Michelle Peluso has spent the past two decades helping to forge a new relationship between people and technology. She started her first company, Site59, with a group of friends in 1999 and later sold it to Travelocity, where she served as CEO during the “roaming gnome” era. Peluso became an Executive Advisor to TCV before joining Citibank as Global Consumer Chief Marketing and Internet Officer responsible for the digital experience of the bank’s 100 million global customers. Peluso then took the helm at fashion pioneer Gilt, which she later sold to Hudson’s Bay Company. She became IBM’s first Chief Marketing Officer in 2016 — a move that highlights the transformation of marketing into a core corporate capability.
Still an Executive Advisor to TCV, Peluso remains committed to discovering how marketing can redefine relationships with customers, a transformation that requires curiosity, agility, innovation, persistence, and resilience. In this exclusive interview, Peluso discusses:
- How the CMO’s role has changed in the last decade
- Four trends that continue to revolutionize marketing
- How the rise of ‘augmented marketing’ will challenge CMOs as never before
TCV: It’s widely acknowledged that there has never been a more challenging time to be a CMO. How have you seen the role change since you founded Site59 in 1999?
Peluso: It’s no wonder the average CMO tenure is only 2–3 years and has seen a drop over the past two decades. It’s a hard and incredibly dynamic role, as marketing has shifted from a thoughtful, functional discipline around creatively amplifying the company message to a much more dynamic, real-time, analytical — and creative — driver of client experience, revenue, and company performance. Expectations have never been higher for marketers, and the new seat they have at the table is an amazing opportunity for the best of them to grow and lead.
TCV: It’s easy to say all these changes have been driven by the rise of the internet. But there are several distinct trends that are reshaping marketing…
Peluso: Clearly four major shifts have shaped, and are shaping, how we can connect with customers, how we can analyze our effectiveness and drive results, and how we need to lead our respective organizations. First was the era of digital. For me, this was the beginning of the internet, making transactions and content interactive, convenient, and more personal. Then, we entered the era of social, which has been all about engagement and authenticity. Social toppled the notion of hierarchy and forced brands to think differently. Third, we have seen the era of mobile, which began with mastering the art of a smaller screen but evolved into much more as the focus has been about location and real-time and always-on engagement. These three eras have dramatically reshaped every industry while elevating the role of the individual, with far-reaching consequences.
TCV: That’s three…
Peluso: Right. We are now on the cusp of the era of cognitive learning, or as we call it at IBM: Augmented Intelligence (AI). We’re building fast and smart systems that understand vast amounts of unstructured information, such as natural language and imagery, recognize data patterns to create recommendations, continuously learn from these recommendations and many other sources of data, such as books, medical records, and conversations with humans and finally, interact with humans in a natural way. AI lets us better understand and engage with our customers; it enables us to make more precise bids on advertising and improve ROI across every dollar spent, and it will fundamentally shift the paradigm of how consumers interact with websites. Arguably, we are already starting to see this with new AI home devices and natural language interaction.
TCV: This new vision will require an entirely new way of doing things, which is a significant change for any company, much less for a massive organization like IBM. How does a CMO drive these kinds of changes within such an established framework?
Peluso: The cognitive change is no different than any other large-scale change management program. To be a cognitive company, you need to be clear about your mission — what challenges do you want to solve? What decisions do you most want to improve? You need to have the assets, which are all about your data sets but, even more, your team, marketers, developers, and data scientists. And, of course, you need the right tools. Companies new to AI should identify a handful of specific problems they want to address and apply AI tools to solving those problems. Then, repeat the process to address new challenges. This way, a corporation will see meaningful and measurable results as they evolve into a cognitive company. Patience is required. Companies must learn how to use AI, and these systems also require learning, so “training” the system is critical. It’s a classic crawl, walk, run.
TCV: How does this new approach to marketing change the way you look for and hire the right talent for ‘augmented marketing’?
The traditional marketing waterfall process — develop a creative idea, send it to advertising, media, and a CRM team, and then analyze results — can no longer keep up with the pace of the market today. I take a lot of inspiration from the Agile movement, which fundamentally reinvented the technology development process. At IBM, we’re applying Agile to our marketing function, and that means creating small empowered teams with the right skills, clear accountability, sprints, and a constant focus on prioritization. When you adopt Agile, you can see how different marketing becomes, and the emphasis it puts on hiring Agile teams that have a strong mix of creative, process, digital, and data science skills.
TCV: What role will marketers have in identifying and developing new technologies for the augmented marketing era? Or will that function remain within the realm of the IT department?
Peluso: AI is about man (or woman) AND machine. Users of all sorts, not just developers or CIOs, can use AI in small and big ways to help them solve the most difficult problems. That’s the promise, and we’re starting to see this at organizations all over the world. Marketers will play a critical role in how AI is developed and applied. One of the many things I learned while working with the TCV team and their companies is that it’s fundamentally important to be insatiably curious about technology because the most successful marketers are as analytically rigorous as they are creative.