TAKUMI #Unfiltered Ep. 2: Norman Guadagno, Acoustic

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Mary is joined by Norman Guadagno, CMO of Acoustic, where he is helping reimagine marketing technology. Norman has spent his career focusing on business transformation, marketing acceleration and brand building in both the B2B and B2C spaces. His unique perspective on the social and business landscape today offers valuable insights for professionals across industries and around the world.

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Mary: So welcome Norman, great to meet you!

Norman: It is a pleasure to be here and to meet you, Mary. Thank you! 

Mary: So let’s kick off. Tell us about your job at Acoustic and what Acoustic does.

Norman:  Sure, and one of the things I want to jump right into is the reality that a lot of people have never heard of Acoustic. The first part of my job is to rectify that. Acoustic is a marketing technology company that was actually born in mid 2019. It was created as a caravan of a set of solutions applications that had been part of IBM. It was bundled together and purchased by a private equity firm in July 2019, and thus Acoustic was born. So what’s interesting about this of course Mary is that here we are, in some sense a start-up. In another sense, we are a well established business with thousands of customers around the globe that have been using the products for some time. Also, hundreds and hundreds of employees, so we have really been challenged in many ways, balancing the notion of being a start-up and an established business simultaneously. And today we’re looking to do that. So that’s what Acoustic is and what we do. I’m sure we’ll dig into more of that as we go through this discussion. 

Mary: Yes, absolutely! I think it’s really fascinating that you’ve had to take on what is essentially an IBM business, because that is no small feat.

Norman: It isn’t at all. The thing that actually as you bring that up that is also something I’ve learned over the past year and a half that I’ve been here is transformation has become fundamental to just about every business. We might be doing it at a more massive scale, but every business is faced with the need for transformation in some way in today’s marketplace. So I look on it as great learning for every one of our employees and hopefully we can continue this transformation. But it is a real challenge, because taking assets and then reimagining them as a stand alone business… there’s a lot of transformation. It requires thinking about people, about customers, about technology, about the country’s that you operate in, about business structure… you name it, we have to think about it – and we have. 

Mary: So you must embody some really interesting qualities as a human being, Norman. I myself have been in the industry for about 30 years and I’ve witnessed and experienced so much change. Really, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster, but I’ve loved every second of it. Well, maybe a couple of times I didn’t love it, but you know, I learned from them. I just wondered what you think about your background and your journey so far that has led you to this incredible role that you’re in. You’ve got a fascinating background in terms of your career, I’ve only just met you but I can feel even via the Zoom screen that you’ve got a lot of intellect and depth. Do you think it’s the environment that we’re currently working in and the digital transformation piece? Does it require certain skills and personality traits? What’s your view?

Norman: It definitely is the case that as I’ve progressed through my career for 20+ years now as well, I’ve found that I’m drawn to more interesting and more unique challenges each time. And I know my own approach is always that I want to do things that are difficult, that will have an impact. I want to make sure that wherever I’m going to apply myself and the teams that I build that we’re going to see the impact of our work on business, on our customers. I’m not looking for a job to last me for my whole life. I have a job, what I do is I’m a marketer, I’m a strategist, I’m a business person, I now spend a lot of my time thinking about transformation around growth, around rebuilding or building from the ground up marketing teams and an approach to marketing. I’m not looking for a lifetime of doing that at one company.

I’m looking at being as effective as I can for 5 years or whatever the time is within a company and creating something that can persist behind me.

Norman Guadagno

I’m also looking for unique challenges because frankly I, like many people get bored doing the same thing over again. And one should own that and admit it. I’ve become sufficiently self aware and pragmatic that I know I need hard challenges and interestingly now my pathway of meeting those hard challenges and the reality of business in the year 2021 come together. Lots of companies are facing hard challenges and they’re trying to figure out, especially coming off of the past year and the pandemic and all of the changes that it has brought in society, both obvious and not so obvious, transformation, big challenges, rethinking how business operates and what its role is in connecting with its customers and its partners… that’s the future right there. That’s what we’re all going to be doing. 

 

Mary: Yeah, I think that having something that’s just baked and you can sell it as a box or a product, it doesn’t exist anymore. I’m glad it doesn’t personally. I think the world is far more interesting and we’re getting to use our brains a lot more. We’re getting to design solutions. I think that kind of approach where you have the mixture of curiosity, the desire to collaborate and you’re not trying to just sell something that is a box that you have to fit into. I think one of the great things about Acoustic is the language you use to describe the variety of various services that you have. It feels a lot more human than how technology is traditionally being presented. Was that something that you did consciously, in terms of the tone of voice that you’ve adopted? Perhaps you could talk to us a bit about the Acoustic brand because it’s a beautiful name and it’s a very long way from IBM.

Norman: It is a long way. The question is really a good one because it taps into so many. When Acoustic was born, I joined the company in September 2019 so a number of months after it was officially born. There was work done before i got there on the name and brands, I won’t take any credit for that. There was a group of people and an agency partner that did a great job coming up with a terrific name and fundamental positioning. But of course, like all brands, that needs to be put into practice. If you’ve done any brand work or worked in that space, you know that what brands are handed when an agency or someone else does the design work you have to make something of it. I did just that in trying to make sure that we were human, that we were genuine, that we were authentic and that we realized that in the space that we operate (the marTech space), there’s a lot of companies. If you look up the MarTech landscape and see the 8,000+ companies, and every one of those companies has something interesting and unique to offer.

To stand out in that space, requires a company to think deeply about who it is and how it wants to represent itself.

Norman Guadagno

So I and the team really leaned into finding a way to represent who we are that did not fall victim to the same cliche “here’s what our product does” or the same approach and language because technology as a business – and I’ve been a technology marketer pretty much most of my career – technology is filled with lots of buzz words and claims and a certain degree of… it’s awesome. If I could sum up technology marketing, it’s awesome! It’s not that what we do isn’t awesome, it can be, but the reality is that most of the technology in the space is awesome. Technology is fundamentally only one part of the decision that a buyer has to make. A buyer has to make a decision on who he or she wants to partner with. A buyer has to make a decision on which company is going to give me that long term growth path, that long term value. Which company do I just like the way that they think about things. So we have leaned heavily into making the brand human, genuine, authentic and fun wherever possible. I believe that if we’re doing this, we might as well have fun along the way and provide some of that to our customers too. 

Mary: 100% – I completely agree with what you’ve said. I’m fascinated to understand how you’re bringing that internal culture to life as well as your external culture. I joined TAKUMI just over a year ago, just before the pandemic started, and I’ve made a lot of changes in the last 12 months. That internal culture is completely essential to our success, in my view, and how we express ourselves externally.

Norman: You are 100% correct that culture is so critical, people are so critical. I said earlier that transformation through the lenses of people, of employees is so important ultimately to what we’re doing. And at Acoustic, I’ve been working diligently across the company on this very issue because many of our employees came over from IBM as part of the initial transaction and many employees have joined since. We have been attempting to create a culture that was and is uniquely Acoustic, that respects the history of the people, some of who came from IBM. There’s a long history there and we want to be respectful of that, but we also want to be able to form something that is reflective of who we are and what we’re doing right now. I’ve been very fortunate in the time I’ve been there to have partnered with our head of HR, who’s exceptionally experienced at people issues + transformation. We have worked to empower as much of the organization as possible to start to form the values that make up Acoustic, and doing that not just through the standard “here’s our values” but also through the behaviors that we want people to demonstrate.

Our head of HR, Rose and I have started running regular Zoom calls for all of our employees, and not making it so much a presentation but a discussion. Using that as a vehicle to let voices be heard. It’s not been without some challenges, and we’re still in that transformation. But over the past 2 years, the strategy and how we are going to be successful has changed from the original plan. That’s very common in this type of business situation.

The thing you start out with when you know only so much you refine as you learn more. And then you throw in a pandemic and all of the things that go on and you refine some more.

Norman Guadagno

We’re heavily invested in creating a unique Acoustic culture that is a reflection of the employees that we have. And that is work that never stops. You can never stop that work. I know that you said you’re looking at transforming culture as you enter a new business, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, when you don’t get to meet people face to face, and that’s work that never ends and shouldn’t ever end. Because companies are going to continue to be dynamic, changing environments and the culture that you build is one that has to ultimately serve not just the employees, the customers, the partners, the shareholders or owners of the business (depending on structure), and that is a daily investment of time and effort for everyone.  

 

Mary: Yeah, I think what I’m really experiencing now is that I’ve always been fortunate in working with people who really care deeply about what they do. It is something that is a big and important priority for me, that I’m surrounded by people that want to make the world a nicer, better, safer place. Those things are not exclusive from business, they’re totally integral.

Norman: We all have a job. We all do something, and we can choose – most of us, not everyone but most of us.

And I think people should not just choose something because ‘oh it pays well’ or because it’s the hot company of the moment. But because there’s something genuinely satisfying and interesting to you as an employee that the company that you choose to work for will provide, whatever that may be. And that you as an employee can give back to the company, and your coworkers along the way.

Norman Guadagno

Mary: Yes, I completely agree with that. So with that message in mind, obviously we were talking earlier about how complex the world is and how AI has been characterized as potentially very evil – I don’t subscribe to that, I think it’s a tool that empowers. I’d be interested in your understanding of how you see AI and the future of our industry from a marketing perspective. How is it going to evolve?

NormanIt is a big, broad topic and we’re all coming at it from different angles. I think the notion that AI could be used for good or evil, well that is true for any tool, that’s just reality. There are tremendous efforts underway by some of the biggest companies (Microsoft, Google, etc) to think about the ethics of AI. I always recommend that if people are interested, they go spend a little time on Microsoft or Google’s websites and dig into that topic because it is a deeply fascinating one. But that’s the broad, ethical, societal issue. We, as more focused practitioners,  have to think about the implications for what we do. In the context of marketing, we believe at Acoustic and I believe personally that AI can help take what is often a routine of the marketing job and make it easier.

The fact is that technology can find patterns faster, do tests faster and find results faster than humans can.

Norman Guadagno

The application of that so you can find a needle in a haystack or take a small sample set and be able to extrapolate from it quickly or be able to find potential fraud on a website or potential errors that a number of users are finding and pinpoint where that may be going wrong. That’s super valuable, and marketers should embrace things like automated subject line testing in your emails – terrific opportunities to use tech.

Where it starts to get blurry of course is when you are doing things that may be duplicitous – when you’re sending big pictures to people (hopefully no marketer is doing that at a reputable company but it happens), when you go online and look at the fake videos that are in existence, that is another application of AI. Where is that in the world of marketing? I think marketers have to be able to say ‘this is what we’re doing’ and be transparent about it. Disclosure is critical. Marketers need to think of things through a fundamental lens. ‘Can I make the things that may be difficult or may take a lot of time or energy and help automate them? Can I get insights faster using technology? How do I make sure that I have a human component, applying creativity + insights + understanding of humans and my customers then ultimately ethics, doing the right thing. 

Mary: Yeah, so I think the importance of corporate dominance and ethics is just increasing. We at TAKUMI set up an independent Ethics Committee that reviews our cultural and technological development and our work with social/creators for those reasons. We often get asked for guidance. The lines blur and morality and transparency can be the victims in all of this if we aren’t aware or asking ourselves difficult questions. I could talk to you all day Norman, it’s been absolutely fascinating. But before we sign off, I just want to ask you about your podcast series, The Reset. Maybe you can tell our listeners a bit more about it and hopefully they’ll log in as I will certainly for the next one.

Norman: Yeah, thank you Mary. I have a series of discussions with leading marketers and professionals talking about this fundamental notion of what happens next. If we consider 2020 a bit of a reset,  and we think about the implications for us as marketers, as business people, I think that the future is going to be written in a way that we consider notions as trust, the actions we take, the ways in which we connect with others. And I use those discussions as ways to probe what businesses are thinking about, what they learned in the past year and how they are applying it to the year ahead and what might they be doing differently. I welcome people to listen and to comment. I think all of us should take stock of what we learned last year and what we do with what we learned. 

 

Mary: Thank you so very very much for your time today, Norman. 

And thank you listeners for joining us on TAKUMI #Unfiltered. If you enjoyed the podcast please subscribe, rate and review and don’t forget to look out for Norman’s podcast, The Reset. Check us out on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at @takumihq. Goodbye!

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