CMO Secrets with Peter Guagenti

Welcome to our blog series, CMO Secrets. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, we feature an exceptional Marketing leader from around the industry. Some names will be easily recognized, and others may be new to you, but every single one will have been hand picked for their experience and knowledge in the world of Startups, Technology, and Marketing. The questions are ours, but the answers are theirs – every word, shared without edit, from their fingers to your eyes.

Today we welcome Peter Guagenti. As CMO at MemSQL, Peter oversees marketing and sales development. Prior to MemSQL, Peter held marketing and product roles at Mesosphere, NGINX, and Acquia, and spent 15 years as a digital agency and consulting professional at companies including Accenture and Razorfish. Peter brings MemSQL a proven ability to build successful companies, and deep experience in business strategy, marketing, design, product development, and operations.

Tell us about MemSQL – why you were excited to join them as CMO, and the role marketing plays there.

Having worked in a number of industries (and for both consumer and B2B brands) throughout my career, I decided that I really love building enterprise software and services businesses. There is nothing more challenging than this category as a marketer, and as an entrepreneur there is something amazing about building a company where you become an integral part of the success of hundreds of other businesses. That has driven my career path for the past decade.

What made me join MemSQL specifically was a combination of the exceptional technical leadership at the company, and their role as an innovator in what I believe is the most important category in the modern era, which is data infrastructure and tools. With the rise of real-time decision making, predictive analytics, machine learning, and AI, the ability to collect and leverage data effectively is going to separate winners from losers over the next 20 years and I want to be at the center of that.

As for the role of marketing, I joined to help the founders help build a world class go to market capability to support what is already seen as a leading product. The leadership at MemSQL sees marketing as having the potential to be the engine room for revenue growth, and my goal is to make that happen.

Have you experienced any big surprises or “ah-hah!” marketing moments in your time at MemSQL?

I try to come in to a new company like this with fresh eyes. That means there are lots of “ah-hah” moments, both helpful and challenging. Being new to the world of databases, the most interesting challenge that I uncovered was the complexity and relatively slow pace of purchasing in the category. With data being the most critical asset for most companies, they are slow to change — even in the face of significant challenges — as many IT buyers are afraid of introducing new risks. As a marketer that has meant three things for us; helping our prospects understand not the just benefits of buying MemSQL but also the dangers of inaction, continuing to focus on building technical and business credibility, and learning to be patient. It might take many months or more to get a prospect to engage or to find the right workload to move to MemSQL, and so we need to support them in that process over time. The good news is that our average deal size is exceptionally high and the product is incredibly sticky, so the patience is well worth it.

In 2010, you made a transition from the agency world to technology and then to dedicated B2B marketing roles. What prompted those career moves for you and what lessons have you learned recently that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

I spent the first 15 years of my career as a digital agency and consulting professional, working in both my own companies and at large enterprises like Razorfish and Accenture. I actually started my first agency 2 months before my 20th birthday! I thought I would never leave those businesses. The diversity of the challenges you get to see as a leader, the impact you get to have on so many amazing companies, and the nature of my work at that time — both building digital experiences and applications as well as taking them to market — were all something you could not find in any other role or company.

Unfortunately, around the time of the financial meltdown, the agency business began to degrade. The pressure on margins from large customers — who seemed more than willing to reduce quality of work if it meant saving a dime — and the brain drain to start-ups as the economy rebounded meant that the work began to change dramatically. That, combined with wanting to be able to have more ownership of the companies and brands I was helping succeed, made me start looking outside of the business.

I’m incredibly grateful for my time as an agency leader — especially for the impact we had on breeding exceptional talent that you can now find in some of the most well regarded companies in the world.

You spent almost 4 years at Acquia. A number of the marketing leaders we’ve featured here on CMO Secrets have also had (and still have) roles there. What is it about that place that seems to breed great MarTech leaders?

That’s very true, but ironically I wasn’t a marketer there! When I joined, our CEO at the time used to tell investors that he, and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert, and myself represented the 3 legs of the stool for digital experiences; Tom brought the enterprise software experience, Dries brought open source technical innovation, and I represented our customers. My focus throughout my career was always on how to use technology and data to create extraordinary digital experiences that create value for companies and their customers. I’d like to believe that the tone we set was one where we wanted the company and product to help inspire the young sales and marketing professionals at Acquia to set a high bar for their own work.

In addition, I feel that the culture we built at Acquia helped identify and groom strong leaders. We had very high standards for our people and we worked hard to coach and mentor them to become the best at what they did. My Acquia U program (which we started to train entry level support and services staff) and Tim Bertrand’s training and career paths in the sales organization are just two of many examples you would find of how Acquia focused on developing great talent. Similar to my agency time, I’m proud to have helped build what is now a $1B+ valued company, but even more proud of all of the people we gave their first real job to who are now successful leaders in their own right.

Do you think there are any under-appreciated or under-utilized channels in the B2B/tech marketing space?

I think we all do a great job of trying to exploit every channel available to us, probably to our detriment. If there is a shortcoming here, I would posit that most of the B2B marketing space is very good at being present in every channel, but most are also mediocre at aligning channels, leveraging multiple touches across each of these channels and experiences to amplify each other, and really optimizing the customer or prospect experience in each. I believe that as a marketing leader we should be leading our teams to create experiences that change perceptions and build trust. This requires creating a focused message that is delivered in the ideal way for each channel, and which is then holistically directed and measured. There’s so much noise out there — more so than we have ever experienced in human history — and the old rules of consistency and frequency are more important than ever.

Do you think there are any attitudes or beliefs in marketing that need to change? Outdated approaches or improperly applied/misunderstood insights?

The rise of marketing automation has brought us back to the worst days we saw with direct mail and telemarketing. We need to stop carpet bombing and get back to creating value for our prospects and customers. Back 20 years we talked about the “1-on-1 future” a lot. All of the technology available to us has made it easier than ever in our history to communicate at an individual level and match our offers with the people who need us the most. In an ideal world we wouldn’t be talking about MQLs and funnel metrics, we would be looking at 100% conversion rates at the very small number of individuals whose lives and companies we are making better.

The root of this in my opinion is that in our adoption of data and science, we have lost sight of the fact that sales and marketing is about being an effective communicator. We are supposed to be creative, empathetic people who are able to connect on a human level with the people we are trying to build relationships with. The tools should make it easier for us to do this. Being able to better identify and understand the ideal customer. Being better able to tailor a specific message for each and deliver it at the right time and through the right channel. Being able to leverage the web to connect with people regardless of geographical or cultural boundaries. Yet, I fear that we instead look for the tools to do the job for us and we hide the lack of a clear message and strategy behind the process and structure of our tools.

If you could play Marketing Professor for a day, who would you want in that class and what would the syllabus look like?

I am sorely disappointed at the state of marketing education from both undergraduate and graduate programs. Many of these programs use dated case studies and a lack of understanding of what it means to truly connect and engage with an audience as a foundation for their coursewear. I have worked as an adjunct professor and guest lecturer at both Portland State University and Washington State in the past, and really appreciated the opportunity to contribute. If I ever had the opportunity to do this full time, I would focus on trading out the current curriculum for project-based learning on real brands, with real budgets, and with an expectation of real outcomes. Something like what we have seen work well in coder schools and start-up incubators but for go-to-market skills. Perhaps that should be my retirement plan?

You advise a handful of tech companies, including akoova, Brandcast, Mintigo, and What’s it like being an advisor? And any lessons learned or advice you can share for others looking to take on similar advisor roles?

Being an investor and advisor has given me something that I lost when I left the agency business; diversity of challenges and the ability to help a larger pool of entrepreneurs build their businesses. Each company I support is a completely different relationship. Each has their own unique challenges, their own strengths and weaknesses which they seek to address, and their own expectations of how they want to work with me. My goal is to remain flexible to those needs and do everything I can to support them how they need me to in that moment. Doing this work is incredibly rewarding! I have had many great mentors as I rose through my career, and I am grateful to give back now that I have something to contribute to others.

What deserves to be on your marketing hall-of-fame plaque? The 1-2 marketing ideas or successes you are most proud of from your career to-date.

The work I am most proud of was from fairly early in my career. Back in the late ’90’s I was working as a creative director and had the opportunity to support a massive campaign for Cap’n Crunch cereal (at the time one of the largest sellers for Quaker foods). I came up with the innovative concept to immerse the kids in the brand as part of the promotion, including creating an online scavenger hunt delivered through advertising, a host of online games (at a time when the options for free games was limited), and culminating in the creation of unique characters and a CD-based game in-packed into the cereal that brought this aging character into the modern era. By every measure, the campaign was a huge success. We jumped the market share from the product from below 2% to 4.5%, distributed the game to over 16 million kids (cementing the brand in the minds of a whole new generation of kids), and my characters even got their own limited run cereal brand! I grew up on Cap’n Crunch as an ’80’s kid, and its my crowning achievement as a creative professional to have been able to advance that brand in such a significant way.

Want to spread the marketing love? If there are any specific marketers/teams/companies you think are doing particularly noteworthy things, feel free to give some shout-outs.

I remain incredibly excited about the capabilities that Mintigo provides. I have seen their predictive technology fundamentally improve outcomes for dozens of brands, and I never cease to be amazed at the creative ways their customers use models to improve sales, retention, customer lifetime value, and more. Predictive models only 15-20 years ago were the secret weapon of the top 1% of marketers, and now they’re available to everyone.

What’s a marketing-related topic that’s got you fired up (in a good or bad way) right now?

We’re overusing “AI” dramatically. We’re all getting exceptionally good at leveraging data and building more and more automation in our decision making. However, we risk losing all credibility as marketers (and companies) if we insist on calling things something they are not. We have achieved very little true artificial intelligence in our marketing, and that’s okay! Most people haven’t even tapped into the basic data science of predictive, or of machine learning, or of real time decision making. Let’s focus on building the maturity of our data capabilities and not chase jargon and buzzwords.

We talk a lot about open marketing: to us, there are very real and meaningful differences between open and closed systems, as well as open vs closed approaches or philosophies to marketing and business in general. What does the idea of open marketing mean to you?

Openness to me has always meant transparency, inclusiveness, and adaptability. Those are the core elements of open source software that has always made it great, and I love the idea of applying that same ethos to marketing. If we want to bring open source values into what we do as marketers, let’s get better at turning the marketing monologue into a dialogue. Let’s be transparent about who we are, what we can provide, and where we do not fit for our customers. Let’s let our customers speak for themselves and encourage both kudos and criticism. Let’s actively listen to our prospects and customers and adapt our work accordingly. If you work in marketing technology, let’s apply those same values to our platforms. Focus on integration, the free flow of data, and customization by your users. Those things could be massively transformative to our business and our relationship with our customers.

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