CMO Strategy Series: Building a Strong GTM Strategy with René Bonvanie of Palo Alto Networks

René Bonvanie has spent over 30 years working in marketing and business development for high-tech companies. His previous companies include INGRES Corp, Oracle, VERITAS Corp, SAP, Salesforce, and Serena Software. For more than a decade, René has worked at Palo Alto Networks: first as CMO and now as the Executive Vice President of Strategic Accounts. He also serves as board member or advisor for several organizations such as Acronis, Collibra, Guardsquare, Nexthink, and Fireblocks. When he’s not focused on business strategy, you’ll find him reading a John Grisham novel. 

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Who – or what – has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?

At 16, I told my parents I wanted to be financially independent. I supported myself working as a DJ and a field hockey trainer coach. From those experiences, I learned the art of entertainment, team building, long-range planning, and positive enforcement.

Being a DJ taught me how to meticulously plan an event, always keep folks entertained and positive, and string together a set of experiences that make people hungry for more. I then employed those very principles in each one of my marketing roles.

As a trainer/coach in sports, I had the honour of shepherding a team of 7 to 8 year-old boys into becoming national champions in the under-16 category eight years later. It taught me how to groom the best team for the “job” by heavily investing in education, practice, positive enforcement, and risk taking. Those principles later informed how I hired, mentored, and grew my marketing teams.

What has been the biggest market strategy shift you’ve had to make recently?

While I’m no longer in an active CMO role, I advised many CMOs in the past 6 months on their strategies. The two biggest shifts I suggested were adopting a data-driven approach and stronger GTM integration between marketing and sales.

Data science allows us to predict the actions of our targets with much greater accuracy – and how we should respond to them. Everything we do in a GTM strategy is measurable. But to get the benefits, we have to invest in a data-centric approach and new marketing roles to put the data in place, analyze it, and build predictive models on it. Marketing can’t delegate this to IT or sales operations. In my opinion, it should be a core marketing competency.

GTM alignment implies there is no condition under which marketing believes it hit it’s (quarterly) goals, but sales hasn’t. And vice versa. This starts with segmentation and targeting, and ends with pipeline and bookings forecasted and attained. Rather than marketing and sales showing up in executive meetings as two teams, I would advocate for a single GTM update with sales and marketing elements of activity and focus.

We’ve all had to adopt new ways of working over the last few months. Are there any crisis-era adaptations that you think marketing leaders should make permanent?

The dependency most marketing strategies had on in-person events, organized either by them or third parties, exposed a significant lack of originality in many plans.

This was reinforced by the first counter measure most marketing organizations made: webinars. Although a logical choice, it emphasized a long-standing belief that events needed to happen. Thanks to Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, we’ve known since 1993 that we should ideally practice one-to-one marketing. Does this mean we shouldn’t have events? Probably not. And with the shift to all virtual, does it mean they need less work? Absolutely not.

Webinars have a low threshold for registration and attendance. The data for the past four months shows the attendee to prospect conversion is the lowest ever — both in volume and value. That’s not just a function of the venue but of the entire GTM process that kicks off long before a webinar is organized. And part of that is the art of switching instantaneously from one-to-many tactics to one-to-one tactics, based on data science.

How have you seen investment strategy change compared to pre-COVID?

The pandemic put significant emphasis on cash management. Excluding payroll, marketing budget is the largest pool of discretionary spend in many organizations, and has become the primary – and easiest – source for preserving cash.

This makes it all the more important to not only ‘pinch’ every dollar, but make it go as far as possible in terms of return. This is why Allocadia is now even more critical than ever. Highly accurate insight for spend and yield is imperative in continuing to drive the company GTM strategy and goals. In my experience, that means programmatic spend in the COVID-19 era, unless it has been shown to yield pipeline, is considered wasteful, too risky, or both.

How do you think project management has changed compared to pre-COVID and are any of those changes permanent?

The level of scrutiny and measurement of every action has required significantly more instrumentation and collaboration than ever before. Clearly, GTM teams can’t rely on emails, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. I am convinced these changes are permanent. The future is in cloud-based tools for planning, execution, and measurement which must be adopted and used by all members of the team. 

In your decades of experience in marketing leadership, have you adopted a mantra, quote, or principle that you use as a guide during times of stress or change?

More than ever, we need to be the positive force in our businesses. Marketing always had the role of ‘cheerleader’ and now it’s even more important to use positivity and optimism as the force multiplier.

It’d be so easy to use COVID-19 as an excuse or a fear factor, but what the world needs is a view of how what we deliver helps us collectively come back from the pandemic and strive.

Learn René’s biggest career achievement, advice for marketers, and his can’t-live-without items!

Q&A with René Bonvanie

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