MarTech Interview with Jim Nichols, CMO, Partnerize

MarTech Interview with Jim Nichols, CMO, Partnerize
Jim Nichols, CMO, Partnerize

“We’ve focused a lot of attention on improving intuitiveness and workflows, and I am convinced that all the winners in this very crowded space will do the same.”

Tell us about your role and journey at Partnerize.

I am CMO at Partnerize. We are a SaaS company that makes it easy for leading brands to form and manage all types of business partnerships. In my role, I am responsible for marketing across all regions — Americas, EMEA, and APAC.

What made this job so appealing to me when I was interviewing was the spirit of this company. This tenacity to do things better than others, and better than we did yesterday. My experience since joining has affirmed that sense I got when I first met Mal Cowley, our CEO. Since joining, I have not had one conversation with anyone in this company that didn’t end with…what else can I do? That’s how I’ve always lived my professional life, and now I have been fortunate enough to join a team of 200+ people who do the same.

I’ve been here for about a year, and it’s been a year full of activity. We’ve changed our brand name, taken our signature Innovation Day event series worldwide, got our marketing tracking and measurement in place, made a major revenue contribution to the business, and 962 other small and large things.

As a team, we focus on insights and education as the core of our marketing approach. We all firmly believe that marketing is a value exchange where we need to bring something other than relentless emails to prospects. For example, we just launched 33 whitepapers and e-guides on our site. That is not a typo. If you look across all of our initiatives this year, the ones that worked best made the world of partnership clearer and easier for customers and prospects.

How does partnership management differ from what it was five years ago?

This is an incredibly dynamic industry. Partnership as a concept is as old as human interaction. It’s still around because it almost always works. Recent research showed that typically the ROI is 10-14X. In our company, we focus on “performance partnerships,” meaning agreements where one company helps another sell goods and get leads, and in exchange, they get some sort of pay-for-performance financial reward.

In digital, performance partnership began with affiliate marketing. But over the past decade or so, the world of partnership has opened up to new segments. Influencer marketing has grown to something like $4B in spend. Loyalty partnership is now extremely common. And major brands are now choosing to work with one another for mutual benefit. All these agreements have one essential thing in common — pay for performance — but have their own nuances and ways of doing business. That makes it difficult for brands to form partnerships at scale.

Our company has created a platform that makes it easier to manage all types of partnerships from a single dashboard. It saves time and money, and enables companies to scale in unprecedented ways.

What is the current state of relationship management? How does Partnerize deliver on its ROI promises?

Well, ours is an industry with incredible growth trends, even as it gradually addresses its key sources of friction. We did a survey of more than 1,200 marketers this year and found that more than 90% already had partnerships in place. Affiliate is about an $8B business by my estimation. Influencer is more than $4B. Other segments are as big or sometimes even larger.

But a lot of this size and growth is in spite of serious challenges to forming and managing partner relationships. In performance partnerships, what both sides want are simple and straightforward ways of making more money. It sounds simple, but there are a number of sources of friction that make it hard for companies to work together.

  • Partner Discovery: It’s hard to find the right partners with and at the scale you need using a manual process
  • Partnership Creation: It’s hard to negotiate and set up partnerships because the process is too manual
  • Partner Payments: It’s incredibly difficult to pay partners at scale, without software or a service provider to execute it all. Ask your Finance team if they want to cut a cheque for 8,000 partners every month. And throw in international payments and currencies and you have a big money headache.
  • Performance Predictions: It’s difficult to predict the future performance of a partnerships
  • Partnership Growth: It’s challenging to keep the channel growing without significant investment of people and resources.

Our entire industry is focused on mitigating those challenges, so brands can get more of that big revenue without the big problems. Fortunately, great software and transparency can address all of these concerns.

Which geographies are you targeting to promote your product in the next five years?

Our core business regions are North America, EMEA and APAC. But we have partners and handle business transactions in 214 countries and territories worldwide. Further, we use a distributed workforce model so we can offer teams and support in all key regions.

Our historic foundation has always been strong in Europe. We are officially headquartered in the UK, and I think that has been a strength for us especially in this year where GDPR became a reality.

But the US is our largest region by revenue, and growth in Asia has been tremendous as markets like Japan, China and Southeast Asia continue to show incredible business trends.

Which industry verticals prefer you the most?

We focus on the enterprise end of the market. Our product has always focused on the needs of major brands, whether they operate in one country or 100. This is fairly different from many players in our space, especially affiliate networks, that work with huge numbers of small businesses.

As far as industries go, we are strongest in Travel, Retail, Finance and Online Subscriptions businesses. Telecom and Tech are also strong verticals. This pretty much mirrors the strongest sectors in our industry, but as the appeal of partnership grows, so does the breadth of companies that work with us.

Your platform covers the entire paradigm for relationship management. Which products specifically are extremely popular among your customers?

This is a great question because it gets to one of the biggest problems or opportunities in the partnership space, depending on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. Companies that are active in partnership also have other sales channels, and many of those companies have spent the last several years trying to figure out how to unite their customer data and insights for more effective data-driven marketing. They spend literally billions on software and tech to gain richer customer insights and a holistic customer view.

Many of our clients are heavy users of DMPs, DSPs, CRM tools, Marketing Automation products, ad servers, BI, attribution tools and the like. And they integrate all of these tools to get that holistic customer view.

But those same companies have — until very recently — neglected to integrate their partner marketing data into that MarTech stack. They’ve spent all this money to unite things, but ignored a channel that drives 10, 20, 30% of total brand sales. Think about it, if 25% of your sales and customer activity are omitted from your models, it’s like turning your tracking off after three weeks every month.

Happily, that tendency to exclude partner data is changing. Many of our clients are first movers in this regard. They wanted to bring their partner data into the mix, and needed it to be just as rich, transparent, and accurate as their other data sets.

Our approach to meeting that need is what we call the Partnerize Open Platform Initiative, where we enable client data to be securely shared with their choice of homegrown or third-party toolsets through an API-first product approach. That way they can integrate our offering and data with the infrastructure they have spent years building. And through that integration, partnership gates the resources it deserves.

How can your platform be leveraged for both Sales and Marketing?

Great question. It gets back to how our category has changed. Affiliate was traditionally managed by a specialist marketer. “The affiliate person.” But many other forms of partnership are the responsibility of sales and business development teams. Salespeople understand the friction inherent in manual partner management. When partnerships are hard to identify or manage, a salesperson’s livelihood suffers.

A big challenge occurs at the hand-off — sellers typically negotiate a deal, and then hand it off to the marketing or commerce teams for implementation. But if the process for getting a partnership up and running is difficult or slow, then sellers don’t earn. If they have to hover over the implementers to keep things on track, they can’t get back to negotiating more partnerships.

By making all aspects of partnership easier — identification, formation, management, and payment — we help both Marketing and Sales teams hit their goals.

Which Marketing and Sales Automation tools and technologies does Partnerize use at the moment? Personally, which is your favorite Marketing Automation tool?

We’re a Salesforce shop, and we use HubSpot, This is my first experience with HubSpot. I’ve worked with Eloqua, Marketo and Pardot in the past. We are generally pleased with HubSpot. It has some good process and workflow innovations that I like. I’d like to see them do more work on reporting enhancements. They’re working on that.

What are your predictions on the most impactful disruptions in Marketing Technology for 2018-2020?

Fundamentally, I think the revolution will be or at least needs to be in usability. Most people use only a small sliver of the capabilities of their MarTech tools. We’ve focused a lot of attention on improving intuitiveness and workflows, and I am convinced that all the winners in this very crowded space will do the same.

Whenever I’ve worked on software, I’ve wanted to know how much time people spend in the product, and is that growing? Are they doing more things? Are they using more features? If they aren’t, then commoditization is inevitable. That reduces the available investment in innovation, and means that we as solutions providers are punting on our responsibilities.

Beyond that, I think we really are finally in the twilight of third-party-cookie-based tracking. ITP2 and Firefox Tracking Protection have accelerated that process considerably. I am also intrigued to see the next generation of ABM products. The company that really makes managing such programs easy will clean up.

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

I’m really impressed by ZIVVER. They add a layer of increased security, in terms of encryption and preventing human errors, to the communications and file sharing methods people use already, like Outlook. It’s fundamentally about making what people do safe, versus the historically less effective approach of trying to get people to change their behaviors to communicate and share files safely. How cool is that?! The result is simplicity, security, and consumer privacy. In a world of GDPR and heightened concerns about information security, this concept seems a winner.

On the consumer side, there’s a San Francisco company called Tonal that intrigues me. It offers a combination exercise machine and virtual personal trainer. And the machine — or the “gym” — hangs on a wall like a flat screen TV. I am fascinated by these new business models — there’s something about it that I cannot quite describe but I think of as It factor.

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

I think it is important to focus primary attention on practical applications of AI — things that technology can do better than people can today. The long-term possibilities of AI are interesting, but our team is too busy to spend a huge amount of time thinking about a world that might be in five years. In my experience, people who try and predict that far out are usually dead wrong.

I have a friend who thinks exactly the opposite of me on this score. I have always been more interested in things that can peel potatoes better today than something with the promise of maybe perhaps possibly reinventing the potato in five or so years. I recognize that there are strengths and weaknesses to both extremes of thinking here. And I try to balance my practical side with a sense of how market forces are evolving with technology.

In our company, we have tried to balance the two as well. We were the first provider in our industry to launch products powered by AI. Our first offerings were about more accurate performance forecasting and notifications for when there are anomalies in your program data. These are two tasks where machines really can have an edge over humans in many cases. But our long-term vision for AI is quite exciting and grand — a self-optimizing platform that enables the marketer to spend more time setting crucial strategic vision.

How do you inspire your people to work with technology?

This is an interesting topic. I have a number of friends who cut their teeth in marketing around the same time I did — which was pre-digital. Many have had difficulty coping with the revolution that digital has begat. Keeping up with digital is ultimately about being curious and liking the idea of constant, radical change. And it’s about fighting that natural human tendency towards contempt before investigation.

For example, I recently heard a consumer products CMO call mobile “just another channel we use.” I understand why he thinks that, but I also think he is dead wrong. When a device has more than doubled media and connected time, and combines interactivity and portability, thinking of it as “just another channel” is ludicrous.

Yes, it is another channel. Actually, it’s basically THE channel now, but I won’t quibble. Setting that aside, if you approach it with that classic broadcast mindset, you end up annoying people rather than delighting them.

One word that best describes how you work.

While many CMOs spend all their time presiding over the work of others, I am fundamentally a doer. You need to let the team members have space and run their own projects and goals. But we as a team have way too much to do for me not to hunker down and knock off some of the work myself.

I often try and personally execute on the most mundane projects so that the team has the chance to get practice at the things they love or want to learn. For example, during our rebrand, the team and I disagreed on the right direction for our logo and brand dress. They led the development, and I deferred to them because they made a better case for their favorite than I could for mine. And they were right.

I hope the team feels like they have ownership of their projects. And we get more done than teams three times our size because we all hunker down and do.

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

I’ve recently started relying on the dashboards capabilities of Salesforce, and it has made my job much easier. I love Grammarly as I write a lot of the content for our brand.

What are you currently reading?

PBS did this program over the summer called ‘The Great American Read’ where people voted on their favorite books. They had a list of 100 nominated books. This fall, I have been going through that list to read more of the titles that people nominated. Right now I am on “Lonesome Dove.” Next is “Beloved,” then “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “The Outsiders.”

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

Can I have three?

  • There is a big difference between being kind and being nice. Often the best thing you can do for a person is have that difficult conversation with them.
  • Assume positive intent. I firmly believe that (almost) everyone is trying to do their best. If we view their actions with this lens, it generally works out that we get more done and have more satisfaction doing it.
  • Sometimes you have to let the train wreck. This one is the hardest for me. As a person who is fundamentally a “doer.” I try and swoop in to help people avoid problems. But if you always swoop in, they don’t learn or get to develop their skills. The key is to let people take responsibility for things they can do. Stretch them. And to recognize that sometimes the things they do won’t work out. But they will learn from those things and be all the stronger for it. Help them avoid disasters, but let them succeed and fail as much as you can on their own.

Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read.

Years ago, when I worked agency side, I reported to Toby Gabriner, who is now CEO of AdRoll. I always learned a ton from him and valued his perspective tremendously. I’d love more of his perspective.ur

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

High performing leader with more than 15 years of digital and traditional marketing experience helping drive company growth by helping brands make the most of their marketing investments. Career focused on finding barriers to growth across organizations and leading cross departmental teams to genuine solutions. Builder of more profitable and enduring client relationships and teams.

Partnerize Logo

Partnerize helps the world’s leading brands build powerful business partnerships that drive extraordinary business growth. The Partnerize 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 Partnerize their businesses. In fact, the Partnerize PMP drives and manages more than $6B in partner programs and financial exchanges across 214 countries and territories worldwide.

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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