CMO Ann Sung Ruckstuhl: How I re-engineered marketing at Unisys
The Silicon Valley doyen reflects on how she applied her startup skills to transform marketing at the 146-year-old tech giant.
Ann Sung Ruckstuhl holds two qualifications from the University of Florida. One, as you might expect from the Senior Vice President and CMO of global IT services business Unisys, is an MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. The other is a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.
Not many world-class CMOs began their career as an engineer at Hewlett Packard. Silicon Valley veteran Ruckstuhl sees it as a significant advantage.
“I think I bring a unique blend of background and skills that, frankly, even for the Valley is quite unusual,” she says. “As an engineer, I was not satisfied to merely work on technology for technology sake. I’ve always wanted to know what business problems we were solving and if we were solving them in the best way possible.”
Ruckstuhl has worked at five Fortune 1000 companies and seven startups. She was an engineer, product manager, enterprise architect and product line manager for over 12 years at HP. She has also been a successful strategist, entrepreneur, sales executive and four-time CMO. Now she’s the marketing leader at a company with a heritage stretching back to the launch of the Remington QWERTY typewriter in 1873.
Since being brought in by Unisys Chairman and CEO Peter Altabef as a change agent in December 2016, Ruckstuhl has transformed the company’s marketing strategy and operations, putting a priority on digital transformation and storytelling. Along the way, the company’s net promoter score (NPS) has boomed; it’s now twice the industry average.
The former engineer is comfortable with her decision to join Unisys after her startup, SOASTA, was bought by US cloud services provider Akamai. “I’m still going ‘Wow. I can’t believe I get to play with this awesome mix of products and services’,” she says.
Ruckstuhl spoke to Marketorium about why she joined Unisys and the skills marketing leaders need to succeed in a fast-moving environment. Here are some edited, bite-sized excerpts from a wide-ranging discussion …
Why she joined Unisys
“It’s a combination of ‘I picked them and they picked me’, a mutual selection. [CEO] Peter recognised that owning a new approach would dramatically improve Unisys’ performance. And he was looking for a disruptor with transformation chops. He wanted to tear away routine thinking and behaviour. Peter was looking for someone who was more experienced – a leader in a faster paced, bruising work environment, where you take risks but in a gauged manner.
“For me, I look at the people I get to work for and work with. I look at the technology portfolio – it has to be interesting to me. Then I look if they have a will to go fast and grow. You don’t bet everything on one move – it’s all incremental – but you do it fast.
“Life is one giant AB test, and a business model is no different. It’s akin to dating when you’re younger – it’s a bunch of AB tests, right? That’s what transformation is. You aim high, embrace a step-wise approach, win, scale and adjust along the way to increase your probability of winning.”
What she brought to Unisys
A different culture: “I’m a different kind of manager – I’m a leader and a doer. I don’t ever want to be remiss of one or the other – you should be able to lead but if you need to roll up your sleeves and work side by side with your team, you should be able to do that as well.”
A modern approach: “Peter was looking for somebody with agility. As you and I know, marketing is not just about brand and advertising any more. Marketing is art as well as science. A modern marketer can do the art, which is for me the brand identity, storytelling, thought leadership, advertising, the emotive part of marketing. The science part of marketing is all about digital automation, measuring and data-driven optimisation – from open rates and click-through conversions all the way down to pipeline.
A feel for technology: “Unisys is a technology company at heart. You cannot be the CMO of a company like this one without understanding technology. Tinklers speak a certain language and it’s the job of the CMO and his or her team to speak tech and translate it to inspirational business outcomes. You’ve got to do both.”
When marketing is a force for good
“If you know your true north – what kind of outcomes you’re able to deliver to your clients – that ultimately makes you feel good about what you do. For example, a [US] Department of Vehicles used our cloud acceleration and management platform, CloudForte, to cut the wait queue to get a driver’s licence from three hours down to five minutes. That, for me, is what we like to talk about – making somebody’s life a little better, less mundane and less complicated. And more secure, hopefully.”
Why marketers are educators
“A lot of what we do nowadays is educating prospects and clients online. According to SiriusDecision, some 70 per cent of the buyer’s journey is completed online before a buyer even reaches out to sales. It’s very rare for a buyer to call sales and say, ‘Hey, can somebody call me back and tell me all about your widget?’ You and I Google and research complicated tech solutions just like we would if we were buying a pair of shoes. That’s how B2C and B2B buyers research, learn and triangulate their shortlists.”
Why digital is king
“Digital is the way to go. Digital content is like love – the more love you give, the more love you receive. You need to educate via content and, on the average, a buyer consumes five pieces of content per vendor. So think about what content mix you ante up on digital touchpoints. When there’s a match between your solution and a buyer’s needs, digital allows you to quickly turn mind share into wallet share.
“Buyers give you digital breadcrumbs to demonstrate their intent. They would learn on their own until they are ready to have a conversation about how to apply your solution to their environment or maybe ask for a proof-of-concept.”
How a $3 billion business can act as a startup
“Within Unisys, each one of our industry solutions is a startup in itself. You’re connected to the rest of the company, but there’s a lot of latitude within each. Marketing and engineering are the glue that connects these industry solutions to services and products. Each industry solution is driven by its unique use cases, customer experiences and business logic that is relevant to that industry sector.
“Marketers need to walk into their next jobs with their eyes wide open and baseline where the company is in its digital transformation journey. Unisys was already in the middle of a transformation when I joined, so I didn’t have to justify the need to change; rather, I focused on accelerating the deployment of a new marketing strategy and operating model.”
How Unisys has transformed
“The first order of business was [going] digital first. We’ve revamped the entire product marketing function. For me, product marketing and product managers are two sides of the same coin. Product marketing’s job is to understand the buyer personas, what their problems are, what the use cases are, and be able to create the content from 20,000-foot level business content to the sub-sea level – like a technical demo of an application, how it works, and possibly go even deeper and give them an online ‘sandbox’ so they can play with it.
“None of that existed at Unisys. So the product marketing function was built up in a major hurry and we brought in people who understood what a buyer journey looks like – what type of information and content they were looking for in the awareness phase all the way to the purchase phase. Different content requires different depth. We are able to tell stories that educate buyers correctly.
Why targeting is important
“Not only do you need a great set of educational content, you need to put it in front of your intended target buyers. How do you reach out to them between email, social media, peer groups, events, online webinars, content syndication? The mix available is tremendous.
“You need to understand those venues to get to the right people, put content in front of them and get their interest to begin with. That by itself is an art and a science. We built a whole revenue marketing team with new technology stack, using account-based marketing and retargeting. We want to make sure we’re top of mind.”
How revenue became the focus
“How do you know when someone raised their hand, and what can you extrapolate based on their behaviour? If somebody attended a webinar, watched all the way to the end, possibly even asked a question, downloaded the white paper, you can probably say that person is legitimately interested. They are worthy of a ping … ‘Hi, we hope you find that information useful. Is there anything else that we can answer for you?’
“That’s where the personal touch begins. That process was new to [the marketing operations at] Unisys. Prior to that, it was not exactly a revenue-driven marketing organisation – it was much more of a branding and events organisation. That was an evolution for everybody involved.”
Why NPS is not about marketing
“The NPS is a reflection of how someone feels about how you served them. The reason why Unisys’ NPS went up so high is because we earned it. How did we earn it? By aligned associate incentives and performance ratings to client satisfaction is how we were able to move the needle in the right direction. It’s not marketing, even though we ran the NPS survey and recommendations.
“Another key aspect is client advocacy. That’s where marketing does come in. We believe in having our clients telling their stories – how they digitally transformed their businesses. We don’t even ask them to mention Unisys. We just come along for the ride. It’s important that they tell their transformation stories in an authentic and pragmatic way. That for me is the best possible outcome from the NPS initiative.”
What modern CMOs need
“Organisations are increasingly looking to CMOs to drive change – from strategy, positioning/messaging, customer experience, client acquisition to pipeline automation. Today’s CMOs need to be great storytellers, digital natives, data scientists with an innate curiosity to embrace the constant-changing buyer behaviour and martech stack to drive better awareness, preference and purchase propensity. A modern CMO is key to business transformation.”
Why it’s tough being CMO
“CMOs have a lot riding on their shoulders. Not only do we have to deliver awareness and pipeline, we also need to manage the organisational changes needed to do our jobs well. The line between marketing and sales is blurring and that can cause discomfort. So this job is not for the faint of heart.
“On the flip side, it’s also the most exciting job around because you’re not pigeonholed. Storytelling is a really fun thing to do. The data science part of your job can also be rewarding. You can slice and dice the data and nuance it in all possible ways, and even apply machine learning and AI to make predictions.”
What it’s like in the Valley
“The Valley is a place of possibilities enabled by the convergence of talent, money and a risk-taking culture. Unisys opened the Silicon Valley office after I joined to tap into this creative environment where new ideas, new technologies and new business models are encouraged. Here people learn to fail fast rather than fear them, which is a great culture and spirit to inject into a mature company like Unisys.”
How she stays grounded
“I have a husband, three kids, five chickens and two cats. They make sure that I know exactly where I stand in the pecking order.
“I left Hewlett Packard after 12 years to start my own company. That company went down in flames and we lost a lot of money. That was my first startup and I learnt a lot. So the kids know what I go through. They treat every company I join as if I’m having another child, because it is.
“So before I take a job, we would have a family meeting. My kids are pretty mature. Ever since they were five or six years old, they were able to vote on whether Mummy should join this company. They know exactly what Mummy’s going to do, how long she’ll be away. They understand that their mother is a mum, a wife, a friend … and a worker.”
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Further reading: Interview with Atlassian CMO Robert Chatwani