, and it's so funny. So back in high school and college, I actually worked as a graphic designer, and this will date me. I sat at a drafting table and had to send out my copy to be typeset, and I used an X-Acto knife and wax to get it on the board. And I often joke that if things like PostScript had existed when I was in graphic design, I might've stayed in graphic design, rather than getting wax burns and paper cuts all day long.

GS: I know that, too, because I was in print traffic. Yes, there was a print business at one point.

HF: Oh, yes. Traffic.

GS: I was in print traffic, and so I used to have to be in... This was my first job. I had to send out the type to have it brought back with the right kerning, and I remember, oh my god. And we'd have to call the messenger to deliver it because... Oh, and then I remember when the first Mac came in place and people were like, "No, we can just do it here and print the ad and show it to the client tomorrow." Unbelievable.

HF: Mind-blowing. Yes. How far we've come.

GS: Oh my god. And how far we're about to go with Adobe, which is going to make this kind of interesting. And Heather, just maybe a little background for people. How often have you now been a head of marketing for a pretty good-sized company? Two, three times?

HF: Yeah, three. Most recently I came from Lyft, running marketing there, and then I ran a good chunk of our B2B marketing at Facebook for seven and a half years, marketing to advertisers and marketers, which was a lot of fun. And then previous to that was at the Gilt Groupe back in the day when they kind of invented the flash sale.

GS: You sprinkled in a little bit of work at Facebook along the way, now I guess we call them Meta.

HF: Yes.

GS: What else is in there? You did a little bit of work... MTV, too. Pretty exciting. Yes, so you're a cultural icon. And one of my favorite agencies of all time because I know because I had to compete against them at one point, which was Digitas.

HF: Yes. And I was there at a pretty special moment in time because it was all the very beginning of digital marketing. We were kind of leading the transition from direct marketing to digital and kind of trailblazing at that point, which was a lot of fun, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of incredible people along the way there.

GS: I have a lot of board member CMOs that have come out of Digitas, so I think it's the center of many things that were great, or people that were great and are great in marketing. So yes, congratulations on having been a part of that.

This is an interesting conversation now that you're at Adobe. I mean, I think there's been a reemergence in creativity in the ad business. There's a greater respect for it at some level. There's more channels than we've ever had, than we ever could have... the proverbial shake a stick at. It's just, it's unbelievable what's happened. I don't have any idea how marketers can even assess in today all the options that they have, big budget markers. I mean, it just takes a village.

HF: It truly does.

GS: And it's harder than ever, and yet sort of at the center of that has now been the revolution and creative driven by digital, started with Adobe decades ago, as you and I identified. But now somebody's got to lead us into this next future, and then we throw in a little dollop of a thing called AI.

HF: Oh, yes.

GS: Maybe it'd be good, Heather, why don't you just take a few moments here... I realize it's hard to encapsulate all that's happening with Adobe in shortness of the time here. But why don't you maybe give people... I think it'd be good for people to just hear an update on what Adobe is looking at and beginning to think of. Try to give some basis to that, and then I'll pick apart parts that I want to get to on it.

HF: Absolutely. Well, Adobe, first and foremost, we serve a wide range of audiences, from enterprise clients and marketers, small businesses, creators, and the like. And one of the things that we realized last year was that with the advent of generative AI—and we'd been working in AI for years already—but with the advent of generative AI, that was going to fundamentally change the lives, the workflows, the work, the impact of all of those customer segments. And so we were going to have to get ahead of that and think about what that future looked like.

And what's been mind-blowing since that realization has been the speed with which the world has moved and changed. And that's no different here within Adobe. And so last year when we started playing around with... And we'd always been playing around with different pieces of this, but we started playing around with some of these new generative AI tools and saying, "Hey, this is going to be the future of our business."

And we ultimately built our own model, Firefly, that is an image model. And what we've done is to build that with our end customers in mind. So what that means and what that looks like is that we think about it with the enterprise in mind. It needs to be commercially viable. We think about it with the creative in mind. It needs to amplify their creativity, not hinder it. We need to help the rank-and-file marketer scale and move faster and accelerate workflows. And we need to help people find new ways to accelerate their thinking and think even bigger.

And so as we've integrated Firefly, which is the generative AI model we've built into all of these tools, we're doing that all with the end consumer in mind. Not just doing it with building the model to build the model. We're building it to serve a real use.

And what's been exciting about this in particular is that I'm starting to see how this plays out across the entire kind of workflow of how people develop creative. Whether that's in the ideation stage, then you take the ideation, you can come up with an amazing idea with the model, then you can actually bring it in to edit the model, move things around. It is absolutely magical what you're able to do with this integrated into things like Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.

And whether you can integrate new color palettes, new forms. You can create your own fonts based on a simple prompt, create your own images, fill in or expand backgrounds. It's just, it is mind-blowing every time I see something. So now with the next wave of AI and generative AI into our products, we're also just thinking much bigger about how do we improve the workflows of marketers? How we do connect the end-to-end experience from idea all the way to the customer using these tools to accelerate and make it easier for marketers across the board.

GS: Yeah, it's a crazy kind of world out there. I served as a CMO, I can't imagine the complexity of today's world with all the channels. So we're going to get into some of that. Make sure that people are really clear what Firefly is doing. Probably a lot know, but not everybody will.

HF: Yeah. So Firefly is our new set of generative AI and AI solutions across Adobe. So that includes our own models, like we're starting with an image model. There will be others to come. And we are bringing those in to basically power all of our tools, and it will give the end user a ton of optionality in terms of how they're creating, how they're integrating new images, new animations, you name it, into what they're building. And so it's really exciting to be able to literally type a simple prompt and someone with virtually no skills can create something that previously had only been in their imagination.

GS: So if you need a new image or you need to modify an image, Firefly's the backbone of doing that.

HF: Absolutely. Yep. And I think the "modify" is the key thing. The fact that the models are integrated into our tools is so powerful. So I can go into Illustrator, and let's say I've created a beautiful image and I'm not quite sure I love the color palette or I want to match it to something else. I can type in a theme like "neon green springtime," and it can generate three different versions of green shades that I can choose from in moments, versus something that would've previously taken literally hours to do in that tool. So it's pretty magical.

GS: There's images that it can draw from all sorts of sources. I thought within Firefly, can't you create your own, in essence, image LLM. You can create your own database of images that it draws upon, so that you have some... You're really providing the kind of control that a corporation needs.

HF: Yes. So, for example, I mentioned earlier that being commercially safe is critical to us, and there are times where you don't need something to be commercially safe. If my team is coming up with storyboards for a new campaign and it will never see the light of day beyond, that's fine. However, all of us as marketers need to feel good about what we're putting out into the world, and that there's not that legal risk.

I've spent more than enough of my days battling with legal teams on what I can and cannot use throughout my career, that I know this is a pain point that all marketers experience. So what we wanted to do was make it easy. So there's two different things we did. One, we trained Firefly based all on Adobe stock images. So we knew that we had the rights to use them versus just scraping the internet more broadly, so that when marketers use the models built on those images, they can feel comfortable and confident. So far as that we are even indemnifying them if they use that model from any legal action so that they can feel confident in that.

Second, as you alluded to, they can actually train their own models on their own IP. So, for example, I'll take Coca-Cola because they've been doing some wonderful things in gen AI. Coca-Cola would never show up if I typed into Firefly "a can of Coca-Cola." Their imagery, their logo, would not show up in there because it's trained off of things that we know are safe for commercial use.

Coca-Cola could then train their own model incorporating their logo, all of their IP, their bottles, you name it. And they could then build imagery and build a whole library of assets, what have you, off of their own IP in the same way. Making it much easier for the marketers that support them around the world, whether that's at a local bottler or someone doing a brand campaign, can feel really comfortable and confident and work that much faster and more scaled because it's all built off of their IP.

GS: I seem to understand that in generative AI, image-driven, that that material is not copyrightable. Correct? So there's all sorts of questions that still need to be resolved around this.

HF: Yes, there are a lot of issues around that right now that are, frankly, we are all figuring this out as we go. And one of the things that I'm particularly proud about is the leadership position that Adobe's taken here. I think there's a few things that we're doing. One, built in, when you create any piece of content, we're building in something called "content credentials" so that it's almost like a nutrition label for content. So you can see what content was actually used to generate that image. So you know that it's not an original image, that you can see that it took content from XYZ model, from XYZ piece of content you may have integrated, from XYZ image of your own, so that you can validate the sources that this image was created from.

And I think that's really critical to us because in a world of generative AI where people start to wonder, "Is that real or not? Can I believe my eyes and what I see before me?" Having the ability to understand what went into that image, whether it was an original image or created with generative AI, is critical. So we're taking a leadership position there, and then also have launched something called the Content Authenticity Initiative that is a bigger industry body that we're trying to use to help marketers, companies around the world really help inform policy and use the right tools so that they're using generative AI more responsibly.

GS: I love it, Heather. We felt the same way about the internet. As much as we felt that that was turning into a little bit of a, in a positive way, Wild West, it turned into a little bit of a negative Wild West. And somebody's got to step in and sort of guide around this stuff because it is going to be awfully complicated, and marketers are going to look for support. In fact, I mean, I think you realize the MMA here has jumped into AI pretty successfully.

By the time this gets posted, we will have announced the largest coalition of marketers working to advance AI for marketing. So I just finished a survey with them, and I ran the survey through ChatGPT, all the results, as I would because we asked a lot of open-ended. You know what came up as the number one issue they wanted me to address? Not build enterprise value, not improve efficiency, not focus on greater creativity. All the things that the MMA sort of made bread and butter, that we do. Find out how do we do stuff that improves the stock price, right? Responsible AI was number one.

So what suggests to me—and I was talking to Kellyn about this a little bit earlier today—it suggests to me that big companies, they have risk. They have real risk inherent to them, and they need insurance to make sure that they're doing the right thing. And it sounds like from what you're saying here, Adobe's really going to step in, not just do cool stuff, but also make sure that it's safe and well protected for the corporations.

HF: This is also an area where I think businesses, and Adobe being one, but I think all businesses need to step up right now because I think what we have seen is that technology is not always the area of expertise of our policymakers.

GS: Yes, so let's make sure that we get it right before they feel a need to step in and...

HF: Exactly. And so that's where I think businesses really need to step up and make those recommendations, take the responsibility of educating them about the issues, the challenges, the potential threats and pitfalls. Because then, that will help us all be on our front foot but also help influence in a way that is beneficial to both the end consumer and to corporations.

Because I think, if left to their own devices, I think it might be more challenging to really understand all the incredible nuances and complexities of this issue for policymakers. I think it is on all of us in the marketing industry to help educate folks in Washington.

GS: Okay. Well, let's shift. Remember, the core topic here is around what do we think marketers don't necessarily get? And that's not meant to be quite so critical, business change, the world shifts, whatever. But just from an individual CMO's perspective, what do you think they don't fully understand, that they obviously would be better off if they did better understand it?

HF: Yeah. One of the things that I spend a lot of my days on in any job that I've had is actually not big, beautiful creative ideas but on operations. And I know that sounds silly for a brand marketer to say, but I joke, I said I started my career on the creative side. I then went to business school and fell in love with my operations class and kind of the structured thinking and the ways of optimizing things along the way to get things done.

And what I then saw in reality when I went to places like the Gilt Groupe in its early days, very much a startup phase, and then when I joined Facebook, we were in the move fast and break things era. And there was a point when we realized that moving fast just to get things out the door does indeed break things in ways that are not ideal, but they don't always scale.

And I think one of the things that I learned most in my time at Facebook was... And it was really a masterclass in operations and scaling a business globally. And so it meant that unless you had key principles in place, unless you had tools and systems that would enable you to scale, unless you focus on org models and operating models to get the work done. Unless you had the right technology to enable all of that, you were never going to be able to scale at the pace of a company like Facebook. I mean, I joined and there were about 2,500 people there, and when I left there were about 65,000.

GS: Wow.

HF: And so I think what I came to appreciate was how critical it is for marketers to really make sure you're enabling that scale just as much as the technology is. And it was interesting because I think what all of us as marketers are facing now is that it used to be you had a small handful of channels that you were creating content for, and now you not only have dozens and dozens and dozens of channels that each have their own specs, their own best practices, their own things that work better than others, but you also have customers who are demanding personalized content, and that's the content that works.

And then you have creative that gets exhausted after four to six weeks, and then you have to scale globally. And one example, we did a launch recently where it was like, we are producing 5,000 assets for a single launch, and you have to do that in weeks of time, not months of time.

GS: For a single campaign, single launch, 5,000 assets?

HF: It's mind-blowing, right?

GS: Yeah, it's mind-blowing. Just give some examples of where the 5,000 went, just so people have some... I mean, we could spend all day talking about all of them, but yeah, give an orientation to that.

HF: First, you can start with your channels. So you've got your web channels, anything on our own website, of which there are many different surfaces. You have surfaces within product where you want to surface marketing messages. You have emails, you have static ads, you have animated ads, you have videos and films, you have television ads and connected TV ads. It goes all the way down.

Then, you multiply that by audiences. So you may have existing customers, you may have prospects, you may have people you want to win back, whatever those look like. You may have different customer segments. Then, multiply that by the number of markets that you are launching in, and that increases it exponentially. And so the speed with which content is moving and technology is moving that we have to keep pace with, multiplied by channel, by audience, and by market, is virtually impossible to keep pace.

So we've had to fundamentally rethink how we're building content to keep pace with this. And if we didn't have a solid operational backbone, we'd be hosed. I mean, to put it bluntly. And so you really need to think about this in a way that is going to move more seamlessly, more fluidly, and keep pace with the speed of the technology and the tools we're launching.

GS: Do you get a sense, Heather, in speaking to some of your other brother CMOs, sister CMOs out there, that they're struggling with this kind of complexity?

HF: Every day. It is amazing to me, yeah.

GS: But are they involved in it or do they just... You think it gets off board? I've not actually heard a lot of other people talk about this, especially in the magnitude that you just did.

HF: It's really funny. So I end up talking a lot about this to other marketers, partially because we joke that one of the best parts about my job is being customer zero. I am the person that Adobe markets to for our MarTech, for our creative tools, etc. And so often in my role, I end up talking to them about that. I met with a large cosmetics company, global cosmetics company last week, as a part of a customer conversation.

It was the number one challenge they have, is they are building assets to go globally for each of their hundreds of cosmetic brands around the world, and they can't keep pace. And they're one of the largest advertisers in the world. And they're trying to figure out, "How do I find efficiency in doing that, both through the tools I use, but also in how I operate? What's my operating model?" And one of the more interesting things, just to bring it back around to gen AI, is generative AI can enable a lot more people to develop content, too.

GS: Which has its own good and bad to it also.

HF: Exactly. Exactly. Which makes it that much more important to have a system in place that provides some governance in order to be able to flow that into. So that people aren't willy-nilly launching campaigns at a moment's notice with no brand integrity, no legal review, no ability to capture that content or how it's performing and reuse it. And I think what I'm also hearing is that the cost of content creation... This is the other thing I'm hearing from other marketing leaders. The costs are going through the roof because of the volume that's needed.

So the key, when they're being asked to cut costs, wouldn't you far rather cut costs of content development than cut costs of activating that content with your customer? Absolutely. And so they're looking at it as a key lever in terms of driving efficiency and effectiveness of their marketing.

GS: Oh my god. So nobody can see me. You can see me on video here, the others are on the audio, obviously, the listeners are right now. But if you can just visualize me looking off into the distance with a like, "Oh shit..."

HF: Yes.

GS: And rubbing my forehead. And it's funny, too, about this because I love process. I think there's people better at process than I am, but I love process. And pretty often if there's a problem that exists here at the MMA, I'm like, "Okay, it's a process problem." It's almost always a process problem. Sometimes there's personality things that come in that sort of interfere, but most work stuff is process problem. We didn't have good process, we didn't see the world. We didn't operationally do that. But this is an unbelievable scale that you're talking about.

I guess the question I'm having in my mind is what is the training for the most effective, next-generation CMO? Because when you and I grew up, it would've been all about brand.

HF: Yep.

GS: And then it shifted to digital, right? You and I both made a transition to digital. I was in early from YNR, you were in early, your work with Digitas and beyond, right?

HF: Yeah.

GS: Okay. Data analytics I think became sort of a big deal, right?

HF: Absolutely.

GS: And we know from MMA research that customer experience is the winning formula today. In fact, it is very clear that companies that are doing well are fixated on customer experience, and the companies who aren't are focused on something else. It's no longer brand. It's now customer experience. What's the degree you get in operations that would satisfy this? Is anybody teaching? What is it?

HF: I don't know. I mean, everything is getting more complex. The tools, however, are also going to make it easier to produce more content.

GS: Tools are getting a little bit simpler.

HF: Yeah, and I think your point about how customer experience leads the way, you need content in order to deliver a good customer experience, right?

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

HF: Increasingly, that's personalized content.

GS: I think personalization is the answer. I totally agree with you.

HF: Exactly.

GS: Advertising has historically taught consumers to ignore advertising. It's the worst sin we've committed. Not to mention we wasted your time and we annoyed the shit out of you. That's secondarily, almost.

HF: Yes, exactly.

GS: It's like the fact that on behalf of shareholders, we chose not to try to increase the effectiveness of our ads because they were more relevant. It just, shame on us. I mean, I think it's one of our biggest sins that doesn't get talked about.

HF: Yeah.

GS: Now that we have mobile with us everywhere, all over the world—a couple of problems there, all day, all night. And we have a greater sense of data, so hopefully we know who people are. We're able to... even just off a contextual signal, we can find that. Oh my god, how are you ever going to produce 5,000 ads? I can't even imagine. And then putting the right one in the right place at the right time?

HF: Yes. This is... I don't want to do a shameless plug right now, but this is where the promise of Adobe's suite of tools comes into play, right?

GS: Yeah. This is not a paid podcast, Heather, you can go ahead. That's fine.

HF: Yeah, exactly. It's actually the fun part of my job is being customer zero. I'm getting to say, okay, how do we connect the dots on all of these content creation tools with the workflows, with resourcing, with asset management, with deployment, with measurement? And how does that all come together much easier and simpler in a way that marketers can just focus on the work and the outcomes, versus how to get the work done?

GS: Yeah. I'm a super measurement expert. I know almost everything there is to know about measurement. The people on my team are a little more technical than I am, but I have no idea how we're measuring this and then optimizing against it into the future. I really don't know what that means. It's mind-blowing.

HF: I mean, I'm looking at whole new dashboards about the velocity of the content production and the volume of assets and the effectiveness of different types of transcreation and localization. Those are the things that... I wouldn't say they're more important than the outcomes, but you can certainly, if you can dial those in and fine-tune them and get them optimized, it certainly can fuel into your efficiency, and you can produce a hell of a lot more and do a hell of a lot more good work if you don't have to worry about how it's getting done.

GS: Funny, your heritage on this is really back from B school. So when you took a class on, what was it called? Business operations, you said?

HF: Yeah. It was just a standard operations 101, practically. Yeah.

GS: What caught your attention about that class, by the way? Do you remember? Been a little while, but...

HF: Yeah, I do. I mean, it's so funny. I'll never forget in there, there was a case that we did on Disney World's operations. And you could be there spending half your time in line and a fraction of your time on a ride or in an experience, but they somehow make it all a wonderful experience so that you don't feel like you're waiting in line because they're telling you how much time you have left in line.

So you're not like, "Oh, when am I going to get there?" I'm going to get there in two hours and 37 minutes or however long it is. And they're entertaining you along the way with additional content, what have you. And I think those are the things that, for me, I was like, wow, there's something about the management of expectations, the communication of expectations along the way. Like, when are you going to get this? That makes everybody feel much more comfortable.

Versus marketing can often be seen as a black box, like, "Put stuff in, when am I going to get it out? What am I going to get out?" And that kind of communications... And now with some of these tools, having the visibility of where everything falls in line, when I'm going to get it, when I'm going to have to review it, that's a game-changer. So I do think that ultimately boils down to customer experience and that lens on operations. So I think that's kind of what has always stuck with me, too.

GS: There's a story that Rory Sutherland tells, who's out of the UK, I don't know if you've ever seen him do this, but at one point the British rail system was pushing through a $5 billion investment to speed up the trains. This is an ad guy speaking, right? Rory's an ad guy. He says, "That's the wrong idea." He says, "If you were to take a billion of that and hire some of the world's most beautiful people and give them champagne to walk up and down the aisles, nobody would give a shit how long the train took to get there."

HF: Exactly, exactly. Well, and by the way, it's funny that you use that example because what I was thinking of was, I lived in New York for 13 years, and when they put the "Next train coming in three minutes or 13 minutes..."

GS: Loved it.

HF: It was a game-changer, right?

GS: Game-changer.

HF: All of a sudden I wasn't just like, "When the hell is the train going to come?" It's like, "Okay, three minutes, I can do this. I can do whatever," and my expectations were managed.

GS: And stand there pissed off like any good pissed off New Yorker would be.

HF: Exactly, yes.

GS: Because I still live here. I know what pissed off looks like on the subway. I've seen it. Exactly. I think it's the Uber-fication of MTA or something, I don't know.

HF: Yes. No, I'm going to tell you, it's the Lyft-ification because that's my brand DNA.

GS: Oh, the Lyft-ification. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. Lyft's no longer on the board, so I picked Uber. So sorry about that. You're right. I should go back there.

Let’s take a quick break. We’ll be back right after this with Heather Freeland.

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