Interview with Malcolm Cowley, CEO, Performance Horizon

Malcolm Cowley
Malcolm Cowley

“More and more businesses are recognizing that partnerships enable them to leverage pre-existing customer relationships to grow their own sales and profits.”

Tell us about your role at Performance Horizon and how you got here. What inspired you to join the company?

I’m the founding CEO at Performance Horizon, and we came up with the idea based on the experience my co-founders and I had building a successful business during the 2000s. Back then we built an affiliate network called Buy.at that we eventually sold to AOL. So we have been part of the partner marketing industry for some time.

When we got the band back together to create this company, we already saw what many brands in the industry have subsequently come to believe — that “partnerships” are an incredibly efficient growth driver but typically they’re not easy to set up, manage or scale. Affiliate marketing is part of the partner marketing industry, and continues to be a strong, profitable, and fast-growing category. But the partnerships category has grown to encompass everything from channel, content, loyalty, influencers and brand-to-brand alliances. All that innovation and growth makes this space fascinating and massively effective as a growth strategy for brands.

I believe that partnership is the sleeping giant of the brand marketing industry. And that the giant has already started to wake up and get to it. Our company was created to facilitate any kind of partnership, and to make all forms of partnership easier and more effective. That goes for affiliate as well as all of the other classes of partnership that have emerged in the last several years.

Given the changing dynamic of marketing technology landscape, where do you see Partner Marketing Platforms fitting in a CMO’s stack?

For too long, some brands have viewed partner marketing as a niche. I believe it is anything but. Partner marketing needs to be a conjoined part of a brand’s overall go-to-market plan, and the program data and results need to be integrated with all of the other types of marketing performance data a brand collects.

Partner marketing has its own rules and challenges — you can’t manage it with a DMP, DSP or an ad server. You need to track and report the data and a toolset to effectively operate partnerships, with ways to optimize performance and facilitate partner payments. But your partner programs and their associated touchpoints need to be measured and optimized as part of an holistic customer journey.

To do that, you need comprehensive, real-time marketing data, as well as the power to easily integrate that insight into your stack. Into your DMP. Intro your BI. Into your multi-channel attribution. That’s why we built our platform API-first, and why so many of our clients leverage our APIs to deliver data to every relevant system in their stacks.

What does your ‘Ideal Customer’ Profile look like? How do you build your customer segments?

We typically focus on larger, data-driven B2C & B2B brands. We have a very strong presence in travel, retail, finance, telecom, and on-demand online services.

But one thing that has really helped us grow so rapidly is that our platform is really versatile. We manage programs in dozens of categories. The common denominator is that our clients understand the business value of data-driven partner marketing and want to scale.

What data-points do you work on to make Performance Horizon’s products more competitive for optimized results?

Historically, partner marketing focused on affiliate, and affiliate was dominated by networks. Networks provide insights via period-in-time reporting — like what were the results last week — to help try and improve results.

Our approach is to facilitate direct relationships between partners and clients, to give brands better insights into what’s happening in real-time, and to actually predict what is likely to happen in the future. We’re the first partner marketing solutions provider to offer AI-powered tools to improve forecasting, detect anomalies in data that warrant attention, and help provide extra insights into how clients can make results better.

Fundamentally, it’s about delivering better data and insight to help drive better results.

How is the global market for Affiliate Channels shaping up with the greater maturity of B2B Commerce?

B2B commerce is an integral element of both affiliate and the larger category of partnership. More and more businesses are recognizing that partnerships enable them to leverage pre-existing customer relationships to grow their own sales and profits.

Many such partnerships stretch or break the boundaries of “affiliate.” Many such arrangements are about brands working directly with other brands, rather than publishers whose primary business is affiliate.

B2B businesses have always used partnerships like channel partners as a way to scale. PH is an enabler technology that removes friction and operational inefficiencies from this process to make partnerships easier and speed up time to market. That grows the overall pie for everyone.

What makes Performance Horizon different from other Partnership Growth Hackers in the industry?

We’re software versus network service, based on the idea that direct access to more data and partners leads to better results. We’re about providing better data, in real-time, and facilitating direct relationships between partners and clients. We’re about growing the breadth and depth of the partner marketing industry, and through that driving faster growth for our clients. And we’re about using technology like AI to help brands define their own futures in the space.

Ultimately our vision is to create  a global partner ecosystem, and we’re already connecting hundreds of thousands of brands, publishers, technologies, agencies and other business to one another.

What startups are you watching/keen on right now?

I’ve always been impressed by the Unity business. Unity offers a real-time game development platform that’s used by more than a third of the gaming industry. They offer a strong product and additional services to help publishers drive more revenue from their games and get great analytics data to help them optimize. It’s a strong business and value proposition.

What marketing and sales automation tools and technologies do you use?

Over the past two years, our tech focus is identifying and implementing vendors that address the challenges and opportunities of GDPR and other privacy regulations head-on. As a global enterprise, that is critical for us.

In terms of our own tech partnerships, as an API-first platform we are building a broad range of bespoke integrations with the leading tech providers in use by our clients, so that we can fulfill the vision of providing a better view on the impact of partnerships coupled with complete integration of partner data in the stack.

For example, we’re working closely with Branch to help our clients capitalize on cross-channel customer journeys including mobile.

How are you preparing for the post-GDPR disruptions?

As a company based in the UK but with offices across four continents, we are constantly addressing the challenges and opportunities brought forward by regulation.

Fortunately, however, the partner marketing arena is less impacted by privacy regulations because things like behavioral targeting and deep personal data collection aren’t at the center of what we do. Some of our clients say that more aggressive privacy regulations are making them consider more in the partner marketing arena because it offers those advantages.

Could you tell us about a standout digital campaign at Performance Horizon? Who was your target audience and how did you measure success?

For us, marketing is fundamentally about knowledge sharing. We use content and conversation to demonstrate our relevance to prospects. A great example of this is our “own” event series called Innovation Day.

For four years we have delivered our own events focusing on key issues related to accelerating growth in the partner marketing sector. This year we are expanding the series to include new cities including San Francisco, London, New York and Tokyo.

Every year, people tell me that these events are an important part of how they learn and grow in our space. And every year we end up doing business with many attendees who see the depth and breadth of the partnership opportunity as a result of an Innovation Day. Education, collaboration and new clients. That’s the sort of marketing I love.

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

Our own extensive efforts in this have thoroughly inured me to the transformational power of AI. I think it’s important to talk about this in two contexts.

What can AI and machine learning do for me today?

As a major player in the partner marketing space, we serve an audience of action-oriented business leaders who care just as much about the here and now as they do about what may exist three years from now. Our first offerings in the AI arena are about predictive partner performance – scientifically forecasting future campaign results — and anomaly detection, meaning surfacing significant changes in data as they occur.

What is the vision for how AI can perform tasks that are done better by machines than by people?

We are major proponents of data-driven marketing. Empowering data-driven is our reason for being. So our focus is on creating tools that will ultimately automate many aspects of optimization. So, the phrase “optimizing for the best possible results” will be a reality, not a throwaway claim.

By taking dual paths I think we unlock immediate value but also provide a long-term mission for efforts in this area.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

Passion breeds passion. I am passionate about what I do, and I hire people who take work personally. Who recognize that this is about more than SLAs and deliverables. So we start with great people, but our culture and development processes are designed to feed that passion and reward it. We have amazing recognition systems. A relatively flat structure. And a big focus on learning and improvement.

One of the best examples of how we live our values is called Desk Surf. Any employee who has been with the company more than a year can travel to another office somewhere in the world and learn how they do things. The company pays for them to spend two weeks there. So if you work in London you can travel to Sydney, or Tokyo, or New York to cross-pollinate processes and thinking. And as a desk surfer you have responsibilities — to give at least as much as you get from the experience.

More broadly, at Performance Horizon we talk about three guiding behaviors:

  • Think big: Life’s too short to plod. We push, encourage and reward people who want to take things to another level. I firmly believe that we get more done and serve clients better when we are all reaching for more.
  • Be tenacious: Quitters never prosper. We get the biggest buzz from the successes that are hard won for our customers and team in the final yards.
  • If we say it, we do it: Your deed must follow your word. Deliver, deliver, deliver.

One word that best describes how you work.

Focused. For me, if it doesn’t help serve our mission of making partnerships easier so our customers can drive more sales, it’s not worth spending time on.

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

Honestly the thing I really can’t live without is LinkedIn. There’s nothing else I use as much and I am a huge believer in connections and how they bring new ideas to you constantly. It’s great for business development obviously but also in finding expertise and ideas. There are other things as well, of course, but LinkedIn is at the center for me.

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

I’m not sure you are going to love this answer because it isn’t about something novel. I believe that setting clear goals and expectations eliminates thrash. Sounds simple but people rarely do it. It gets back to focus. This is what we are trying to do here. Let’s do it.

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

I’m pretty methodical about taking the time to keep abreast of the scope of martech. To give you and your team a plug, I read Martech Series to get more insight into changing thinking as well as industry developments. WSJ and FT are always on my list as well. And I make an effort to find the quarterly decks, bylines and writing of our clients and prospects because it’s a great way to take the pulse of the world’s great brands.

On to books. I am loving Team of Rivals. I come from Britain — it wasn’t as popular there as it was here a few years ago. But I learned about it after moving here a year ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it. Team of Rivals is both a great story and an amazing set of management lessons on how to take a group of individuals and unify them based on shared goals. I can’t even imagine the amount of disunity in Lincoln’s Cabinet. I’ve always marveled when I hear about companies with so-called warring factions — I’ve never been part of an organization that wasn’t aligned. And Lincoln dealt with literal warring factions. It’s an amazing story and the lessons it teaches are appropriate in a time when political division is so common.

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

Our CRO Pete Mycock says: ‘Don’t sell umbrellas to camels.’ What he means is understand who your ideal customer is and stay in the lane where they will really get the most benefit from your product and/or service, and focus almost exclusively on them.

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

I think it’s resilience. No matter how successful you are, in the CEO seat you constantly have new challenges to face. The key is to keep going and face each day with positivity and passion. To face every challenge as it comes, with a focus on what’s right and keeping it in perspective.

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

Marc Benioff

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

Malcolm Cowley is Cofounder and CEO of Performance Horizon and the driving force behind the dramatic growth of the partner marketing platform (PMP) company. He leads the vision and go-to-market strategy for the company, and works with industry leaders to grow the partnership industry and unlock its potential for clients. Prior to Performance Horizon, Mal was a cofounder and President of Buy.at, a UK-based global affiliate network that he and the team built into a market leader and later sold to AOL. Performance Horizon helps fulfill Mal’s vision to broaden the partnership channel for leading brands, bringing data-driven marketing, real-time optimization, and AI-powered predictive analytics to the industry. Now based in San Francisco, Mal hails from Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

Performance Horizon
Performance Horizon helps the world’s leading brands build powerful business partnerships that drive extraordinary business growth. The Performance Horizon Partner Management Platform (PMP) is an end-to-end, SaaS-based solution for forming, managing, analyzing, and predicting the future results of partner marketing programs using artificial intelligence. Hundreds of the world’s largest brands leverage our real-time technology to drive and manage more than $6B in sales across 214 countries and territories worldwide. To learn more about Performance Horizon and partner marketing, visit performancehorizon.com

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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