Challenge everything – the secret of Thunderhead’s success

What does it take to succeed as marketing leader in a high-growth martech firm? According to Jason Hemingway, CMO of Thunderhead, it’s the willingness (or even determination) to break all the rules.

That’s vital if you’re working for a firm experiencing dramatic growth, and if it’s experiencing ongoing innovation in terms of its platform, infrastructure and even business model. It’s even more important if you’re operating in a tech category that, until very recently, didn’t officially exist – in that it wasn’t recognised by any of the leading analyst houses and had few clear or obvious competitors.

Thunderhead, if you’re not aware of it, is a B2B enterprise tech vendor in the Customer Engagement space (meaning that its customers are businesses, but the platform is used by them to serve target consumers, on the whole – although EY is amongst its customers), based in Broadwick Street, in the heart of a newly sanitized and de-sleazed Soho. The company is very much a poster-child of the UK martech scene, having been founded in 2001 by Glen Manchester who, from the outset, has been on a mission to build the ultimate personalisation platform for B2C brands.

Thunderhead’s story in that time is fascinating – having built it’s first one platform for customer communiations, it then sold that off to a US-based tech-specialist VC Accel-KKR for for over $210 million in 2016 (where it still exists as Smarter Communications) and then set out to do better still with its second one.

As mentioned above, the challenge in this time was that customer engagement and customer journey optimisation orchestration wasn’t really something that people (or B2C martech buyers, at any rate) recognised as ‘a thing’ – in other words, Thunderhead had been banging this particular drum largely alone. But with the backing of a sympathetic and marketing-savvy CEO and owner, Hemingway systematically turned this disadvantage as a opportunity, by adopting a challenger positioning in every way possible. That’s not challenger in the traditional sense of the word, ie. challenging dominant market incumbant(s), but challenging apathy or lack of awareness by being edgy or playful. “It’s all about talking differently,” he says.

Much of Thunderhead’s repositioning emerged from the company’s split in 2016, when the employees of the remaining (not sold) portion were consulted heavily on what the new leaner organisation should look and feel like. The result is very much in line with what you’d expect from a cutting-edge martech vendor… with a bit of agency thrown in. The firm’s fashionably-located office features glass lifts, neon signs and lime-green furniture – it’s walking the talk.

Much to Hemingway (not to say his boss)’s satisfaction, twin pieces of excellent news emerged last year. Firstly, a relationship with Salesforce, revealed at the November Dreamforce mega-conference, which promises much in terms of collaboration and integration (not to say validation), in future (although much of which remains under wraps) for the timebeing. Secondly, Thunderhead was recognised as a leader in the Forrester Journey Analytics Wave, which defined this tech category for the first time, and arguably put the company on the map.

From Hemingway’s perspective, however, the challenge has really only just begun, and Thunderhead is increasing its strategic commitment to the US, where it has made a number of key hires recently. As a marketer, he has clearly thrived in his role leading Thunderhead’s marketing since 2015 relishing the opportunity to release the shackles of convention. But he acknowledges working in an atmosphere of such constant change and reinvention is probably not for everyone – some marketers will prefer more structure, rules and systems.

So what are the keys to success for marketers in fast-moving tech organisations? Hemingway says:
1. Find your voice.
2. Stay on top of the technology – it’s moving really fast.
3. Build the right team around you – diversity of thinking is critical, so you need people with different perspectives.
4. You don’t need lots of agencies! You need to give your people the time to be creative and have ideas.

As I’m walking out of the door, Hemingway says, “someone once asked me to describe myself as a marketer in three words, I said ‘Breaks all the rules’. They told me that was actually four words – and I told them that was the point.”