The usual big plans and big vendors mean big delays and big expenses for the content management initiatives of today’s big businesses.

To cross an ocean, you must lose sight of the shore. For a business to change, it must embrace the unfamiliar. Many of the rollouts for large enterprise content management systems, like Adobe’s Experience Manager (AEM), don’t meet their potential because those rollouts are rooted in the familiar: Massive planning with massive partners and not enough focus on pragmatic approaches to deliver value quickly. It’s the exact opposite of digital business. And if you are a large marketer with multiple brands and businesses in your portfolio, that means literally hundreds of web sites to manage and a range of content to disseminate across many digital channels and platforms.

On its face, AEM represents all the value of next generation content and digital asset management. It can give enterprises the foundation they need to act nimbly and in real-time by integrating enterprise content marketing with analytics, audience segmentation, and personalization at scale. However, for many customers who have acquired and implemented it in some form, change has still been slow and disaster feels like it’s lurking behind each code deployment or content update. Even with all this new potential; the problem, the proposed solution, the lack of results…it’s all too familiar. Your transformation journey hasn’t really left port.

Taking advantage of the opportunities that AEM provides requires making some unfamiliar choices. For instance, harnessing the technology requires experts with deep experience in the specific platform as opposed to technology generalists learning AEM for the first time. The ability to configure, control, and manage complex AEM environments comes out of front-line experience from server-side teams that have created their own tools and hardened processes for automating operational tasks. Properly configured automation reduces deployment errors and downtime. And that takes focused, nimble innovators, which are hard to find in monolithic vendor organizations.

The teams you rely on - whether internal or external - to help you deliver transformation cannot themselves require transformation. Many legacy vendors suffer from the same need to overhaul their cultures as the clients they are attempting to serve. That’s why smaller SWAT teams, coming more often from startups than from the Fortune 500, often represent the enterprise’s best chance for change. You are trying to cross an ocean, not boil one, and to do that, you’ll need the small, swift guide boats that can help you navigate AEM’s tricky waters.

Smaller partners also help you focus more squarely on time-to-market over everything else. When industry dynamics and customer behavior were stable, over-planned corporatist initiatives made more sense. Now, they almost never do. Company-wide AEM solutions, while academically appealing to many consultants, lack the pragmatism that should be the first principle of any project that hopes to result in greater business agility. Fostering individual business-unit creativity should be the goal, not the obstacle. Platforms like AEM can support those individual business units looking to get to market more quickly with innovative ideas, but doing so requires lean development models, and an approach to code and component sharing that doesn’t rely on overwrought development.

Embracing the unfamiliar is the only path to transformation. It’s in that unfamiliar space that you will find the innovative tools and processes that really untie the platforms in which the company has invested so much. Choosing smaller, less familiar partners to work on them is going to bring the new thinking, the energy, and the technical wherewithal to help you achieve the change you want. And by focusing on the speed of individual business units, the journey toward transformation becomes an achievable one, mile-by-mile, with value delivered at each leg of the voyage, meaning you can say bon voyage to the old shore, and hello to the new one.

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

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“Hey, would it be crazy if we virtualized the office?” That was the question thrown at me one day by the CEO at Maark.

It was 2013, we were at the end of our lease for a beautiful (and expensive) office on State Street in downtown Boston—lots of open space and glass (too much glass—I still bear the scar on my nose from the time I walked right into the door to the conference room because I thought it was open). Also, it was only steps away from Faneuil Hall and enough Dunkin Donuts to ding us on our company health plan. But our staff was becoming more geographically de-centralized. Our clients were becoming more nationally and internationally spread.

Basically, fewer employees could make use of that great office space, and hosting a client on-site was becoming a rare event. Meanwhile, productivity and communications technologies were advancing. We never established in that conversation whether it was crazy or not, but we still went ahead and virtualized. I think it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made: operationally, personally, and corporately.

Operationally, things got tighter. We were suddenly only a tap or click away from anybody in the company. For some reason, it was easier to jump in a Google Hangout or a Slack video call than pull everyone into a conference room. Even one-on-one, it felt less invasive than walking into somebody’s office.

Those employees who were in other states and countries didn’t feel like outsiders anymore, like they were missing the important moments in the office or felt unable to access who they needed to access. Those with frustrating commutes suddenly found themselves not having to deal with that stress and gaining hours of extra time every day. It was like the company flattened a bit, with everybody on closer terms.

But what really changed is that everybody seemed more engaged, more vested in projects. And that’s because, I think, people liked the new lifestyle. And to protect that, we had to kick ass at work. Personally, virtualizing the office was life-changing. It doesn’t happen often, but just the fact that I can work a twelve-hour day and still be on the couch at 6 pm watching TV with my family removes a lot of stress. I gained three or four hours back per day once commuting was excised. Work fits more organically into my life. If I need to pick up kids after school, it’s a blip in my day as opposed to the tactical exercise it once was.

Corporately, virtualizing helped us define ourselves. Maark has always been a strange company. A small agency boxing above its weight and taking on projects for major companies that would daunt any-sized agency. Because of that, we were often worried about appearances to our clients. We worked hard to come off like the bigger agencies do. But once we lost the trappings of a conventional workplace, we embraced that we weren’t a conventional agency. We have 30-some full-time employees and a network of 20 more trusted freelancers. Our average employee tenure for those 30 is an astonishing eight years (in an agency, mind you), and many of those freelancers have been around just as long.

That all adds up to a time-tested, flexible team that can execute at speeds and costs most agencies can’t. It also means that we have no B-Team. Our clients get exactly who they meet on Day 1. We excel at highly technical, strategic, complicated projects and at driving execution. We are a SWAT team. Our new perspective helped us really see what our strengths are and what our highest value to clients is. We are different, for when clients need something different.

The proof is in the bottom line. Since we virtualized, we’ve increased revenue 250%.

There are issues. Recruitment is difficult. It’s hard to find the type of people who thrive in an environment so predicated upon personal initiative and responsibility. But that’s always been an issue for us. Figuring out the right productivity and communication tools took time, too, and is probably a never-ending exercise. Brainstorming doesn’t quite seem to work virtually (although it has its issues fundamentally.

But we eventually mitigated some of that. Turns out, one of the most important parts of virtualizing was…leasing an office.

We knew immediately that we needed physical face time regularly, so we decided to meet one day a week. We tried co-working spaces. We rented conference rooms. For a time, we even met in a rock climbing gym. Finally, we leased a small, two-story building in Cambridge. Now we had a permanent, always-open space to meet for brainstorms. A place to meet clients. A space employees can come any time they wanted to, if only to get out of their house. It gave Maark a tangibility without creating an artificial construct.

The idea of a positive corporate culture is usually just a few paragraphs in an employee guide. Maybe some motivational posters stuck on a wall in the cafeteria. A bullet point in a thought piece. A quote in an article. But a culture—any kind of culture, corporate or not—really only forms, really only works, when every individual is vested in it. When they feel fortunate to be part of that culture. When it makes their lives holistically better. When they value it as much as the paycheck that comes with it.

As the company continues to grow, the culture and the operations are more of a challenge for us. But the good kind of challenging. In fact, recently, when somebody floated the idea that maybe we should revert to a more conventional work scheme to adjust to our growth, it was that suggestion that was deemed the crazy one.

Posted by Michael Colombo


I had a client ask me recently, “Where do your ideas come from?” He was talking about Maark and it was a good question. Where do our ideas come from? There’s not an easy answer. In my experience, idea generation has never been easy. The best ideas always seemed to come when the work of idea generation was over. When there were two people left, it was 10 o’clock at night, and you weren’t sure if the idea would hold up to sobriety’s judgmental glare. Small groups. Fits of thought. Dead ends. An idea.

It’s painful. And maybe it should be. “Fine things are hard.” Right? Any formalized process of idea generation that I’ve ever read about or participated in has similar problems. There’s often no clear accountability for output. Instead, participation is established as the highest virtue without a corresponding demand for the individual study needed to gain context. How many hours does it take to become an expert on something? Around a thousand? And how many hours does it take to become relevant?

And yet companies like ours continue to pitch programs to our clients (and to our employees) that attempt to productize the output of good ideas. I get it. It’s tempting. Corporations today need to buy ideas - not because their people don’t have them but because their cultures often oppress the self-determinism needed for any meaningful breakthrough. Good ideas come from a certain contemplative passion that has as its default assumption an ability to see it through - for it not to be wasted effort. This assumption has no place inside many corporations so they turn outside. And after shopping for the best deal they can find on good ideas they wind up buying that Design Thinking workshop or ludicrously priced consultant as a quick fix to a busted system.

But what if there’s a more pragmatic answer that’s not a productized pseudo-system, but just a set of common sense principles? Here’s what we’re trying at Maark. Four basic principles for idea generation:

1. Every ideation exercise has an owner. The first step to establish better output is to put someone on the hook for it. They should show up with research and a clear perspective to get the debate started. At Maark, this can be onerous. And it should be. We’re often trying to weave ideas through complex business strategies. For our clients it’s not just about getting attention. It’s often about communicating a vision for the future of an industry. So that initial research can take weeks because it needs to be on point. And it needs a single owner.

2. Every participant should be relevant to the conversation. If you are working in a group, keep it small and make sure everyone is relevant. I don’t know exactly how many hours it takes to be relevant, but it isn’t zero. If someone is not well enough versed in the problem/industry/company to generate contextually-relevant ideas, they won’t help. Individual research assignments prior to coming together ensures that everyone is starting from a common, baseline context for the conversation. Brainstorming is work that can also be fun, not the other way around.

3. Along with preparation, place your highest premium on focus. Idea generation has a tendency to drift…leading often either to Facebook or groupthink. For us, focus comes back to the two themes mentioned above - preparation and accountability. When basic research is happening, focused ideas are not. So come prepared. And when there’s no accountability, there’s no pressure to deliver. On every employee review form at Maark there is a section titled, “Embraces and drives innovation.” Just as the agency is responsible to its clients for serving as a sort of think tank for their business, so is every individual at Maark responsible to the agency for their contribution. And they are scored on it. This takes ideation out of the realm of an inconsequential break from the grind, and creates real-world, individual stake in outcomes. Drive focus through preparation and accountability.

4. Follow up immediately. . Ideation is not an open-ended conversation where we can just agree to disagree. The idea owner needs to deliver ideas that can be evaluated in time to execute on them. Each session, then, should be distilled into takeaways and immediate next steps until conclusions are reached. The brainstorming process needs urgency in order to have meaningful output. Together, we need to get this done quickly.

But here’s the thing. These pragmatic principles might serve you better than either the patented process or the bleary-eyed eureka, but they aren’t a quick fix. Don’t buy that snake oil. Ultimately, corporate culture needs to change in order to start producing the ideas that will save it from the digital extinction event coming at it. With digital transformation on everyone’s cliché bingo board, you know what you’re up against. A change in culture from communal mediocrity to self-determination, from fear of risk to the free pursuit of innovation, and from glacial inertia to rapid iteration. This cultural shift along with some pragmatic preparation and accountability principles will be core to the companies that have success amidst disruption.

For three days in May, tens of thousands of people crowdsourced the control of a giant, animatronic squid. Eight independently-controlled arms struggled to work in concert as it attempted to run a pizza parlor and man a production line. And it was all part of a brilliant creative campaign by Old Spice. How in the world did marketing get to this point?

This story starts with a platform called Twitch, though similar stories can be found for Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook Live, and a handful of other youth-dominated media. Twitch is often labeled as “people watching people play video games.” While this is functionally true, it demonstrates a shallow understanding of the 100M user platform that Amazon purchased for a billion dollars in 2014.

Twitch is about communities, united by a shared interest in a particular video game or “broadcaster.” Its value comes as much from interacting with the broadcaster and other like-minded members as it does from the gameplay itself. And those members communicate through chatrooms in a language that is thoroughly and deliberately obtuse to outsiders.

In 2014, a Twitch broadcaster built a system into his chatroom that parsed through comments and translated them into crowdsourced player movements in the video game Pokémon Red. After 16 days and the collective contribution of 1.16 million community members, they beat the game. The idea became a phenomenon, and it spawned several dedicated channels used for social experiments, including the currently-active StockStream, in which a user is letting Twitch crowdsource the allocation of a real $50,000 stock portfolio (it’s up about $2,300 or 4.6% after a week and a half, compared to 1.0% for the S&P 500).

While there are native advertising opportunities within Twitch, using them without proper context can expose brands to the wrath of a skeptical and extremely vocal community. Last summer, Bomb Pop ran a pre-roll ad across the Twitch network, presumably inspired by the thought “the kids are on Twitch nowadays, and kids like Bomb Pops.” The self-unaware, 30-second spot of children on a playground stood out like sore thumb against a backdrop of action-packed video game trailers and energy drinks, and the community predictably sighed.

The advertising world is very good at buying ads based on demographic and behavioral profiles. In a few years, 84% of display advertising will be bought programmatically because it yields proven results. Yet my concern is that we are optimizing toward an artificially constrained inventory at the expense of exploring new platforms and marketing opportunities that are not so easily manipulated and which represent the communities of choice for a new generation.

I understand how we fell into this trap. We as marketers preach to our clients about disruption and the need for digital transformation, not realizing that we ourselves are at risk of being disrupted by focusing on short-term performance over longer-term innovation. Allocating budgets to DSPs that can buy programmatic inventory is safe and effective; doing something groundbreaking is risky and uncertain.

When Old Spice first started to explore Twitch, it was a welcome relief from teed-up gaming campaigns and facepalm-worthy demographic ads. It was clear that they had taken the time not only to look at the data about Twitch, but to understand how its community operates. They understood that Twitch is at its finest when its users can rally behind a cause because they had seen Twitch Plays in action.

So in 2015, Old Spice dropped a real person in the middle of a forest and had the community determine his – admittedly, heavily scripted – actions for three days. You can read the articles about it on Ad Week or Digiday, but those are predictably myopic, declaring it as a win for targeting an elusive demographic. If you really want to know how and why it worked, I recommend this post from the notoriously brand-unfriendly Reddit.

Then they followed it up two years later with a giant, octopodal robot. It was ridiculous theatre. It really didn’t work, in the strictest sense. Food flew everywhere, tentacles had literal minds of their own. But it was also glorious, and it deserves respect from the marketing community. Not the kind of respect that comes from admiring their ability to get in front of Millennials, but the kind that comes from their continued resolve to opt for audience-relevant creativity at a time when automation is so readily available.

Keep buying your programmatic display ads. They work really, really well. But take a cue from P&G and Old Spice and spend some time immersing yourselves in the platforms of the future, where modern ad strategies fall flat, and where true, creative-driven marketing can shine once again.

Photo credit: Dan Silva

Posted by Michael Dowd

I have spent years of my career leading B2B technology reviews on behalf of Fortune 100 clients. I have used many tools and strategies to get an objective view of their performance – live demos, feature comparisons, review panels, trial implementations, Forrester Wave reports. And while each of these methods has its strengths, there is one question that they still struggle to answer: will this company be there for my clients when I need them, both now and in the future? To answer this question, I have often explored an unlikely source – their social media. Though sometimes an afterthought for B2B companies, there are several compelling reasons for them to maintain a high-quality, active social media presence:

1) It shows a brand that is committed to its values

Uber, Dollar Shave Club, and Betterment are just three of the companies striking fear into the hearts of established companies with modern ideas that threaten to disrupt traditional practices. As a result, many brands are on the back foot and responding emotionally to market conditions. While I firmly believe that companies need to be adaptable (see point 3), they shouldn’t sacrifice their brand to do so. I choose to invest in B2B companies whose business model will be intact 12, 24, and 48 months from now, and a lack of consistency in branding casts doubt upon that company’s future. Are they spending an increasing amount of their time chasing a millennial audience at the expense of my interests? Are they biasing content toward a B2C audience? By contrast, a brand that has a consistent, resonant identity throughout their social media campaigns inspires confidence in their direction, particularly when coupled with messaging that indicates their commitment to my business.

2) It shows a brand that is able to respond in real time to needs and events

A brand that is able to address current events in near real-time demonstrates that they have not only the thinking, but the organizational structure to act quickly. That response needs to go beyond superficial and show an understanding of how events are affecting customers at that moment. Can I expect this to have a negative impact on my business? Is there an action I should be taking? This kind of feedback assures me that someone is managing my account at a strategic level and they are equipped to handle the real-time fluctuations in data that drive my company. Social media is the best real-time medium to promote these insights, and it is a valuable way for brands to look proactive to their customers.

3) It shows a brand that has enough thought leadership to stay relevant over time

B2B platforms move at the speed of technology, which is to say exponentially. The market leaders of now can easily become the laughing stock of next year, and much of this is attributable to a complacency about the future of their sector. I don’t necessarily expect the companies of today to have an offering that addresses emerging technology – like virtual reality, augmented reality, or even Bitcoin – today, but I do expect them to explore the impacts of these technologies on their company and their customers. Social media provides a forum for them to promote their status as innovators with an awareness of the future in a way that a static roadmap cannot. This can be done explicitly through thought leadership pieces, but also implicitly through the intelligent use of emerging social media platforms. This is the difference between a brand that has a Snapchat account versus a brand that understands how to use Snapchat to engage its customers. I am not impressed by the former – in fact I would argue it is a detractor – while the latter demonstrates a company that knows how to invest in emerging technology in a meaningful way and is actively exploring its potential.

Of course, none of this matters if your social media isn’t reaching its intended audience. For that, you need well-structure campaigns using best-in-class technologies to drive qualified traffic toward meaningful conversions. Read here about how to structure your social media campaigns for success so that you can focus on getting the right message out to your prospective buyers.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Download our new white paper, The Search and Social Advertising Playbook for B2B Marketers, to learn how to stop participating in search and social, and start converting.

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