An Interview with Martin Kihn, SVP Strategy, Marketing Cloud, Salesforce

By Steve Shaw

There is a tug-of-war going on in the marketing world these days between two opposing schools of thought. On one side are creatively minded brand marketers, who remain convinced that the only sure way to achieve long-lasting market growth is to build brands. On the other side, just as adamant, are data-driven performance marketers, preoccupied with converting clicks into sales.

The tension between these two tribes has escalated in recent years with the massive shift of media dollars from traditional broad-reach channels to digital advertising, much of that soaked up by Facebook, Google and Amazon.

At stake is a larger claim to the marketing budget. And while brand marketers insist that brand recognition and preference drives purchase behavior, the performance marketers argue that search intent trumps brand awareness. Google describes this as the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT), when in the buying process the connected consumer researches a product prior to purchase.

For now, the performance marketers have the upper hand. It is a lot easier to prove marketing ROI through last touch attribution than to give credit to squishy measures like brand devotion. In this Age of Distraction, when attention span is so fleeting, people tend to skip, ignore or scroll past the ads, or worse, install ad blockers. And that means it is harder than ever for brands to win consideration early in the decision cycle.

With the imminent demise of third-party cookies, programmatic advertising will be dealt a fatal blow. Brands will begin to covet first-party data collected through owned media and use that intelligence to drive more engaging experiences with customers. Brand marketers will have a new role to play: finding creative ways to engage in a deeper dialogue with customers, using content as the conversation starter. And performance marketers will worry less about generating fly-by traffic and more about the continuity of digital engagement. In short, every marketer will become a “full funnel marketer”, organizing themselves around the customer journey.

Martin Kihn calls this omnichannel framework the “know, personalize, engage” (KPE) model. Marketing must shift from a campaign orientation, he believes, to a real-time mindset where the goal is to deliver more dynamic experiences that build upon each other over time. To offer that type of rich, adaptive, contextual experience demands, of course, a single view of the customer, and a next-generation, zero-latency engagement platform that can fire like a neural synapse the moment someone interacts with the brand.

An accomplished author, Martin started out as a writer on an award-winning MTV show called “Pop-Up Video”, and then made a sudden pivot to the world of management consulting. That experience led to a best-selling memoir called “House of Lies” and later a hit TV series.

Stephen Shaw: When you were going through that baptism of fire during your time as a consultant, did you have any regrets about switching careers?

Martin Kihn: Well, not really. It was a mercenary choice. “Pop-Up Video” had got some popular attention, which was very nice. It was a lot of fun. And as a writer, I probably couldn’t get a better job than that. But I was getting paid $1,000 a week, and only when I worked. So, between seasons, I was laid off, and then I went on unemployment, which was not $1,000 a week. So, my net take-home was something like $50,000. And this was the late ’90s and that was not a lot of money. And I thought, “I will never own an apartment.” That was literally the thought that went through my head if I continue in this career. So, I decided that I’m just going to go to business school. And I ended up liking it more than I thought. I actually enjoyed learning about corporate finance. I thought I was learning about America, the way America works, you know, capitalism. And then I got a job at a consulting firm right out of business school and my salary doubled. But then the job ended up being very difficult, very stressful, and much harder than my previous work. But I was getting paid more and there was a career path. So, I didn’t actually regret it. I did know pretty early on I wasn’t going be a consultant forever. That’s true.

Shaw: At what point along the way did you decide, “This would make a good memoir?”

Kihn: Well, I tell people I went to business school so I could just quit writing. And ironically, that’s when my writing career started to take off because I had something to write about. As a consultant, you go on-site with clients. So, I went to various cities. These are not glamorous cities. These were wherever the client might be. And we would go and sit in their offices, and they would give us a conference room or something, a cubicle. And I would notice that the consultants didn’t necessarily have a background in the industry, but they would use language in a way that made them sound like they were experts. So, the good partners could sound like they knew everything about everything because they dazzled people with the way they used language. So, I thought, “I’m going to write a dictionary. It’ll be the “Consulting to English” dictionary.” And that’s how it started. And it’s actually in the back of the book. There is a dictionary there. And then it just turned into a memoir.

Shaw: You left consulting to join the digital agency Digitas. Was the switch over to the agency world a welcome reprieve from the consulting grind?

Kihn: I felt so much more at home. It’s still my favourite type of place to work. It has creatives, with the British guys and their little glasses and the facial hair and the wry smirk. And then also very smart people doing SAS models, and then also the smarmy sales guys. There’s lots of stress because advertising is really all or nothing. I mean, you’re either nailing it and winning huge clients or you’re on the way down and firing half your staff. It’s this roller coaster. So, emotionally, it was maybe a bit too fraught for me, but I liked the atmosphere and the people because they’re very lean and very efficient. And then my wife spouse-napped me and convinced me that we should move to Minnesota where she’s from. I went to work for a creative agency in Minneapolis called Fallon, very well-known at the time, a creative hot shop. I was the analytics team. It was basically me. I did measurement for this TV agency. And it was pretty cool, actually. But then I joined Gartner which was just starting a group called “Gartner for Marketing Leaders”. Gartner recognized that marketing was becoming more technical. CMOs were asking about applications, databases, and measurement. And so the whole profession of marketing had become more aligned with the core Gartner value prop, which is CIO research. So the Gartner fit was good because I’m good at research, I’m good at explaining things and I’m good at public speaking.

Shaw: Your time at Gartner was spent during the glory years of programmatic advertising. But now we’re on the verge of a “cookieless” world. Do advertisers go back to old-school audience targeting, or is Google’s concept of a “federated learning of cohorts” going to become a practical alternative to the walled gardens?

Kihn: Well, there’s no going back. The tech has advanced, and everything is just much farther along than it was in 2010 when RTB [real-time bidding] started to become a thing. There will continue to be user-level IDs. There’ll be opt-in. The trade desk solution will probably continue to exist in some form or other. And all of this assumes that consent has been gathered and stored. First-party data will be used for media. You can already do it with Facebook Custom Audience. The New York Times is already talking quite a bit about first-party database audiences. And then the other thing is FLoC1. There are others – TURTLEDOVE and SWAN. And then I think they ran out of bird acronyms. The idea of some kind of machine learning-generated cohort is perfectly valid. Those will exist, I think there’s no doubt about it, at least in Chrome.

Shaw: And what about Salesforce’s DMP? Are you going to fold DMP functionality into your CDP?

Kihn: The DMP won’t be required in a cookieless world, but that doesn’t mean that elements of DMP won’t continue to be useful. Salesforce has a DMP called Audience Studio, which used to be Krux. Krux was acquired in 2016 back in the boom years of DMPs. We’re hoping to keep this product going as long as people want to use it. But when we talk about how digital ad campaigns will be done in future, I think first-party audiences will form the core. And then there will be lots of other ways to do media without any kind of data, based on contextual information. And this will be better than it used to be, because machines are smarter.

Shaw: You crossed over from the martech beat at Gartner to leading martech strategy at Salesforce. Is your role at Salesforce to be the chief storyteller? Or is your role to help align the product roadmap with where marketing is going?

Kihn: Both. My role has shifted. When I first started, I was very focused on CDPs because at the time — this was 2018 — customer data platforms were zooming up the hype cycle. The number one question from our customers at Gartner was, “What is a CDP?”. Advertiser Perceptions did a survey at the time asking marketers what CDP they were using. And something like 60 percent of the respondents said they were using Salesforce CDP. But at the time we didn’t have one. And number two and three were Adobe and Oracle. Oracle had talked about launching one. Adobe didn’t have one either. We would have to either build one or acquire some new capabilities. So we decided to just build it ourselves.

Shaw: Going forward, how does Salesforce maintain its pole position? It’s a pretty fierce arms race.

Kihn: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s competitive. The big competitor in our space is Adobe, but there’s lots of others. Our marketing cloud has been built up over the years through a series of acquisitions that have been integrated more or less over time. Our CDP was built on the same codebase. And that’s the secret I think, where literally anyone can build an application on top of this set of tools which take data in and out from the CDP. So our CDP functions as a repository to organize customer information. This whole “platformarization” is in service of a larger narrative that Marc Benioff [Salesforce CEO] is pushing, which he calls business transformation. What he means by that is that the different parts of the organization can work together better if they’re all using the same unified profile. A “single view of the customer”.

Shaw: Does the CDP become the linchpin for what you call the connected omnichannel experience?

Kihn: In the late 1990s marketing automation was all about cross-channel orchestration — email, direct mail, the website. The difference now is that there are so many more channels and such a greater requirement for really rapid decision making and orchestration. So, you need a different architecture, obviously. The CDP should be available to anyone in the organization who needs to deal with customers. That includes the service team, obviously, sales, for sure. More broadly, anyone in customer experience or research. So, it’s got a lot of applications outside of marketing.

Shaw: Does the CDP occupy the center of a galaxy of orbiting platforms that serve different customer-facing functions within the enterprise — marketing, sales, service, eCommerce — or does the enterprise architecture reconfigure around the customer experience, eliminating the silos?

Kihn: It’s the latter. That’s the goal. And it is a journey, though. It’s a multi-year journey. It’s a journey for all of us. And by that, I mean, I don’t know any customer who has reconfigured completely but many of them are doing really well.

Shaw: You state in your book, quite clearly, that CDPs will become the single source of truth for customer data. Who should own it — marketing or IT?

Kihn: I think the tension between IT and marketing is one that’s getting worked out in real-time. And it differs by organization, but in general, I think that there’s more appreciation now for the difficulty of the task at hand and the resources and time and expertise that are required to do something like maintain a single view of the customer in-house. I get asked every week, “Can we just do this ourselves, just use open source and get our data science team on this one?” And the answer is, “Yes, of course, you can.” You can do almost anything yourself if you have enough people and you have enough time and you have the right kind of talent and you’re willing to invest in it. But what Salesforce is offering is outsourcing that headache. For instance, Facebook changes their API 90 times a year. Do you really want to have somebody on your team dedicated to monitoring Facebook’s API so that you can reconfigure it every time it changes so that your social advertising doesn’t break down? That doesn’t mean you don’t still have control over things like master data management. CDP doesn’t replace MDM. It also doesn’t replace the enterprise data warehouse or the data lake.

Shaw: Gartner has predicted that 80 percent of companies pursuing a 360-degree view of the customer will abandon those efforts because it’s hard to do, as you just pointed out. Will they really wave the white flag?

Kihn: I know that research you’re referring to. In fact, that prediction was made by a good friend of mine. But their point is more nuanced than it sounds. What they’re actually saying is that if you define “single view of the customer” as a complete view of your customer containing every single data point — where you’re trying to create a truly golden record, absolutely accurate and persistent and exhaustive — then that is probably a waste of time. And I have to say I completely agree with that. That’s not really what a CDP is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be a data dump. It’s supposed to be something different.

Shaw: What becomes marketing’s mandate in this data-driven, experience-driven world that we’re moving toward?

Kihn: Professional marketing has changed quite a bit since I was in business school 20 years ago. It was not a statistical profession. The thing now is, it’s all about who in the organization knows the customer. Who can take the outside-in view? When I was at Digitas, we were designing, in a sense, artificial journeys for artificial people. Today marketing is supposed to be the one who understands the customer best. Take Delta Airlines. They look at the end-to-end experience for their high-end business travelers, all of the different digital touchpoints, not just the look and feel, but what information is provided? When is it available? There’s a lot of complexity in that journey, but they’re trying to make sure it’s all connected and coherent and that it delivers what people are expecting and then just a little bit more. And in order to do that across channels, they need to join the kiosk with the mobile app, with the website in real-time. If I change something on the kiosk, I expect it to be reflected in the app right away.

Shaw: My observation is that marketing is mainly driven by performance marketing goals, that their job is to go after the next sale, not create new value for customers or, indeed, have an influence on the business model of an organization.

Kihn: Your point is a good one. Certainly, the KPIs might be wrong, but I think the good marketing organizations have been trying to move away from the performance driven approach. If you’re too focused on performance, the customer experience suffers. Every customer I can think of has thought about that, what you just said, the implications of being focused on the wrong metrics. But many have a long way to go. And I can also say, there are good organizations out there where marketing is just communications and somebody else owns the voice of the customer. There’s not a single one-size-fits-all answer.

Shaw: Most of the martech vendors are usually too busy trying to satisfy the most pressing needs of marketers instead of convincing them of new ways of doing things. Yet Salesforce is providing thought leadership for the industry. Brian Solis, Mathew Sweezey, yourself — that’s a pretty impressive roster of thought leaders. Is Salesforce trying to be a change agent?

Kihn: We definitely are. The tension is always between what’s available today versus tomorrow and getting people to adopt tools they already have. For example, we’ve productized AI and machine learning, what we call Einstein features, which is another, gentler way of surfacing new ideas.

Shaw: The other challenge, of course, is creativity versus analytics. How do you eliminate the functional division between brand and performance marketing and bring together a collective pool of multi-disciplinary people organized around the customer who can think creatively and analytically?

Kihn: Generally speaking, the Centre of Excellence model works, and I think agile workflow is good because you bring together people who have different skills and form teams and then un-form them like a movie crew.

Shaw: The Hollywood model.

Kihn: The Hollywood model. I think that seems to work.

Shaw: Amongst the many challenges that marketers have today — data, obviously, being one of them — complexity is the other one. Do we need to groom a new generation of “T-shaped marketers” who are completely at ease with technology, data and creativity?

Kihn: I think that computer science is now the number one major when it used to be English. But I think that creative is going to become more important over time. It’s the one area where a company can differentiate itself by talking to customers in a more human way. And it’s also something that people will probably always do better than machines other than coming up with the right sale price — machines will probably be better at that. But coming up with a way to communicate with other people that can move them is the realm of creative. And so I like the idea of a T-shaped marketer. People know data is important. I think we need to tell them that creative is equally important.

Shaw: Ultimately AI may be the answer to the complexity challenge. It will allow very complex communication programs to happen in real-time working off a well-structured CDP.

Kihn: Yeah. Ten years ago, you had to have an exact match between the Cust ID, Identity A and Identity B. It had to be the same email, same name. Then we could do fuzzy matching. And now through AI, you can do some very complex matching without a lot of code and initial setup. The software itself is getting smarter. It’s supposedly making our jobs easier. The issue is that we need to understand how it works so that we can guard against things like bias or inaccuracy.

Shaw: Just put your futurist hat on, five years from now, where are we? We’ve had five, six years of tremendous progress in technology. Where is the next wave of technology taking us?

Kihn: I think consumers will be more open than we are now and less paranoid about marketing, targeted advertising, marketing messaging. We’ll see more of the value in it because it’ll be better and more relevant. The steps we have to go through now are just ridiculous. But the machines will be much more nuanced and sensitive to that kind of thing. Marketing will morph into the customer experience crew.

Shaw: So, is there a new memoir in the works based on your experience of the past few years?

Kihn: Of course, yeah. I also am very interested in cats. I wrote a book about my dog. So, if I can combine cats and marketing — I think there’s something there because cats really do rule the internet. So, I’m working on that.

Shaw: Cats and dogs. Like IT and marketers in the past, cats and dogs.

Kihn: They can co-exist.

Stephen Shaw is the Chief Strategy Officer of Kenna, a marketing solutions provider specializing in delivering a more unified customer experience. Stephen can be reached via e-mail at

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