Faaez Samadi
Apr 25, 2017

Getting away from the ‘blah blah blah’: Cisco's Karen Walker

FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: Cisco SVP and CMO Karen Walker tells us how she restructured the brand root-and-branch for today’s marketing needs.

Change agent: Karen Walker took a clean-slate approach to Cisco’s marketing, implementing a complete overhaul of the brand’s structure
Change agent: Karen Walker took a clean-slate approach to Cisco’s marketing, implementing a complete overhaul of the brand’s structure

The secret to Karen Walker’s success is, well, no secret. Becoming one of the most senior female leaders in marketing globally, as senior vice-president and CMO of Cisco, began with a few guiding principles that she tells all women‐and men‐starting out in their careers.

“Like I tell my own daughter: ‘You can do anything you want,’” she says. “You just have to have the passion, so find something you’re truly passionate about, then everything else will be a lot easier. And be willing to take risks.” 

Such risk-taking is what has projected Walker from graduate‐in chemistry and business‐to engineer at HP and then into marketing. In that time she moved from the UK to the US, then to Singapore and then back again to the West Coast, joining Cisco seven years ago.  

Such a wide range of industry and geographic experience has been fundamental to shaping her approach as a global CMO, Walker says.

“I learned so much in the consumer side at HP,” she remembers. “I’d been in the field, so I understood the business customers, and I do encourage that early in your career, get as much direct exposure to customers as you can.

“You really do hone your listening skills to understand what sellers and partners need, and a big part of the marketing role is accelerating that.”

Walker feels a particular affinity for Singapore and her time in Asia generally, saying she has tried to embed the region’s attitude towards development and risk-taking in Cisco’s global marketing effort. “We talk a lot about agile development in engineering. We need that in marketing, that highly iterative, ‘OK to learn and fail’ attitude. I think this region is by far the standout in terms of how to think about the customer, how we’re tuning content. I think we learn more from the teams here in APAC than the other way round.”

For a B2B company that sees 95 percent of internet traffic run across its network, it could seem at odds to hear the global CMO talk about the importance of customer engagement and compelling content. But Walker has had a blueprint for transforming Cisco’s marketing since the beginning, and it encompasses pretty much all the steps you can think of in becoming a modern digital outfit. She did them all at once. 

Professional CV

  • 2015 Senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, Cisco
  • 2013 SVP, marketing, Cisco
  • 2011 SVP, segment, services and partner management, Cisco
  • 2009 Global VP, marketing and communications, Cisco
  • 2007 Vice-president of marketing, US, HP

First, logistics. When Walker joined, Cisco had 22 disparate marketing functions, each reporting to different streams. These have been reorganised and unified, and the brand has replaced its HQ-centric attitude‐“how arrogant”‐with country-led marketing teams taking primacy. 

“The corporate team are there to help scale and get a global perspective,” Walker explains. “We have people creating content sitting in-country. We have governance and guidelines but within that they’re allowed to completely tell their own customer story. So I’d say that we have the same voice, but we have different dialects.” 

This is a sea change for Cisco, both operationally and strategically, and Walker is the first to admit it hasn’t been easy. “It’s hard because there were a lot of folks who had been in the marketing team a long time‐really strong, loyal Cisco employees. But we just didn’t need them all sitting at HQ in San Jose. Where we really needed them was Germany or Australia. That was probably the hardest thing we had to do.”

These changes are only part of the story. Walker has also overseen a heavy investment in technology to fully digitise Cisco’s marketing operations. In today’s world, she says, there’s just no other option.

“Marketing was one of the last functions to be industrialised, but we’re the first to be digitised,” she says. “So we’ve now got all the technology in place around automation, our content platform, behavioural analytics. Now we have that foundation to be able to scale.”

Added to this is a completely overhauled content strategy. Cisco has cast a wide net, hiring journalists, film school graduates, and even writers and comedy scriptwriters to introduce fresh ideas. 

“Facebook is about to do a two-second media buy. You have to get your story across and capture someone’s attention in two seconds. We’ve gone from Super Bowl to super fast, so we’ve had to completely transform our content. We’re behaving much more like a newsroom and a consumer company than we are a B2B brand.” 

Emphasising this is Cisco’s move to build its own in-house creative team‐yet another big change‐to bolster its revamped content and help “get away from blah-blah-blah marketing speak”.

“It’s a big decision and I’m not saying we won’t ever use agencies, but I felt that we’d outsourced our creativity. If you think that a media buy is going to go down to two seconds, and we’re struggling to tell our story in 15 or 30 seconds, that’s an issue.”

Woven throughout this transformation process is Cisco’s own shift from a hardware company to a software provider, which added another layer of change for Walker to help implement. 

“That was actually one of the big reasons for changing marketing,” she says. “We had to digitise ourselves and make our function contemporary.”

These monumental changes have all been implemented collectively, and the results represent Walker’s new marketing vision. The clearest example is Cisco’s brand re-launch in May last year. It kicked off in New Zealand and followed the sun as more countries woke up across the world.

“It’s the first time ever that we haven’t launched in the US, with the rest of the world following,” she explains. “It was also completely digital and mobile. We did one piece of TV advertising.” 

Walker readily admits that despite the many significant changes, Cisco hasn’t cracked it all just yet. Marketing, she says, has to be as “coin-operated” and accountable as sales, because the two functions are increasingly intertwined.

“If I put a dollar in the marketing slot, I need to know exactly what I’m going to get out of it, and I think that’s where we still have work to do.”

Cisco’s marketing team is even making headway in this space. Walker says four years ago she set a target of US$1 billion in sales-qualified pipeline from marketing, with “none of this ‘marketing influence’ stuff”: it had to be hard numbers and a “net unique opportunity”. Recent figures put that pipeline at US$7.3 billion, Walker reveals, with a conversion rate of around 25 to 30 percent. 

“So I like to tell our CEO that we’re not a cost centre, we’re a profit centre,” she says. “That might be taking it a little too far, but that’s the mindset I want us to have.” 

The transformation is far from over, but it is well underway. The significant risk of taking a clean-slate approach to a legacy tech brand’s marketing looks to be paying off, just as the other risks Walker has taken in her career have done. 

“I’m a mother of three, and my family is still first. That has absolutely kept me grounded. But you’ve got to take a risk.” 

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