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The CTO of Carbon38 talks about how a close relationship between marketing and IT can offer competitive advantage.

Video Transcript

– [Agathe] So we’re going to talk about the relationship between marketers and their technology counterparts. And I don’t mean technology like SAS and Optimove, I mean the internal team. So, data science, tech team, IT, and really kind of everything that can go well or can go wrong there, right? And it’s a pretty interesting topic because marketers weren’t born super tech-savvy, historically, at least.

I think the fact that, you know, all of you guys are in the audience, at least, marketers is proving the contrary and it’s showing that this has changed and evolved. But, of course, as we’re looking for more, I want to say, customer obsession, but I feel like I’m going to get stoned from the last panel and I can no longer say that. But as we’re looking to be more customer centric and, you know, looking into customer science and more personalized, as we’re looking to pick up speed and scalability in how we treat our customers, of course, there’s a big question as to, “How can technology enable that and how can we work with our internal teams in order to make that happen faster?”

So it means that the relationship between marketing teams and their technology counterpart has also evolved a lot and there’s an increased reliance on this team and there’s an increased, sometimes, dependence on it. So we’re going to have on stage our next speaker, and I’m going to speak to Boris, who is a very, very experienced technology executive, currently at Carbon38, a retailer in the US.

And for him, I think you’ll have two choices, you know, when you work with a technology team. It can either be your biggest hurdle and a massive roadblock as marketers, or it can be your biggest assets. Boris, earlier to me, described his relationship with marketing as partners in crime. So let’s have him come on stage and talk to us a little bit about how that looks for him.

Hey, Boris?

– [Boris] Hey.

– Welcome.

– Hey, everyone.

– Do you want to tell the audience maybe a little bit about yourself, your experience, get them to know you a little bit better?

– Sure. I’ve been doing startups for about 20 years, 20-plus years. From my very early time with Netflix, pre-launch, and then five and a half years since there, through thin and thick, through IPO. I started there as senior engineer and became a web developer and a web manager.

I was managing all aspects of the website, except two most important… very important algorithms, their dynamic inventory management when Netflix was still shipping DVDs to people, and also recommendation engine also wasn’t my domain.

But everything else was pretty much under my management at the time. Anyway, five and a half years there, then I moved to LA. I was working in fintech, doing refinance and home equity loans, debt consolidation, that kind of stuff. Then I moved back to more consumer-facing technology company, which was Shoe of the Month Club.

I don’t know how many of you have heard of Shoedazzle. And then, lately, five and a half years almost, at Carbon38, which is…I’m going to probably talk about it later. Yeah.

– You can tell us about it a little bit now.

– Sure. So, Carbon38, I was just… Look, my brand marketer probably will kill me for butchering the brand message, but basically, it’s a performance fashion, right? If you think about activewear for women with a very strong fashion twist, that’s Carbon38.

– Good. So, I think maybe let’s start by the evolution of that relationship, right? Because I think somebody on the marketing side of Optimove called you a tech veteran. I don’t know how you feel about the veteran idea, but in any case, you have experience and you’ve seen a lot of, probably, changes over time in the last 20 years or so in terms of your involvement with the marketing team and the relationship, and how have you seen that evolve in terms of their needs for your services, their interaction with your team?

Is it, you know…? Has it been leveling to something of a more equal relationship? Talk to us about kind of the evolution as you’ve seen it.

– Sure. You called me a veteran, right? So I must be so. I guess it’s true. It’s funny. You know, as I was preparing to… you know, this talk last night, I did a little bit of Google searching, just to see where the digital marketing has been.

If you think about it, we talked… just today, Amit was talking about in the morning about marketing 2.0 and marketing 3.0. I’m sure next year we’re going to meet here, we’re probably going to be talking about marketing 4.0, right? And maybe we’ll skip the whole version and go straight to marketing 5.0. I don’t know. We talked about optimizing the journeys and switching away from optimizing the journeys to the self-optimizing journeys.

But if you think about it, again, digital marketing is a very recent phenomena. When we were working at Netflix, like, back 20-plus years, there was no such thing as digital marketing. So just back to my notes here for a second, there was no ESP at the time at all. So if you want to send an email, that was really do-it-yourself days at the time, right?

You want to send email, you have to configure SMTP Client and do it yourself, and, you know, barely manage maybe subscription status of your customers. I’m now talking about even campaign management, right? You want to do retargeting, you do it yourself. You want to do affiliate relationship, you do it yourself. You want to optimize your website, you do it yourself. So everything pretty much was do-it-yourself days, right? Then early 2000, something like that, you get some emergence of ESPs.

But you think about that as well, Google Gmail was founded in 2004, right? Yahoo was ’97, but there was no, like, email service providers. Again, back to do-it-yourself thing. Facebook was only founded 2004, so it’s a very recent phenomena.

And, as you can see, the exploration of services is just mind-blowing, right? You need something, you have a service for it. Like they used to say, “You need such and such, you have an app for it.” Nowadays, for marketing, you need a service, you have a company or multiple companies offering it. So the evolution…back to your question, specifically, the evolution is that marketing became very technologically driven, very technology oriented.

And technology, in order to stay relevant, has to learn marketing tricks and to be able to, you know, be a good partner to a marketer. So I think that’s the big change.

– So it sounds from you… I mean, first, I’ve never thought of Netflix as a struggling startup doing it themselves, but good to know. It’s why we’re having you. But it sounds like you had a close relationship, even at Netflix. It sounds like you have a high involvement with marketing, it’s just of a different nature maybe, right?

So you had to implement a lot of things on your own. And are you saying that you have now a closer relationship to marketing, a higher involvement in terms of the selections, for example of SAS products? Or is that where it’s moved to, principally?

– Right. Right, right. Yeah. So the notion today is, at any given company, if you are on the internet, e-commerce or otherwise, you’re probably using 20, 30, 40 different services. If you think about it, right, you have a ESP provider, you have a affiliate partner, you have a chat, you have, I don’t know, product feeds, you have analytics, you have behavioral analytics.

You have all this kind of stuff. So it definitely changed very dramatically. The relationship with marketing obviously also changed, right? So, if you think about technology and marketing, we were kind of distant relatives which were living together happily, and maybe seeing each other, I don’t know, once a week or something like that.

Nowadays, we’re very close. We live in a very close quarters. We have to communicate with each other every single day because it’s so much relationship and so much interlap.

– And so if you’re talking to us about your…the working with your marketing team right now, can you talk to us a little bit about the processes and specifically about the potential tension, right? I think that those are two teams that should work in symbiosis, but often it’s very difficult mostly because, typically, maybe, you know, you have…they think differently, right?

You have technology teams that are thinking sometimes less commercially, and sometimes get annoyed at the marketing side for just wanting things done like this, and it just can’t happen that way. And on the marketing side, there’s an expectation of partnership that sometimes they… Tell us because I’m not the one to answer the question, but what are the tensions that you’ve experienced, if any, and how do you handle them?

– From the technology point of view, there is definitely a lot of pressure on technology team to deliver across the organizations. Again, marketing is probably one of the biggest client within the organization for the technology team, believe it or not, especially if you’re on the internet, right? But technology has its own issue they’d like to work on.

Like, I’m also responsible for the product on the website and also for the data. And so, I would like to be, maybe, you know, have my own pet project and work on that, versus, you know, implementing some… another marketing tool, right? But in order to maintain this symbiotic relationship and really good partnership, you just have to be a marketer.

Every technology person has to become not just pure technologists. Technologists have… At the end of the day, technology is not for technology’s sake there. Technology is to serve its organization, unless, of course, technology is what the company delivers, right? Technology is there to serve the business needs, and every business-minded CTO needs to understand that.

And if they don’t, the marketing partner maybe should nudge them gently into that direction and say, “Hey, we’re working together.Marketing is a service organization.Technology is also a service organization.We are sister departments working together.”

– So that actually makes me think. So from the Optimove standpoint, we often see that there’s also a little bit of a clash sometimes between the SAS platforms themselves and the technology teams inside our client’s organization. So it’s one of two things. Usually, it’s either you have a client or a brand who has a small technology team and therefore very small bandwidth.

And so there’s a lot of pushback on the implementation of technology, which is one issue. And then on the other side of that scope, you have much larger organizations with very, very present technology teams and data science, and here you have a conflict in terms of, how much do they want to retain internally for themselves? How much do they want to outsource? And how do they set a process around that, around, you know, “How do I make that selections?How do I decide?What do I keep in-house?What do I not keep in-house?”

What’s your experience there? Do you have examples around things that you purposely decided to keep in-house for the good of the business, or vice versa, decided to kind of, you know, externalize?

– Yeah, for sure. I think any business-minded CTO who is not a rookie and been there, done that a little bit, has to realize and really master the concept of build versus buy. Right? One thing I’m trying to figure out for the business always is, “What is my core technology for the company?What am I delivering, actually?Am I a business of delivering email and managing campaign?Am I in business, you know, creating the segments or doing the data modeling, implementing machine learning?What is the core technology service that I am providing to organization?Outside of integration of all kinds of solution to all kinds of departments, right?What is my core?”

And once I figure out what is the core, then I…core, I want to probably build in-house and keep it as my proprietary, you know, thing that we created internally, right? Everything else, it’s probably a good buy decision. So then it becomes just a matter of, first of all, figuring out what is the core, what is not the core?

Make a very clear distinction. And once you know that, then it becomes much easier. For example…I can give a couple of examples, right? So, back in 1997, when Netflix was just starting, we already knew the concept, that we want to optimize the experience, right? I don’t know.

We didn’t come up with the concept, obviously, but we were probably one of the first companies who implemented A/B testing framework. There was obviously no tool and no providers for that, so we build it ourselves and I build it, you know, first A/B testing framework for Netflix, which we used for years. The next company I joined, I already know how to do it. There was still no providers, so I build it again.

The next company I worked for, there were already a couple providers that provided, you know, platforms and capabilities to test your stuff. You know, you name a bunch. Right? So, you look at it again and decide, “Okay, is that something that is core to my business?Is this something that makes me propel the business further, number one?Number two, is the company or the provider that I’m looking at gives me enough flexibility and capabilities, that’s not going to be a showstopper for me?”

And then you make a decision at that point, and I made a decision. I build it again. Third time. So my recent company, I just start…I joined five years ago, I think, “Okay, do I have to build it again, like fourth time or fifth time?” So, again, look around and figure out, “Yeah, it’s probably core for us, and I want to really go deep and test a lot of, not just front-end stuff, but also complicated backend algorithms.I do probably want to keep it in-house.”

On the other hand, if you think about recommendations, right? Well, we talk about…even on this conference, we talk about Netflix algorithm and this collaborative filtering stuff. It’s very well know algorithm. Everyone knows about it. So why not just build it yourselves and use it? Right? It’s a very, very valid question, I think.

But what people don’t realize, and technology people who are, you know… Techies have always liked to build shit…stuff, right? What they don’t realize, it’s not just building stuff. It’s, “How do you operationalize it?” That’s a big, big, big issue and that marketing friends can also always help technology person to recognize.

It’s not just what you build. How do you make it actionable? How do you make it available throughout the organizations and make it you know, valuable, right? And so for recommendations, for example, there is company who specializes that. And it’s not just algorithm. It’s A/B testing of different strategies for specific slots, and reporting, and all kinds of infrastructure on top of that, that makes it valuable service, potentially, right?

So if I’m not at my current company in the business of building algorithms, might as well they use the technology. If I’m not in my current company, not in a business of creating machine learning for segmentations, might as well use Optimove for that.

– Talk to us a little about the day-to-day at Carbon or somewhere else, but in terms of the, you know, the limited bandwidth that you have as a technology team and the unlimited requests that you potentially are getting from marketing or other departments. Do you have any form of processes that allow you to prioritize, to assign the necessary amount of time and lifts for…

to allocate it to each task and therefore to kind of build that ideal relationship that, you know, that we’re talking about with the marketing team?

– I think every veteran CTO and every veteran CMO should realize they’re not just CTO and not just CMO. They’re part of the executive team, and they’re working together. So, for example, I can ask you a question or ask you guys a question. Who’s responsible for the sales within the company?

Is it the chief merchant officer or is it chief marketing officer? Is it chief product officer, is it technology, right? So it’s really hard to say. So merchandiser can just say, “You know what?I delivered my product.You guys can sell it.” Or marketers say, “I brought your traffic, you just can convert it.You’re a product person, you can convert the traffic, right?”

So everyone would just have to take off the department hat from their heads and put the business hat on and, you know, figure out, “What is the strategic KPIs for the company?” Right? And then from that point on, it becomes much easier conversation.

– What do you think about that transition? Because I agree with what you’re saying, but I think what we see a lot of is that, you have, on one hand, the technology team that can build great things, have a great understanding of customer science, a great understanding of segments. And so, you’re implementing all of this, and somehow you’re looking on the other side of the funnel, which is the end goal, which is, you know, revenue generation for the business, and you’re getting…driving benefits from and for your customers.

And somehow it doesn’t translate down to the funnel of marketing execution, right? You have a lot of things that they are being built by tech teams, that actually doesn’t translate in terms of operationalization of this. How do you see your role from the technology standpoint as enabling that across the funnel? Or does your involvement stop kind of right there?

– Well, I’m a very mindful person and I’m not…I’m trying to always be mindful of my marketing partners and trying to watch the boundaries and not to step on anyone toes, right? I love marketing, been working with marketing for, you know, all these years, and product… I love product as well. And so I’m trying to be available, make myself available if needed, and I’m trying to be…you know, step away when my job is done, and then maybe just be on the lookout for any questions or issues to be on the ready to help.

So, this is how I approach it, right? So not, you know, to dictate, not to take orders, but be a equal partner with the marketers, and that… this is how it works for me.

– But there’s a point at which if you’re using… I think you gave me an example earlier about some attribution system that you adopted internally after the Gartner Conference, something that was, you know, the hot topic of the… And I think that, you know, do you specifically have an influence in making sure that the technology selected for usage inside the marketing organizations are being implemented and used properly?

How do you impact their focus on those different tools, if at all?

– Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, again, I’m a very marketing kind of oriented technology leader, I guess. I always looking out for the edge, right? And there’s a lot of good tools out there, and there’s a lot of good marketing salespeople out there.

They’ll keep my marketers, you know, bombarded with their offers and new shiny tools. So where I think my role kind of helps is to help evaluate the tools, to brush away all the, you know, bells and whistles and see whether it’s really core, whether it’s really needed for the company right now, right this second, right? So what I’m always kind of trying to advise my marketing partners, “We have already great tools.Let’s just make sure that we take full advantage of what we have and use the tool to the full extent.”

Right? At the end of the day, the tool is only as good as the people using it, right? So you have to know the capabilities. You have to know the tool and make sure that you’re not getting distracted by some new, you know, latest software which is out there. Sometimes you just have to watch it and make sure that you’re not missing out on one hand, but on other hand, you stay focused and disciplined and don’t get distracted.

So this is where I kind of trying to help them. Like, I went on the conference, I try to evaluate potential partners, you know, just trying to stay up to date on what’s available.

– So talk to us maybe a little bit about Carbon38. Like, let’s talk about Carbon for a second. So when I met you about 3 years ago, your company was, I don’t know, maybe 20 employees. You guys have 90-something employees today, so it’s been high growth. I’m sure that that relationship has changed also with the marketing team.

You guys have done a lot. How have you seen that evolution? And, of course, you’re… I would not think that you’re the standard CTO, right? I think you’re very marketing centric, that you’re very, very involved. Talk to us a little bit about the nature of the relationship and, you know, if there’s anything in particular that makes it work.

– Sure. Sure. Yeah, I started there as the CTO for hire. I was there for once…one day a week, and then two days a week, and then three days a week, and then, you know, they twisted my arms and say, you know, “You have to come full time.” So the rest is the history. We were six people at the beginning. Right now we’re 90 people, right?

So we have one marketer, one technology, which was me. It was very different situation then. Everyone was doing a lot, wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot of stuff. Obviously, technology team grew, marketing team grew. There’s specific specialization, there’s a brand marketer, there’s a social marketer, and so on and so forth. And so it’s hard to keep up to date.

And definitely relationship change, so I cannot be in everything all the time. I am trying to stay at least…you know, trying to maintain the knowledge of what they’re doing, what they’re looking for, what is the shortcomings, and see where I can help. And the key is just to maintain the good relationship, be a really, to answer your question a little bit more specifically, be generally interested in, what are they doing?

What are their struggles? What are their objectives? What are their KPIs? And see if I can help them to, you know, at least maybe build an approach to figuring out KPIs. Like one of the things I got myself involved lately was evaluating the efficiency of marketing channels, the ROI of marketing channels. Could they have done it themselves? Probably, for sure.

Right? But since I was very close to the data, it was really easy for me to step in and help a little bit and help them figure out the framework evaluating ROI for marketing channels, then once that was done, I step away, let them run with it. So just provide the help when it’s needed, when asked. You know, be genuinely interested in what they’re doing, what the struggle is, and then, you know, be available but not too annoying.

You know, just stay back a little bit, you know, guard your space.

– I know you guys are not super corporate, but you have a specific structure for this. You have a weekly meeting. Is there formats around which you frame the involvement of technology in the marketing activity? Because I think it’s really interesting. I don’t think that it’s a classical case that, you know, the technology team gets, you know, deeply involved into all of the marketing initiative to see how they can help, right?

That can be the reverse logic as well. Do you have meetings? I don’t know.

– Yeah, for sure. We’re a small company, still, and we try to keep it not too formal, but we have a lot of meetings. I’m sure a lot of you can probably attest to that. We’re trying to keep our meetings meaningful. We have weekly KPIs, and everyone is… Again, back to what I was saying earlier, who owns a specific metric, right? It’s really hard for one individual to own the sales of the company because there’s so many parts involved, so many departments.

And so when we get together at the table, I am not a technology person. I’m a business person. When marketing person sits across from me at the other end of the table, they’re not the marketing person, they’re also a business person. And we talk about the KPIs, the high-level KPIs of the company, and we figure out what to do and how to improve from there.

So basically, just, you know what departments you’re coming from, when you enter the meeting, forget about it for a second and just act as a team, as the business leaders.

– We got a question from a partner of ours who wanted to ask you specifically how, if in any way, do you ensure that your partners are thinking cross-functionally so that your technology partners put themselves in the shoes of marketers, and that the marketers are trying to kind of understand the restrictions of the tech team, so that things can kind of work better?

Do you have experience around that?

– Again, as I was saying earlier, marketing becomes super technology-heavy, right? So from that perspective, marketing needs technology help, but technology cannot be efficient helper if they don’t understand the marketing needs. So from that perspective, we have to work cross-functionally a lot. So if I don’t understand what they do and what this tool is for, I wouldn’t be able to help them.

I wouldn’t be able to guide them or provide some, I don’t know, guidance as to what I think that the tool is good or not good. Like, there is a lot of examples lately when the tool becomes a hot potato. For example, I was in the Gartner Conference earlier this year, and everyone is talking about attribution modeling, right? It’s one of the hottest adoption tool. On the other hand, it’s also one of the tools that are being dropped the most, because people get excited about, you know…

No one is happy with last-touch attribution, I’m sure. Everyone is trying to figure out how to build a multi-touch attribution in efficient manner and it’s really not easy to do. It’s very hard and so you’re looking for help, you’re looking for a solution partner, and you jump on the bandwagon and then you don’t know what to do with the tool or the model doesn’t work. So it’s a little back and forth, and technology there can help at least to evaluate the solutions and tools.

– Any good tips for marketers’ friends to make friends with the tech team? Is there any…? I don’t know if it’s just common sense or if you have a secret sauce. Anything you can share?

– Well, I think I can refer you to any good book, how to make friends, right? So a lot of it is common sense, right? Be very respectful, you know, treat your partner as a partner not, you know… If someone comes to me and gives me order, they’re going to have different response from me.

If they ask for help, that’s going to be completely different situation. People like to being asked for help, right? We’re generally ready and really eager to help, especially on technology side. So, just respect me as a partner and, you know, tell me your struggles, honestly. And another thing I can think of is, like, there’s a really good book.

It’s called <i>Four Agreements</i>, I don’t know, just thought of that. Don’t assume anything, don’t take anything personally, and be impeccable with the words. I recommend this book to anyone who don’t know it. Just look it up. It’s really good principles.

Be impeccable with the word, be very, very precise what you’re saying. Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume you know anything, don’t assume you’re right, and don’t take anything personally. So, you know, just go in with an open eyes, an open mind.

– So it’s partner in crimes,right? It’s the same level. I think there’s also that, right?

– Absolutely.

– It’s not…

– We’re partners. We’re partners. We’re partners in crime. We’re working on the same thing, and the goal is to lift up the business and propel the business to the next level, right? So it’s not like we both… We both service organization at the end of the day, right? So, as long as you treat me as an equal partner, that’ll be awesome.

– All right, I think that’s it, and everyone can get coffee. Thanks, guys.

– All right. Thank you.