When Andrea Cunningham first landed in Silicon Valley in 1983, she knew she wanted to be involved with tech. As a young marketing and communications professional, she landed at exactly the right place at the right time – Cunningham, who goes by “Andy,” helped launch the Apple Macintosh, one of the world’s first personal computers.
Over the course of her career, she’s worked with brands like Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, IBM, and Motorola, as well as Steve Jobs’ other projects, like NeXT and Pixar.
But her latest role is at Avaya Inc., joining the telecom solutions provider as its new CMO. Announced last month, she will help transform the company traditionally known for its hardware plays into a business focused on software and services.
ITBusiness.ca caught up with Cunningham on Thursday, hearing about her work with the Apple Macintosh, her new plans for Avaya, and how digital marketing has changed over the course of her career.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
ITBusiness.ca: So you’ve been at Avaya for a little over a month now, right? How is it going?
Cunningham: Great, there’s a lot going on and lots to do … They lost their last CMO just three or four months ago, I guess, or even a little more than that.
I’ve worked with [Avaya president and CEO] Kevin Kennedy before though, several times. I worked with him a number of years ago at Cisco, and again during the turn-around at JDS Uniphase, and then I did a project with Avaya a couple of years ago.
I find him to be incredibly creative, smart, high-energy, honest, high-integrity as a CEO, and I really have a lot of respect for that. And I love the challenge. Our challenge at Avaya is to make Avaya cool again.
ITBusiness.ca: Before we get more into Avaya, I wanted to ask a bit more about your background. Back in 1983, when you first moved to Silicon Valley, you had worked in a totally different kind of PR, which was in trucking. So what made you choose tech as your next sector?
Cunningham: I was actually a trade journalist for an industry publishing company called Irving-Cloud … Because I was doing all of this technical writing for truck magazines, I had an opportunity to interview at Burston-Marsteller, a PR firm, and they really liked my writing skills … So I came on to work on the Atari business and the Bell and Howell business.
And I really loved it. I fell in love with the tech industry. My boss knew that I fell in love with it, so he kept putting articles that were on Silicon Valley on my desk. We didn’t have the Internet, so he would walk over to my office, and he would cut out an article and lay it on my desk, and they were all about Apple and Steve Jobs, mostly.
So when Burston-Marsteller decided to open up an office in Silicon Valley, I volunteered to interview to move to Silicon Valley and work for Burston out here. And unfortunately, when I met the guy who was leading the office, it wasn’t a good cultural fit for me to work with that guy. So I interviewed at a couple of other agencies. One of them was Regis McKenna, and he offered me the job to launch the Macintosh. So I took it.
‘I learned almost everything I know about marketing from Steve Jobs’
ITBusiness.ca: So when you were working with Steve Jobs on the Macintosh, what lessons did that teach you about brand strategy?
Cunningham: Wow, I have to tell you that I learned almost everything I know about marketing from Steve Jobs and Regis McKenna.
What I would call a Steve Jobs philosophy about marketing in the high tech industry, and that philosophy is basically this – customers don’t know what they want. So market research is useless. So what you really need to do is have enough vision to understand what they might want to use in the future, and then have enough guts to put it out there in such a way that you can evolve the technology fast enough, so you can create product market fit, once the product’s already in the marketplace.
So that’s kind of a key tenet in high technology marketing. Now it’s completely been certified, if you will, through this methodology called the “lean startup.” It is exactly the philosophy that I think Steve was talking about, although in different language.
ITBusiness.ca: Did you have any inkling at all, that personal computers would become such a big thing?
Cunningham: Yes. I did. I knew that for sure. That was one of the reasons that drew me to Silicon Valley. I mentioned to you I worked on the Bell and Howell business. So Bell and Howell were remarketing an Apple II computer, and they called it the Black Apple because it had a black case on it. It was the very first educational computer back then in the marketplace.
Very few schools bought it, but it was there, and I actually had it in my office. I spent every minute that I could, playing around with it, figuring out how to do things like spreadsheets and just other things that computers could do back then. So I knew it would have enormous, enormous potential. So yes, I absolutely knew it was going to change the world, and I knew Steve Jobs was going to change the world.
ITBusiness.ca: When you first started Cunningham Communications, you worked with Adobe, Cisco, HP, and a bunch of other big clients. I imagine all those marketing efforts don’t look the same way now, as going digital has really shifted marketing. What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen?
Cunningham: Wow. You’re absolutely right, I think the Internet changed everything. It entirely, dramatically changed journalism, so it entirely, dramatically changed public relations. And it changed customer relationships as well, as it just made communicating with customers so much easier.
And along with that has come the development of marketing analytics tools that enable you to essentially measure how you’re doing. So marketing has become far more sophisticated, and far more mathematical than it was before. There’s still great room for the creative aspect and the visionary aspect, but that has just been transformed dramatically. It’s more of a science now, actually.
‘At different times in a company’s lifecycle, they’ll need different kinds of marketing expertise’
ITBusiness.ca: So at Avaya, you’re going to be working as CMO there four days a week. But you’re also going to continue to be CEO at [marketing firm] SeriesC. So what prompted that decision to do both of those things?
Cunningham: Well, first of all, SeriesC is a young company, but it is by far the best team I have ever worked with. It is a small company, with only 13 people, but they are amazing people and they’re very independent. So they’re totally capable of carrying on without me being there, every minute of every day.
And secondly, one of the things that my business at SeriesC has evolved into is us helping companies the same way I’m helping Avaya. So my company does this for three different companies right now – we send a person who becomes the CMO, if you will, of a client company, for a period of time to help a company get to whatever goal they have to get to. Another guy in my company is doing it for Sling Media, a division of EchoStar. And a third person in my company is doing it for a small startup called Pile.
Most technology companies tend to hire the wrong marketing person at the wrong time, mostly because they’re driven by engineers. And engineers, they don’t really understand the various disciplines of marketing and how different they are.
At different times in a company’s lifecycle, they’ll need different kinds of marketing expertise. So there are people who are good at marketing communications, there are people who are good at analytics, there are people who are good at product marketing, marketing automation – there’s just a ton of different marketing expertises, and you can really make a big mistake for your company if you bring the wrong person in at the wrong time.
When we go in and act as a chief marketing officer for a period of time, we are able to draw on the other expertises in my company … which gives them a far broader marketing functionality, if you will, than just hiring a CMO.
And once we get everything the way the company wants it, and moving in a successful direction, then we help the company replace ourselves with another chief marketing officer. By then, we know about everything that person should have in his portfolio to be successful.
ITBusiness.ca: Does that mean you don’t expect to be at Avaya for a long period of time?
Cunningham: My expectation with Avaya is a minimum of two years … And if things are going well, I’m happy to extend that.
It’s just as if I work there. I have an office there, I have a team there, I hire people there that work for Avaya. I’m on the executive staff, I attend all the board meetings, I am the CMO, and I enjoy it.
It’s a model that we just accidentally landed on … And it’s worked out extraordinarily well. So I think we accidentally tripped over a model the technology industry can really benefit from, and get the people they need.
ITBusiness.ca: Can you share any of your plans going forward at Avaya?
Cunningham: Well, I’ve been assessing things and meeting people and understanding what’s going on, but I’ve started a couple of projects that I’m really excited about.
One is called Project Northstar. That is a combination project that includes new positioning for the company and a new look at the brand. And I don’t mean we’re going to change the logo or the name or anything, we’re not going to touch any of that. But really creating an understanding of, what does the brand stand for? … And then we’re going to help the company to visualize what the product offering actually is.
And another project is what I’m calling Red Thread. The company is making a huge transformation right now … from hardware to software and services. And we are almost there, from a product perspective, and the job now is to culturally shift the company into that mode of thinking … to begin to express that Avaya is a software and services company out in the marketplace, as opposed to a telecom hardware company.
ITBusiness.ca: My last question for you – you’ve been doing PR and marketing for tech for years now, and you’ve been in the Silicon Valley during a really amazing time for the Valley. Are there any lessons you would give to digital marketers who are just starting out their careers now in tech?
Cunningham: Wow, that’s a big question. Make sure you are very closely involved with the people who are actually developing the product … This was something Steve Jobs was good at. He envisioned what the product could be, what the customer would want, and then he was able to – I’ll use this word lightly – “encourage” the engineers to build that product.
And that, to me, is brilliant marketing – it’s when you can affect product decisions and product development through either your vision, or your understanding of the market, or whatever it is you do to add value to the product … It’s a key thing to do, especially in the tech industry.