Jessica Criscione transforms the martech stack at IBM

Image of IBM CTO Jessica Criscione.

Even for brands as long standing and far-reaching as IBM, the digital economy presents opportunities to better resonate with audiences.

But it requires visionary leadership and bold ambition to build something new — especially upon a foundation of legacy systems.

IBM, a 110-year-old organization recently transformed their marketing technology (martech) stack around customers and their experiences. Under an overarching vision to unify, the team consolidated 40+ systems to five, with the Adobe Experience Cloud at the core.

The move occurred in less than one year, and delivered serious results: $120M in savings, 112 percent increase in email response rates, 75 percent faster time-to-market YoY for worldwide content, slashing customer responses rates down from over a day to 30 minutes and delivering higher-value leads for sellers at the account level.

Jessica Criscione, leader of the team driving this transformation, sat down with me following IBM’s win in the Transformer category at the 2022 Adobe Experience Maker Awards.

Congratulations — what an achievement.

Thank you. This has been the work of well over 300 people over the past year and a half.

Can you talk more about your role as CTO of marketing and sales intelligence at IBM and how you ended up here?

In the grand scheme of things, my role oversees the broader martech stack — everything from buying and acquiring things to managing giant cross-platform projects like this one.

For years, I was a consultant on the agency side making recommendations for the martech stack for many Fortune 500 companies in everything from pharmaceuticals to finance to luxury goods. Lo and behold, at one point, I started working on the IBM account.

I dared to ask these questions: “Why is this such a mess? Why can I not figure out why this data point over here does not match the one over there?”

And they asked me, “Well, do you want to fix it?” And that’s how I got here.

That’s a bold question to ask, and appropriate given the event theme this year, “Behold the Bold.” It sounds like you knew there could be a better way forward.

Like so many large companies, budgets and decisions were split across business units. That means data became disconnected across many different platforms. This initiative gave us a real opportunity to focus on gaining benefits as quickly as possible.

We were working toward an end-to-end nurture stream with a full 360-degree view of the customer — what they’re doing and saying, and what we’re saying back to them.

Our goal was to create great relationships between marketing, sales, and support where everyone knows exactly what’s happening across the ecosystem. The client actually feels acknowledged that we know who they are, what they’re doing, and what we should recommend to them.

The dream of the digital economy. What about the change management required here? How did you sell the vision?

I won’t lie — it wasn’t easy. Most people wanted to do this in phases and stretch it out. But I asked, “Why?”

Technology doesn’t make a difference if the business doesn’t take advantage of that tech change. We cannot bend technology to our old processes.

This gave us an opportunity to start from scratch, set a bigger vision, and work towards it.

“Technology doesn’t make a difference if the business doesn’t take advantage of that tech change. We cannot bend technology to our old processes.”

Jessica Criscione, chief technology officer, Marketing and Sales Intelligence, IBM

There was a little trauma, so to speak, but the real trick of change management is convincing people there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m so glad this award program exists to recognize your courage in knowing that the hard thing and the right thing are often the same thing. We see it, and we see the power in this kind of bold transformation.

Internally, we called the project “Afterburner” because my co-lead at the time was an ex-pilot and this project was jetting us into the future. We named it this to reinforce that the project is a cohesive program propelling us into a better way forward. I ask questions and poke at things. “Why are we doing it this way? Why don’t we open it up and discuss what could be better?” Fire can be transformative. It helps lay the groundwork for the next thing. Like a phoenix from the ashes.

What advice would you give others considering similar change?

There were a couple of bumps along the way — for example we set up Adobe Target before anything else rolled out, so it straddled multiple CMS platforms and sites before we consolidated to Adobe Experience Manager. If I did it again, I would have staggered things a little bit more than we did.

One key to making this work was encouraging everyone across each platform to talk to each other.

People thought I was crazy at the time, but we essentially did five major workstreams. And each platform, whether the new strategic one or one being sunset, had to talk to each other about what the strategy was and how to get there. Then the heads of each workstream had to coordinate and align on strategy as well.

It meant we had a unified strategy, something we wouldn’t have been able to do if we approached each platform individually.

Why choose Adobe to consolidate all this?

That’s a fair question. A lot of people asked me internally why we didn’t just build this. I believe you have to choose what you specialize in as a company. And Adobe is specialized here.

We wanted to go with the market leader, and honestly, at our scale, the Adobe suite of products made the most sense.

What’s the hardest part of a large-scale digital transformation?

It’s hard to get everyone on the same page and going in the right direction.

We asked a lot of questions across the teams early on. such as “what does your job title actually mean? What are you here to do?” If it wasn’t defined, then we had to define or change it since we couldn’t move on until we convinced everyone to work under the same operating model. Every team had its own notion of the best way to work, and we needed everyone to align under one model.

“We wanted to go with the market leader, and honestly, at our scale, the Adobe suite of products made the most sense.”

Jessica Criscione

It took a few weeks to get everyone aligned at the outset so we could actually move forward as one team instead of six individual teams.

What advice would you give to other women in tech looking to emulate your success?

Too many women, especially those working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), suffer from imposter syndrome. Set aside the paranoia. Know that you’re good at what you do. Go for it! And don’t try to be perfect — no one is. You’re not going to make change waiting for perfection.

You’ll never get better if you don’t try. And if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try. You have to be willing to embrace the failure and learn from it if you’re going to move forward.

You’ll find yourself revisiting old decisions and choosing to pivot. We have to be okay with failing in order to improve further.

I love that. What mantra does this great advice all come down to?

I believe in radical self-responsibility in every way possible. You have to take ownership of your own choices.

I have no interest in being a micromanager. I want to empower our individual teams to go and do their best work — and to hopefully learn from it.

Honoring the movers and shakers. Learn more about the Adobe Experience Maker Awards.