Vonage: Building a Brand at Scale

Rishi Dave, CMO of Vonage, explains how to transform marketing to and build a brand at scale. Learn about culture, agility, and leadership in marketing.


Jun 14, 2019

We speak with Rishi Dave, Chief Marketing Officer of Vonage, to learn how to transform marketing to and build a brand at scale. Rishi describes brand building strategies and covers topics such as brand awareness, culture, and the importance of agility to the CMO and marketing organization.

Rishi Dave is the Chief Marketing Officer for Vonage. In this role, he is responsible for leading Vonage’s global marketing strategy, positioning the Company as a global leader in business cloud communications and helping to drive the next phase of Vonage's growth.

Prior to joining Vonage, Rishi was Chief Marketing Officer at data and analytics provider, Dun & Bradstreet, where he led marketing globally. Rishi has spent his career in the technology industry with marketing, business development and consulting roles at Dell, Rivio, Inc.,Trilogy Software and Bain & Company.

Rishi was named as a Top Digital Marketer by BtoB Magazine (now AdAge) two years in a row, and as a B2B Innovator by the Demand Gen Report. He has authored or appeared in global media including Forbes, PC Magazine, Business 2 Community, VentureBeat, CMO.com, and MarTech Series.


Michael Krigsman: Growing a company at scale. We're speaking with Rishi Dave, who is the chief marketing officer of Vonage. Tell us about Vonage.

Rishi Dave: It's a B2B SaaS, communications company, providing both applications for communications as well as an API platform where companies can code in voice, video, messaging, et cetera, communications into whatever applications they're developing.

What is the role of marketing in achieving business growth?

When you're in markets that are growing 20%, 30%, and some of our markets are growing 50%, marketing is fundamental to driving that growth and driving share. The way I like to think about is, and what we're doing, we're thinking first and foremost what is our corporate strategy as a whole to really drive in these fast-growth markets. Then what marketing strategy will help drive that both from a high-level perspective when you talk about brand, as well as just hardcore, tactical operations, demand gen, et cetera? Then how do you create the ability to be incredibly agile in these hypergrowth markets that are constantly changing?

Michael Krigsman: Well, I guess that kind of begs the question, how should markets, what can marketers do in order to be agile as their company is changing, as the markets are changing, and as consumer expectations around them are also changing?

Agility is the fundamental challenge when you're in these hypergrowth markets and when you're trying to transform. From my perspective, it all starts with, what's the fundamental strategy for the company? When you're in these markets that are growing so much and you're trying to transform and be agile, what you find is that marketing has as much of a seat at the table and is driving that corporate strategy as much as anyone else in the company because your go-to-market strategy, sales and marketing, is kind of what you lead with when you're in a hypergrowth market. That's really how you differentiate yourself.

Now, the way you drive agility is, first and foremost, you have to kind of create the right culture within marketing where people have to feel comfortable that you're never going to have stability. We're constantly changing. We're constantly reorganizing. We're constantly adjusting our operations based on how the markets are changing, how the company is changing, how our competitors are changing because our competitors are very agile, the technology is changing, communications is fundamentally changing every day, and so we have to be agile.

Whenever we create a process or anything within marketing, we fundamentally look at agility first. Let me give you a quick tactical example. Many times, we think of marketing technology and we put that into a technology bucket where we do an evaluation, we bring in a technology, and we keep it there for a long time.

We have a very different approach. We look at marketing technology like you look at a stock portfolio. It's SaaS. You are constantly bringing in great technology and then, what's working, you scale. What doesn't work, you kind of get rid of it and bring something else in.

You have to constantly bring that agility in because not only is your company and market changing, but the technology is changing and evolving as well. In every single process and every single org design, fundamentally, we want people, process, and technology. A fundamental piece of that is agility.

How can you create agility in a marketing organization?

Michael Krigsman: You said that you build agility in. I find that a very interesting statement. How do you go about doing that?

One thing that I think we frequently don't talk enough about when we talk about the marketing function and we talk about CMOs in general, is the need for operational excellence. We don't talk enough about operational excellence when we talk about marketing. We talk about strategy, brand, lead gen, digital transformation, all of that. When you need to design for agility and transformation, you have to design for operational excellence.

When you say, "How do we do that?" we spend a lot of time thinking about how we build operations, how we measure it, how we collect data, how we get responses very quickly, not just from outside our company but also inside like salespeople, people on the front line, et cetera, and how we build that into the process, fundamentally, when we do things and how we put operational excellence principles into every single one of those processes.

Michael Krigsman: I recall, on this show, speaking with Kim Stevenson, who at that time was the chief information officer at Intel. She used that same phrase. She said, "The first thing that IT needs is to begin with operational excellence." When you talk about operational excellence, can you describe the components of what that is?

The old adage: people, process, technology. I would add one more to that, which is data and analytics. For example, the entire BI and analytics function here at Vonage, whether for marketing or not for marketing, all sit centralized under marketing because data and analytics is a fundamental piece of that operational excellence. That's how I think about operational excellence in kind of those four components.

What is operational excellence in marketing?

Michael Krigsman: Therefore, what are the implications for you, as you're designing your marketing programs, doing your hiring, and all the various things, the activities, the operations that you do?

Yeah, we want to be data-driven, and so there are a few fundamental things that I think about when I think about data. One is, you want to have a clean, integrated data set. First and foremost, we focused on that because, if you don't have data, you can't make decisions and you can't optimize your operations. Secondly, you want the right analytics on top of that data.

Now, this is where it directly answers your question on people. Once you build the right analytics that are driving the right insights, then what I think about from a people perspective is, "How do I embed those insights into the day-to-day processes of the people who have to use them?" which is a piece of operational excellence that not enough people talk about.

They always talk about the sexy stuff like AI and all that stuff. They don't talk about the dirty stuff like clean data and they don't talk about how you create operations and processes where you're embedding those insights into the day-to-day lives of the people who have to action it who are not necessarily thinking about technology or data in every part of their lives.

Let me give you an example. Salespeople: I want the salespeople to decide what accounts they go after, what accounts they call based on not just kind of their gut feeling, although that does play a role, but also based on the accounts that we are seeing based on real-time analytics, both outside the company as well as analytics that we have on them, based on who they are, et cetera. We want them to look at account lists, look at how we prioritize them, and then go after the highest opportunity at any given moment.

Now, in order to do that, we can't just give them a bunch of analytics and say, "Go forth." We have to simplify it. We have to embed it in the tools that they use every day like the CRM. We have to make it simple, like, "Here is your gold list. Here's your silver list. Here's your bronze list. Here's what you say. Here's what we've told them already," et cetera. Really help them optimize their time to go after the right accounts to drive productivity. That's a great example of how we drive that operational excellence from a people, process, and technology perspective.

Michael Krigsman: A lot of what you're talking about is, in effect, the change management of setting the goals and gradually leading people to approach the various functions, parts of marketing based on the coordinated strategy that you're putting together.

Absolutely. You make a great point that I don't want people to forget is that that example was more of an operational tactical example but I think of it almost like a pyramid where you have to start, first and foremost, from your corporate strategy. The corporate strategy is all about who you are, how you're different, and how you win.

One of our board members said a great thing to me. He gave me a great piece of advice. He said, "Look. When you develop your corporate strategy, look at the day-to-day why you win. Look at the themes and then do more of that." It's very simple in some ways. Don't just look at why you lose but look at why you win because you could lose for a multitude of reasons, but there is a handful of reasons why you win.

You start with the corporate strategy. Then you kind of develop the marketing strategy. That drives your brand strategy. Then that drives your activation, operations, lead gen strategy. Then you have all that underlying enablement capabilities under that.

Michael Krigsman: We have a couple of questions from Twitter, and I'm just going to take them in order. Sal Rasa asks, "As you were developing and adjusting these operational principles, what surprises emerged? What surprised you?"

When you're trying to change things, you actually still have to run your day-to-day business. I was surprised by the complexity of balancing those two. It's almost like right now there are two buckets of activity. One is what I call "Run the business," which is, hit those pipeline numbers, hit those growth numbers every single day; hit those numbers.

Then there are these whole set of initiatives, which are, change the business initiatives, which are all about, okay, are we allocating our dollars correctly? What is our marketing technology strategy? Does it need to change? Do we need to change the way we approach digital, et cetera?

That's what surprised me the most is that complexity in balancing change the business and run the business. That's a tough thing to balance. It never ends, either, because when you're in a high growth market that's changing so much, you have to learn how to drive a steady state where those two things are constantly in motion.

Michael Krigsman: How do you drive a steady state when you're being pulled in two very different directions? On the one hand, you're being pulled. Everything around us is changing and we need to be agile--to use your term--and fast. At the same time, we cannot disrupt our existing lines of business and customers, and so we need to keep things the same, right? I sort of have this image of, like, the angel and the devil on your shoulders, one of them saying, "Rishi, you have to be agile and fast." "Rishi, you can't. You can't. You have to be stable and stay the same." [Laughter]

It is brutal. [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter]

That's all I can say is, it is probably, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things that I deal with day-to-day. I'm a little bias here, but it is why the CMO job is so hard compared to all the other C-levels. Okay, I'm biased, but that's what I believe because people look at the CMO or the marketing department as both, especially when you're in a hyper-growth, B2B, tech environment. Anything that's not working, go to marketing. You have to kind of change that, but any time, day-to-day, we're off on revenue, again, marketing, pipeline, et cetera.

To answer your question directly, there is no easy answer. What I have tried to do is, it kind of goes back to that planning, strategy, and then activation. From a top-down strategy perspective, I try to be or we try to be as clear as possible in terms of what are the change the business initiatives that we're focused on at the moment and what are the run the business numbers that we have to hit. How are we doing that? Who is responsible for that?

Secondly, I have loosely organized my marketing organization around that where, for the different product groups that we have, I have leaders who are responsible for delivering the run the business metrics but I also have centralized organizations who are functionally very strong who are kind of, to some degree, helping the run the business but, also, have people in there who are managing change the business projects as well. To a certain extent, my organization is set up to handle that but you still have that conflict, day-to-day.

How do you make investment decisions in marketing?

People don't realize that, when you change the business, it could use money but it could also generate money. What I mean by that is, for example, if you find that you can consolidate your technology around key processes that you know are working and are scaling, that frees up money that you can use for run the business or the next experiment that you do in change the business.

I think of it as, of course, I have a budget that I'm given, but I think a lot about, okay, change the business will be both a user of cash and a generator of cash. Run the business is almost always a generator of cash unless things aren't working, and so, as a CMO, you have to balance those initiatives and balance how you manage your budget that way as well.

People frequently think it's a fixed amount and you have to allocate dollars. You can find dollars, too. That's the benefit of a fast-changing environment is that it sometimes uses money and sometimes, when things are not working or something has changed, you don't need to attach a certain market or a certain way anymore, you can stop that, generate money, and then put it someplace else.

Michael Krigsman: It's not just expenditure, but it is actually investment.


What is the role of data in marketing programs?

Michael Krigsman: We have another couple of questions from Twitter. Earlier, you were talking about the role of data. Jeffrey Rosenberg is asking, "What is your perspective on the role of qualitative insights in this world that is so now data focused?"

Qualitative insights are just as important and not any less important. Let me give you a few examples. Let's take the example I gave earlier on prioritizing accounts using analytics, real-time analytics, and what we know about the account and what we're seeing.

At the same time, we seek qualitative insights from our customers but also our salespeople because they're on the frontlines every day talking to customers. They know their markets, et cetera.

What we found is, if you do just analytics but you don't bring in the expertise of the salespeople and the experiences of the salespeople, then it becomes academic and not very practical. We work with sales leaders, in addition to looking at the analytics, to determine whom we go after. You have to bring in the qualitative analytics.

Secondly, and this is probably what the questioner was asking more about, is qualitative research actually adds a lot of color and value to the quantitative research. Sometimes, when we're trying to do quantitative research, we'll do qualitative research first to even understand what type of questions we should ask in quantitative research or validate. You have to balance the two together.

Also, with qualitative research, you get a lot of nice nuances. Sometimes, the most breakthrough ideas come through the qualitative research where something unexpected is said that you can key off of. You have to do both together.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody says, "Well, it's the data that matters."

Trying to convince the board of a decision, the CEO of a decision, or a customer to do something, what I find is that that emotional storytelling sometimes is much more powerful. That kind of visceral, like, "Here are what customers said to us," that's more powerful than any quantitative data that you could have. You have to balance the two. You're absolutely right. The other thing is that we live in such a quantitative data-driven world that bringing in that qualitative, human aspect actually makes things more powerful in some ways.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. Gus Bekdash is asking, how do you compete as a service provider with apps?

We are actually an apps provider, so we're not a service provider, as we've historically been. We are actually a B2B SaaS applications provider, so we provide two types. One is, we have SaaS applications for things like unified communications, call center as a service, and then we have an API platform where the largest enterprise in the world kind of code in our APIs to enable their applications to provide capabilities like voice, video, two-factor authentication, et cetera. At this point, we're actually a SaaS software provider versus a service provider, although there is a service component of it, of course.

Michael Krigsman: Your business has changed a lot, over the years, since the company was founded.

It absolutely has. It absolutely has. We've evolved tremendously. This is part of the marketing challenge is that your audience may remember what Vonage used to be, which was a consumer VoIP company with incredibly interesting, innovative, advertising, breakthrough pricing, creative, and really kind of upended an entire industry.

We're doing it again. We've evolved through acquisition, as well as just plain organic growth, to be a true, 100%, best in class, B2B SaaS provider for communications and APIs. We've kind of integrated that all together.

How do you create great customer experiences at Vonage?

We think of it as the subtotal of the total experience the customer has with us, not just with marketing, not just with sales, but also post-sale, customer support, billing, et cetera. We have a lot of work to do. Most companies do, and we're no exception because the expectation of customers is rising every single day. That's a massive challenge, for any SaaS company included. That's pretty much how we look at it.

Then, going back to what I had said earlier, how do you prioritize that when there are so many touchpoints? We try to leverage research and data as much as we can and try to derive core insights that tell us what's working well and let's double down on that and what's not working and help prioritize what experience principles we focus on because you have to be very focused. Absolutely, we think about that.

Then, obviously, we have a bias because we talk to customers about customer experience, too. Ultimately, when you think about it, and this is why I'm excited about this industry that we're in now, is that customer experience ultimately is about communications nowadays. That's how we think about the industry that we're in now is that, if customer experience is all about communications, how do you create a highly customized communications experience leveraging apps and APIs for your customers based on who you are and what customers want? That's what we're very focused on.

What are the components of customer experience?

First and foremost, what's the customer journey? How do they want to experience, consume, learn about what you do on your site, off your site, with your salespeople, in the market, review sites, et cetera?

We try to understand the customer journey and what the customer wants, the customer of today and the customer of tomorrow, and as that evolves. That's a critical component.

Then we think a lot about, okay, how do we create experiences or capabilities that enable a customer to accelerate around that journey and obviously come to us? Because the expectation of the customer has changed so much, it's not just about calling into your call center. It's not just about any one communication channel, but it's about every communication channel, whether it's your mobile app, your website, your online chat, calling in, et cetera.

We think a lot about how we integrate those interactions. How do we make sure we're aware of where the customers want to go? How do we make sure every one of those interactions is optimal?

For example, when they call us, and we're still working on this, but we don't want to put them through this massive, complex IVR. We have analytics. We have an AI. We can actually know who they are based on their CRM and then create a personalized experience even when they call in.

We're constantly thinking about these things because, when you think about customer experience, we've done research on customer experience, in general. What's interesting is, clearly, they think about three things. Customers think about three things. One is, did I get done what I wanted to get done. Number two, can I do it fast; no obstacles? Number three, which surprised us but, actually, is very interesting is, how did it make me feel? How did I feel about that experience?

You have to think about all three of those things, so it does matter what a person says on the phone, what they say in a chat, how they experience your app. It's not just about getting it done as soon as possible, but it's also about giving them a positive feeling about your company and brand.

Michael Krigsman: You're talking in terms that we typically think about business to consumer, but you're a B2B company and, yet, you're talking in this way about how you feel, how the customers feel about us.

Yeah, it's interesting because what we're finding is that customers, they don't compare us always to our competitors. Of course, they do. They do, obviously, when they're mid to bottom of the funnel and they're trying to find a provider.

When they think about their experience, in particular, they're not thinking about their experience versus necessarily our competitors. They're thinking about their experience with us compared to their best experience they have, which is often a consumer experience: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, et cetera. We're not even close, but we have to think about that as a comparison point and elevate our experiences to that point. That's kind of the aspirational goal that I have.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. Evan Kirstel is asking, "In such a competitive market, how do you retain that edge?" I'll just say, let's focus it on customer experience. How do you stand out in such a competitive landscape?

You have to understand what your differentiation is and articulate it clearly to your customers. I would say those are kind of the two biggest things. Then I would say the third thing, actually, is getting that to your customer or prospect in the way they want to get that information. I would say those are kind of the three key principles. Again, we're very focused on, as we're transforming those three things, and how we really get better and better at them.

As Chief Marketing Officer, what is your relationship to other business leaders?

It's a great question and another reason why I'm going to bring my bias in; the CMO and the marketing jobs are the hardest jobs on the planet. [Laughter] I'm biased.

Marketing can't achieve anything without the support and the partnership of the broader organization, whether it's the sales organization. We have to partner extremely closely to make sure that we're driving that go to market engine in an optimal way, whether it's with the product organization to make sure that the product organization and we are articulating, involving, talking about marketing the products in the optimal way, the solutions, et cetera.

It's the finance organization ensuring that we're allocating capital correctly and the dollars correctly against the optimal strategy. It's the strategy. It's everyone.

Marketing by itself cannot be successful without strong partnerships with the rest of the organization. We try to invest a lot in building those strong partnerships, both at the executive level, but also at the kind of day-to-day process level as well.

When I talk about operational excellence, it would be wonderful if it was just within marketing, but that's not the easy part but the easier part. It's also marketing and the rest of the organization.

Michael Krigsman: What are the kind of metrics that marketing is evaluated on that you see among your peer CMOs in other companies and also at Vonage? How do you demonstrate the value of marketing, I guess, is the question?

What I see for ourselves, but also when I talk to CMOs, ultimately, there is kind of practical and there's kind of emotional. Practical is, are you generating the revenue and the closed sales that we need to generate to achieve our numbers? There's that component, which is a very practical one.

Now, notice I talked about sales and not pipeline. Pipeline is obviously something that we look at but, ultimately, what matters is closed sales. I can generate a whole bunch of leads, but if they don't generate closed sales then it doesn't really matter. That's where that strong partnership with sales comes in. Are we closing the right amount of sales, especially in these hypergrowth markets? That would be a big one.

The second one is, clearly, are we driving our brand perception? The first numbers tell you how you're doing now. Your brand perception kind of helps tell the story of where you're going. That's a big opportunity for us because we have a challenge there, a challenge of, we had the Vonage business where we started.

Billions of dollars of commercials were spent on that, and that's kind of what's in people's heads. There are benefits to that because everyone knows us. A lot of people love us. They love the innovation. We have high top of mind awareness, but then we have to change the perception of who we are. We are working a lot on how we do that.

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter. Going back to the customer experience, this is an interesting one. You've grown by M&A and diverse lines of businesses and areas. How do you manage different customer experiences? Do you even try to develop a common customer experience? How do you manage that?

We have very different customer types. I would say the two biggest are developers who are kind of our customer persona for our API platform, which is a big business that's growing super-fast and the market is growing super-fast as well. Obviously, developers are very different versus business decision makers who are kind of looking at things differently.

I would say, at the highest level, we can't create a common experience because developers are just fundamentally looking at things differently. They operate differently. The way they "buy" or "use" APIs is very different versus somebody who is buying a SaaS subscription.

We do split the experience between those two. Then there are sub-segments under that, but that's kind of broadly how we would split it. It depends on your business.

What advice do you have for other marketers?

Michael Krigsman: Rishi, as we finish up, what advice do you have for marketers who are in a changing environment in order to drive the kind of results that you've been talking about?

The biggest advice and the biggest challenge that I'm finding is culture. It is difficult. It is hard. It is hard for me. It's hard for my organization. I hear it every day from my organization on just how difficult it is to be in this environment that's under constant change and these markets that are in hypergrowth.

Now, it's exciting. That's why we're all here. Day-to-day, it's hard. One of the things I think that's critical to think about is how you create a culture, how you create stability, to the extent that you can, and how you get the right people in place so that we could all kind of, together as a team, handle this hyper-changing environment.

It's really exciting. There is nothing more exciting than being in a market that has a huge future and is growing at a super high rate. That's super exciting. But, every day, sometimes is hard and you have those moments. I think the number one piece of advice I'd give is culture, culture, culture.

Michael Krigsman: Talent management, then, and finding the right people is a core part of how you're spending your time, it sounds like.

Yes, but not enough. I need to do a better job because it's hard. Again, this is why the CMO and the marketing department is the hardest job at a company because we have to do the run the business. We have to do the change the business. We have to also drive our culture and work as a team. We've brought in companies through acquisitions as well, and so it's exciting and we have a very unique position in the marketplace that nobody else has that excites our customers and prospects. I never feel like we're doing enough, but we're making good progress.

Michael Krigsman: You've been kind of talking around this, but what are the obstacles or the challenges that CMOs can expect to face when trying to drive change such as we've been discussing?

Lots. [Laughter] Lots. One is, how do you bring your organization, your peers, and your board on the transformation journey that you're going on? The challenge is that it's not just about, here's the answer; it's about, here's the insight that's driving the answer. That is constantly changing.

Bringing all the constituencies along on this journey is a big challenge. Leadership is extremely hard in this type of environment. It's super exciting but hard. How do you constantly talk to your organization? How do you communicate change? How do you address the exhaustion but the excitement, these exciting environments that we're in? How do you listen to feedback and act on it quickly, all those kinds of things, is another big challenge?

Then the third challenge, I would say, is back to the first topic, operational excellence. That's hard to do and so that's kind of a big piece as well because sometimes having good operations in place helps with everything else.

Michael Krigsman: As we finish up, final advice on how to build that kind of operational excellence? What are the challenges? I know we're just about out of time, but what do you do? [Laughter]

The key thing is communication because it takes time. Being very, very open, honest, and direct with especially the marketing organization, but also everyone else, is probably the biggest thing that you can do.

Michael Krigsman: The communication and being sure that people understand what you're trying to do, where you're going, and then getting them onboard.

Absolutely. Absolutely, and realizing that it's a journey.

Michael Krigsman: Rishi, Dave, thank you so much for taking time to be with us today.

Thank you.

Michael Krigsman: We've been speaking with Rishi Dave. He is the chief marketing officer at Vonage. Before you go, please do subscribe on YouTube and subscribe to the CXOTalk newsletter. We have great shows coming up and we will see you soon. Have a great day, everybody. Thanks so much for watching.

Published Date: Jun 14, 2019

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 602