The CMO’s Perspective: A Conversation with Chris Powell

By Jeffrey Street, Senior Writer

As part of our continuing series of articles exploring what’s on the minds of CMOs, we reached out to Chris Powell. As Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer, and a member of the executive leadership team at Tinton Falls, New Jersey-based Commvault (NASDAQ: CVLT), Chris leads a group of talented professionals who are dedicated to helping customers — and every business — understand how his company provides a radically better way to protect, manage, and access data.

After joining Commvault in mid-2014, Chris led the company’s global brand transformation, which is how we met. Working with Chris and his team, McMillan helped create the new Commvault brand, and we continue to support the company’s worldwide marketing efforts.

Like many others, we also followed with great interest an extraordinary adventure that Chris was a part of early in 2018, when he participated in the final leg of a 600-mile journey to the South Pole. “It was an absolutely unbelievable thing to get to do, and incredibly rewarding,” Chris told us about skiing the last 60 miles as part of the South Pole Energy Challenge, which was organized and led by legendary British explorer Robert Swan and his son Barney. It was the first-ever such expedition powered solely by clean energy technologies. “I met incredible people, in an incredible place. It was tremendous,” Chris added.

Chris spoke with us from his office in Tinton Falls. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

In a blog post reflecting on your incredible adventure in Antarctica, you wrote: “The journey may be over, but the challenge continues.” You were referring, of course, to the issue at the heart of the expedition, but it made me wonder how the experience might have shaped your perspective of the challenges and opportunities you face at Commvault.

You know, in a lot of ways that phrase can be applied to a lot in life — right? You continue to meet different needs and challenges as they arise. There are so many takeaways, including some entirely too cliché, probably, about the things you learn on these kinds of trips. An awful lot of the things that we did when we were out there ultimately come back to so many different types of life and business analogies, around leadership, team dynamics, perseverance, grit, and always striving to innovate as you move forward. There are just so many stories about needing to be both prepared and ready to be flexible, ready to make whatever changes are necessary to accomplish whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

I’ve talked to groups and said that one of the things that sort of struck me as so interesting — and it relates to Commvault’s business — is that when you’re out there, you’re just walking from Point A to Point B. It’s about as simple a concept as you can possibly imagine, but the complexity involved in accomplishing it is incredibly detailed and takes a lot of thinking. I give the same kind of analogy in business. There’s an awful lot of people who perhaps understand the future state of what you want to achieve, and there are a lot of people who need to understand the current state and some of the challenges you need to overcome, but it’s a much rarer skill to understand how to get from one point to the next point as efficiently and expertly as possible. Out there on the ice, it seems like such a straightforward thing, yet there are so many things in your path that you just need to be prepared for everything.

You’ve talked about the importance of data on that trip and how you were inspired by data. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

The data aspect of the trip was sort of twofold. One facet was the importance of data in the overall mission of Robert Swan and his foundation, and the other was data tied to accomplishing the expedition itself. I’ll talk about it from those two directions. In terms of accomplishing the expedition, you quickly realize from the different conditions you’re in that you’re highly reliant on the skilled guides that you have, and those guides are reliant on your GPS data. Even using a compass is a challenge: you’re dealing with true south versus magnetic south, and you need to adjust as you go. You’re on this expedition in the summer months in the southern hemisphere, and at the South Pole there’s no darkness, so contrary to what you might think at times, it’s difficult to gauge which direction you’re following. So that little bit of data is extremely vital.

The other aspect that was interesting was the overall mission for this trip. It wasn’t just about the expedition; it was about raising awareness of what can be done with renewable energy. If you can do this in the harshest environment on earth, you can make renewable energy work in many applications. We just need to think as people what we should be doing differently. The way to get that message out was highly reliant on data. During the expedition, that data was in the form of photography, video, and so on. This was the first expedition to have a 360-degree camera, which was part of a program that Robert Swan is doing with the United Nations. He’s creating an educational tool that is a virtual reality sort of view of what it’s like to be part of an expedition to the South Pole.

So, yeah, altogether the experience was very much connected to, and drew inspiration from, a lot of data elements. Some of it was for the expedition and getting you pointed in the right direction, and some was essential to accomplish the true objective of the expedition, which was to raise awareness.

You remarked about operating in a harsh environment. Not to stretch the point too much, but B2B marketing can be a bit harsh at times. How are you responding to — or taking advantage of — the unique challenges in B2B marketing today?

When I look at B2B marketing today, I see almost a perfect storm of things that have occurred. The technology behind marketing — not just our marketing, but all marketing — has evolved dramatically. The use of data, predictive tools, and automation is truly astounding. At the same time, in our industry the technologies that people are using to back up, recover, protect, and use their data have fundamentally changed. So the products we’re selling, and the environment we’re selling in, have changed. And finally, we’ve seen a shift in who our buyers are, one that has gone from a traditional IT crowd to a much broader set of influencers and decision-makers. The exciting part — and you’ve got to be a little bit crazy to be in B2B marketing at all, let alone B2B marketing in technology — is that you’re sitting in a place where any one of those things, if just one thing changed, would be incredibly challenging. But with everything changing, it’s a tremendous amount of shift that’s occurred. In terms of how we’re trying to address that, we do it across that broad landscape, looking at it from the standpoint of how we evolve our systems. That’s a discussion that will get increasingly interesting in B2B, and probably in B2C. When CMOs first started investing in technology, it was from the low end of the food chain. Our needs weren’t met, so eventually we went out and tried to meet some of those needs on our own. But two things happened: it started to eat up a lot of the CMO’s budget, and it’s also starting to eat up bandwidth, in terms of compliance and regulatory pressures, which I can tell you are now starting to hit my desk. When I look at the amount of money we’re spending on systems, it’s approaching 10 percent of my discretionary budget. Meanwhile, I’m sort of looking at the CIO and going, “How about you take this back?” I don’t want to spend my marketing dollars on systems; I’d like that to be IT’s job. So as these different things are changing — and changing rapidly — we must keep finding ways to work better together. That’s not a concise answer, I realize, but there’s a lot going on.

Indeed. And with so much in motion, how do you keep your focus? What are the key messages you use to keep your team focused and moving forward?

We use five pillars to manage the overall group and focus on what we’re trying to build out and evolve the marketing organization: brand, demand, content, and then intelligence and people. It’s not all that revolutionary to say you need to make sure you understand your priorities to continue to evolve managing the brand, but what are you doing to support your demand needs? What are you doing from a content and messaging perspective? What are you doing with regard to intelligence and becoming more of a data-driven marketing organization and really proactively using that data? And then the final thing is, how are we evolving our skill sets and making sure that we’re modernizing marketing? We’ve been using that framework (and I’ve been using it longer than I’ve been with Commvault) in order to ask the leadership team: If these are the five areas that we need to continue to make sure we have our eye on, what are the three priorities that fall on any of these five at all times, so we can all articulate the evolution of marketing across those five pillars with clarity about what we’re trying to accomplish?

That segues somewhat into my last question. You talked about how you’ve been using some of that approach for some time. Looking back, while considering where you are now and how you got there and what you’re doing, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

The way I’d frame an answer is that I’m a bit of a spectator of my own life. I’m a fourth child, and of my three siblings, one’s a priest, so it was very clear what he wanted to do; one is a nurse, so she had a very clear direction; the other has an MBA and is an accountant, so it’s very clear what she wanted to do in finance. And then there was me. My mother, she grinned with angst, I’m sure, while I was always stumbling from one thing to the next. But I think what I would tell my younger self is it’s okay not to know what you want to do. Just make sure that you’re continuing to challenge yourself. I know now that I like doing things that are hard. I like working with great people with diverse backgrounds. I like making a difference. Things that will hit those three marks will be the most fulfilling. So stop worrying that you lack direction, because in fact you are following a path. It’s just not one that many people will recognize.