Interview with Boon Lai, VP Global Marketing, Cisco

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Boon Lai

“The ultimate goal is to create one-to-one relationships with our customers and reach them when they are most receptive — with the most relevant message to drive brand affinity and call to action.”

Tell us about your role and journey into technology. What attracted you to Cisco Collaboration?

As the Vice President of Marketing for Cisco Collaboration, I am responsible for all areas of branding and demand generation for a $5-billion technology portfolio that includes Cisco WebEx (Calling, Meetings, and Contact Center) and touches 300 million users around the world each day.

My background has always focused on bringing technology to help people lead healthier, more productive lives. Prior to Cisco, I was VP of Marketing at Philips for 8 years where I led their transformation from a consumer electronics giant to becoming a thought leader at the forefront of digital health. I then moved to San Francisco as CMO for Nokia’s startup division and helped launched their VR camera, bringing to life 3D 360-degree entertainment experiences with the Walt Disney Studios, our strategic partner.

I leaped at the opportunity to join Cisco to help drive forward our vision to radically transform the way people work. For decades, we wondered if machines would replace us; at Cisco, we believe that humans are empowered by machines — and human-centric technology will enable us to work wherever we are, intuitively collaborate in real time, improve decision-making, and ultimately democratize intelligence (v/s knowledge?). It’s exciting to be at the forefront of a sea-change in the way humans communicate!

If not a CMO in a tech company, where would you have most likely built your career?

If I hadn’t gone down the path I’m currently on, I likely would have aspired to be an architect. I’m a big design fanatic and love how architecture can transform the way we feel, and interact with others. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many countries and I love the inspiration sparked by the fusion of traditional and modern design in different cultures. An interesting parallel is the design thinking behind the products and apps I use every day: I try to view them both from a user’s perspective as well as a designer’s; I am always trying to understand the intent and the experience the brand is trying to create.

Today, what are the biggest opportunities and challenges for Business Connectivity and Collaboration platforms?

Enabling an intuitive, seamless user experience is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge for collaboration platforms. We increasingly seek simple experience-oriented ways to connect with colleagues — the old model of endless dial-in codes, talking over one another and faceless interactions are no longer relevant. With award-winning technology and the relative ubiquity of the high-speed internet, we’re able to facilitate video-first meetings that fit naturally into workflows rather than create barriers to work.

As with most other areas of business operations, artificial intelligence, automation, and machine learning are also upending the traditional model for collaboration and business connectivity; these technologies are enabling contextual collaboration, which improves the speed and reliability of work with intelligent recommendations, predictive scheduling, and more.

How much has marketing operations changed since the arrival of Automation and BI/Analytics tools for workplace collaboration?

At Cisco, we are laser-focused on creating real-time personalized marketing at scale with our customers. The foundation of our technology stack is really around how we leverage data. Data analytics provide customer insights and campaign performance tracking while automation enables our business to quickly understand and tailor our engagement in an agile way.

Tell us how the Cisco Collaboration portfolio could evolve in 2018-2022?

Our team is working every day to deliver a radically simplified, consistent, intuitive collaborative experience for our customers around the world. Among our initiatives is to make creating and joining collaboration experiences — like meetings — easier than it has ever been; ensuring seamlessness across devices (e.g. video devices, desktops, browsers, mobile devices, and more); improving the quality, reliability, and fidelity of meeting experiences; and integrating meetings into existing workflows so that workers can be more efficient.

The two key areas you can expect to see major advancements across our portfolio is around the use of mixed reality/AR/VR in collaboration environments, and our expansion into new huddle spaces. Our ambition is to bring more intelligence, insights, and capabilities to every user irrespective of their preferred devices or physical location.

How do you compete against the likes of Google, Microsoft, Slack, and Zoom?

At Cisco, we believe in building bridges to enable our customers to work on any platform or app that they choose. WebEx delivers the most seamless, device-agnostic, interoperable meeting experience for tens of millions of users around the world. Customers love the simplified, modern meeting experience, which integrates with Cisco’s portfolio of leading hardware and software solutions. Because WebEx is secure, flexible, and scalable, it’s perfect for individuals and small businesses all the way up to the most complex enterprise environments. Cisco empowers users to deploy WebEx solutions on-premise, hybrid, or in the cloud. No other vendor offers a collaboration solution that can work flawlessly in such a dynamic range of business environments — making Mom-and-Pops just as delighted as Fortune 500 senior executives.

What does AI in Cisco look like? To what extent do you think collaboration could be automated by AI/ML and IoT?

AI/ML can help automate and remove the frustrations associated with meetings by recognizing participants via voice or face. These technologies are becoming mainstream among consumers and creating a more immersive personal experience. They can also provide data-driven contextualized insights into how you are interacting with individuals or teams, help improve meeting effectiveness, and more. For example, our “intelligent speaker tracking” automatically zooms in on the active speaker, helping remote attendees stay engaged. Future intelligence could potentially track their attention span and interest level, to enable the attendees and meeting to be even more productive and interactive.

What’s the most interesting aspect of the rebranded WebEx? How does it fulfill the promise of Digital Transformation for businesses?

While WebEx is a clear leader in the collaboration space, there is an inaccurate perception that it is a corporate tool with an outdated image. We are very excited to showcase our modern, video first-user experience. In fact, most people don’t know that Cisco has won over 20 Red Dot awards for our collaboration portfolio, given only to extraordinary, innovative design.

For me, the most interesting aspect of our rebranding is to not just engage with our collaboration buyers but to connect with our end users. Leveraging Millie Bobby Brown in our campaign is an opportunity to reframe and re-energize the brand to a much wider audience. I’m excited to share how Cisco is radically reinventing the way we work — where humans empowered by technology will win. The future of work is about what you do, not where you are. The standalone, artificially imposed meeting will be replaced by context-aware meeting, powered by smart technology. Speed will become currency as data and work will improve velocity and business success, and intelligence will be democratized, where more people and companies can share and educate their teams. Ultimately, the unified, cloud-enabled collaboration technology will enable companies to accelerate their digital transformation by enabling their employees to focus on the task at hand and increase their productivity and impact to their organization.

Which Marketing and Sales automation tools and technologies do you currently use?

Cisco uses a hybrid tech stack that includes Oracle Eloqua (marketing automation), Oracle Bluekai (data management platform), Adobe AEM, Target & Analytics (website personalization/optimization), Sprinklr (social listening & publishing), Percolate (campaign & content planning), Zift (through partner marketing automation), Salesforce (leads to sales and partners + contact center automation), Hadoop (our marketing data lake), and DOMO (data visualization).

What are the core tenets of your business development model?  How does Cisco add value to digital transformation journeys for businesses?

We focus on six strategic pillars to transform our customer experience to be more personalized, engaging and real-time, ultimately contributing to customer acquisition and usage. For audience management, we leverage data-driven persona targeting and creating integrated cross-channel customer experiences that drive customer engagement. For campaign planning, we collaborate on content and unify publishing at scale. We maximize digital marketing with and to our partners as an audience. On seller enablement, we provide actionable insights to sales and generate qualified leads. We continue to leverage data, customer insights and campaign performance to improve our execution.

How often do you measure the performance of your marketing analytics and sales reporting?

At Cisco, we leverage real time to the minute reporting across the entire marketing funnel from top of the funnel engagement, through to the bottom of funnel marketing and sales qualified leads, and our contribution to sales pipeline. We use DOMO to help consolidate data across our technology stack so we can analyze end-to-end marketing performance. While there is still room to further integrate our tech stack, we are moving closer to the ultimate goal of improving our marketing efforts in real time to drive business outcome.

What are your predictions on the most impactful disruptions in marketing operations for 2018-2020?

One of the key challenges for marketers such as me is the vast amount of marketing data and systems out there, from data acquisition and management, content creation, SEO and social.

I’m excited that the core marketing operations will evolve from a Data Management Platform (DMP), which pulls data from different sources, to a Customer Data Platform (CDP), which will create a persistent, unified customer database to create a desired unified customer experience.

CDP will create a single customer profile, accessible to other marketing systems and enable real-time segmentation for personalized marketing. This can enable a more integrated multi-channel orchestration and content publication at scale.  With ‘intelligent’ content distribution and tracking, we can better leverage analytics and decision automation to create personalized offering based on real-time insights. Once a customer makes a purchase, we can further improve customer engagement and retention with AI/ML-powered recommendations to cross and upsell our portfolio.

What startups in the technology industry are you watching keenly right now?

I’m keeping a close eye on the CDP space, watching Hull, Segment, Listrak, and Arm Treasure Data. From a collaboration perspective, I’m anticipating moves from Slack and Zoom.

Could you tell us about an outstanding digital campaign? 

A campaign I’m very proud of is the Cisco WebEx — Future of Collaboration campaign featuring Millie Bobby Brown.

The challenge in May 2018 was to reframe and modernize the Cisco WebEx brand and reestablish Cisco WebEx as the forward-thinking leader in the marketplace to both the IT buyers and end users. The strategic rebrand also coincided with the consolidation of several separate Cisco collaboration tools — on Calling, Meetings and Team Collaboration — into an integrated WebEx platform.

Cisco needed a spokesperson who embodied the vision of WebEx and whose universal appeal brings people together. For this endeavor, there was no better choice than actress Millie Bobby Brown whose role in Netflix’s Stranger Things has garnered widespread acclaim. At just fourteen years old, Brown has already received an Emmy nomination, two SAG nominations, and is among TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2018 — the youngest person ever to receive this honor. Millie Bobby Brown showcased the new brand in a ninety-second video designed for web. The walk-and-talk style video features Brown explaining that when the right technology and right individuals intersect, incredible things take place.

Results: 25 million+ digital display impressions and 6 million+ video impressions with a video completion rate of 95% compared with industry average of 68%. To date, the Cisco campaigns championed have added more than $65 million to Cisco’s revenue pipeline and a further improvement in market share — an achievement made all the more remarkable given fierce competition from giants and start-ups alike.

How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a marketing leader?

I believe AI will genuinely transform the way we live and work, and specifically for marketers, the way people will interact with brands, technology and services.  We have the opportunity to create relevance at scale, to address more personalized marketing opportunities in real time. The ultimate goal is to create one-to-one relationships with our customers and reach them when they are most receptive — with the most relevant message to drive brand affinity and call to action.

For example, AI can enhance a customer’s engagement and increase conversion rate on your website by analyzing the multiple data points (location, demographics, interaction history) to personalize their visitor experience with relevant content and the most compelling offer. Beyond the website, AI tools can automatically generate targeted email content, personalized messages and curate content on social media platforms.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

I genuinely believe that leveraging technology to manage efficiencies (integrating marketing data across different platform) or enable intelligence (leveraging AI to personalize content) can enable us to provide a more creative and strategic view on how to achieve the desired business outcome. More importantly, we can connect people, make their day delightful and make a difference in their lives.

One word that best describes how you work.


What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

WebEx of course! Simple, easy to connect, high-quality video conferencing has totally changed the way I work. I work in a global team and the real-time, ‘face-to-face’ connection with my team is the best part of my day!

I also love how my Apple Watch is connected to my health tracker, inspiring me to work out and live a better lifestyle. I was also recently introduced to the Headspace app and have started to meditate 10 mins every morning. As a practical New Yorker now living in San Francisco, I also use Lyft and Uber app regularly to get around the city.

What’s your smartest work-related shortcut or productivity hack?

Walk towards a Cisco WebEx device and use your voice to simply activate and connect into your video conference — with no dial-up, frustrating pin code, or nimble fingers needed.

What are you currently reading? (What do you read, and how do you consume information?)

As with most people, I’m on my phone a lot and I stay connected to the world with news apps such as CNN and BBC and love the tech reporting from WIRED, TechCrunch, and more. I also really respect the investigative reporting of the New York Times and Washington Post; these publications are also doing great work with podcasts, which I love. In my downtime, I’m catching up on Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asian trilogy, which is particularly fun for me as someone who grew up in Singapore.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Think big, start small, and move fast. I love this advice, which I received from a mentor; as a dreamer who likes to imagine ways for solving audacious, challenging goals, it really speaks to me. Of course, the hard work isn’t the ideation; it’s the step-by-step process of making it a reality. Failing fast and learning along the way is the best part of the journey.

Something you do better than others — the secret of your success?

Having grown up with an entrepreneurial dad who started his business from scratch in Singapore, I was always taught to try new things (“try every food at least once,” he would say), to not be afraid of failing (get up, dust off, and keep going), and to always be learning from mistakes. I really took that to heart and I feel that it’s made me a perfect fit within the fast-moving tech industry as well as a manager who appreciates scrappiness and boldness in my team.

Tag the one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

Antonio Lucio, Facebook’s Global Chief Marketing Officer, who recently joined from HP.  I would love his perspective on the future of marketing technology, given his unique background and experience.

Thank you, Boon! That was fun and we hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

Boon Lai is Vice President of Marketing for Cisco Collaboration. He joined Cisco in 2017 to lead product and integrated marketing. His goal is to help people connect and collaborate more intuitively at work. Boon specializes in leading insights driven, innovative omnichannel marketing that drives business growth. Boon brings with him more than 20 years of global B2B and B2C experience. He is bilingual in English and Mandarin, and has held executive roles in New York, London, Amsterdam, Shanghai, and Singapore. He’s well established in the technology sector, having held roles including CMO for Philips China, GM for Philips Digital Health, and CMO for Nokia Technologies.

[mnky_heading title=”MarTech Interview Series” link=”|||”]

The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.

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