‘Initiate something that no one expects you to do and really try’: Jon Iwata

By Leslieanne John, P-TECH student and IBM CAI intern.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jon Iwata, IBM’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Citizenship, to learn about his role. Since technology changes in the blink of an eye, he emphasized that both businesses and consumers are always looking for the newest thing. In this age of innovation, a company would be wise to focus on staying relevant. As IBM’s marketing leader, this responsibility falls on Jon Iwata.

Below are his insights into the evolution of technology and marketing:

Jon Iwata, IBM Sr VP, Marketing & Communications
Jon Iwata, IBM Sr VP, Marketing & Communications

In five words, how would you describe your job?

I am the “Curator of IBM’s Corporate Character.”

I have come to realize that corporations have character whether they intend to or not. We are living in an age of transparency, in which people, public figures, celebrities and especially companies are watched 24 hours a day and observers share what they see with others. It has never been more important for a company to be authentic. That is one area in which IBM stands out.

How might marketing for a technology firm differ from that of firms in other industries?

If you are a tech company, you are selling innovation rather than just a product. If I worked for a car company, or a clothing company, or a beer company, most people already know that they need a car, or some clothing, or they want to drink a beer. They already have the need. They just want to know whether or not to buy it from my company. But at a tech company like IBM, we have to first shape the need, and then we go about filling the need. And because we serve businesses and not consumers, a lot of what we market is ideas of what’s possible. For example, until recently, people did not know that they could fight crime with data. Police departments felt they could solve crime and perhaps prevent crime, but they couldn’t predict crime. But because of things we have now like analytics software, this capability is now possible. But we can’t go to police departments and simply sell them “analytics.” First we have to communicate the idea that something is now possible in the world because of this new technology.

What are some things that will never change about the Marketing profession?

I think clear thinking and clear writing are at the core of strong marketing and communication. And I mean writing very deliberately. Even though people may not read what’s been written on paper, writing expresses itself in formal and informal communication. So when our CEO, Ginni Rometty, speaks to 430,000 IBMers, she might say the words in a livestream broadcast or in a blog post, but it’s the writing and articulation that’s most important. When you hear people say “I’m not a good writer”, sometimes they’re actually not a good writer. But in my experience, chances are they haven’t thought clearly about what they want to say. That is a fundamental that I believe will never change.

Trustworthy conduct is another fundamental – building a trusted relationship through your behavior and actions and what you say. That hasn’t changed.

What has been the biggest shift in the marketing profession?

What has changed is dramatic. The biggest, seminal historic change that people will be writing about 100 years from now is the fact that until the internet emerged, the means of communication were in the hands of the very few. So if you wanted to reach the many, you had to go to those who controlled printing presses and broadcast videos; they were the conduits to the many. Of course today we have the internet, and we have these handheld devices. So, marketing and communications is not about new technology; it’s about a shift in power.

A company that had a lot of money and could afford to advertise could buy that awareness. But now, individuals or companies that don’t have the resources can generate just as much awareness if they’re good at it. The same is true for politicians, musicians, and activists. That whole dynamic of control and power over messaging really has informed this influence over decision making. That is a historic shift that just didn’t exist when I was your age.

How has technology and data influenced marketing?

It’s changing right at this moment. I keep drawing up plans and ripping them up, drawing up plans and ripping them up. So there’s digital, and then there’s data, and they’re not the same. So what’s the difference? I could create an ad and run it on YouTube instead of on a network and think we’re modern. That’s digital, but that’s not data.

Data is the intelligence that gives us the knowledge and insights to make our decisions. The biggest thing that’s now possible with data is the shift from segments to the individual. If you take a Marketing class, you’ll learn on day one about segmentation. If I’m trying to market my product, I know that people aren’t all the same out there. Some of them would find my message or my product completely irrelevant. So we need to create a segmentation model based on things like geography, gender, household income, age, hobbies, and political party. And we say “that’s good”, and we impose that model on the population of people. How accurate is our segmentation model at actually describing who those people are, what their interests are, or what they’re looking for at any given time? Very crude.

Well what’s the difference because of data? The data is being produced by the individual. Every time you or I perform an online search, we are declaring our own segmentation. And every time you post online and say, “I just got married,” or “I just retired. I’m going to take up golf,” or “I’m having a birthday”, or “Our anniversary is coming up,” this is vital data that is telling people and companies who we are and what we’re looking for. And therefore, if we listen to the data, we can transform these very broad segments of decision-makers into a segment of one, engaging the individual. That shift has been written about and predicted for decades, but it’s been theoretical until now.

ibm_jon_iwata_quoteWhat general advice would you give to young people to help them be successful in their careers?

One piece of advice I got many years ago from a person I admire a lot is: “Know a few things well.” At any given year, whatever your job is, you’ve got to do a certain number of things, and you’re going to try to do all of those different things well. But be known for doing a few things really, really well. And related to that, the highest compliment I have ever received from a boss was, “the best thing that you did last year was something I never asked you to do.” Wherever you are in your career, wherever it is, there will be things that you’re expected to do, and you will be evaluated based upon these things. But if you’re a fairly observant person, you’re always going to see that the company has other needs, and you can say, “There is something that I can do in this particular area. No it wasn’t asked of me.  But I know that my company can benefit greatly from this, and I will initiate it.” A person who does that can really stand out. Especially at a company like IBM, which is full of talented people, it can be hard to distinguish yourself among 430,000 employees. This is pretty achievable – initiate something that no one expects you to do and really try.

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