Exceptional Leadership in Marketing
We have an extremely engaging, eye-opening as well as in-depth discussion with Boon Lai (Vice President of Global Marketing, Cisco). During this interview, Boon talks about some recent marketing trends as well as his future predictions, and how organizations need to rapidly adapt to changes while avoiding tech-clash. In addition, we also have a candid discussion with Boon regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion within organizations, and how stereotypes and prejudice have motivated him to succeed and become a truly remarkable marketing leader.
Topics discussed in this episode:
Christian Klepp, Boon Lai
Christian Klepp 00:08
Hi, and welcome to the B2B Marketers on a Mission podcast. I’m your host Christian Klepp, and one of the founders of EINBLICK Consulting. Our goal is to share inspirational stories, tips and insights from B2B marketers, digital entrepreneurs, and industry experts that will help you to think differently, succeed and scale your business.
Christian Klepp 00:28
Hi, everybody, and welcome to this episode of the B2B Marketers on a Mission podcast. I’m your host Christian Klepp. And today I am both honored and extremely excited to host someone who I look up to as an accomplished marketing leader, and industry thought leader, and most importantly of all, I’m also proud to call him my friend, Mr. Boon Lai, welcome to the show.
Boon Lai 00:48
Thanks, Christian. Great to be here.
Christian Klepp 00:50
Alright, how are you doing today?
Boon Lai 00:51
I’m good. Thank you. Happy Friday.
Christian Klepp 00:53
Happy Friday indeed. All right, Boon, let’s get the show started. And maybe we can begin by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Boon Lai 01:02
Sounds great. Thanks, Christian. So my name is Boon Lai. I am originally from Singapore, and I now live in San Francisco in the US. I have identical twin girls who are four years old. Like many parents, they are keeping me pretty busy nowadays especially during COVID time. Personally, I came to school here in the US, and started my career working in an advertising agency in New York. And then I shifted to the client side onto the marketing side, and have since been working first in consumer goods, and then in the electronics industry, and now in tech. I’ve worked in Asia and Europe, and I’m now VP of global partner marketing at Cisco. I’m not sure if everybody’s familiar with Cisco. But Cisco is the global leader in networking, where we connect people their computing devices, and the network to access and to power the internet. In fact, 85% of the world’s internet traffic travels through Cisco systems. So I’m very proud to be, very happy to be here. I’ve been with Cisco for about the last four years.
Christian Klepp 02:10
Well, that is indeed an extremely impressive list of credentials you’ve got there, and thanks so much for sharing it. Yes, I’m pretty sure a lot of the listeners have heard of Cisco. So what are you currently working on, Boon, that you’re excited and passionate about?
Boon Lai 02:25
Well, just to share a little bit more context, Christian. Cisco, actually works with about 50,000 partners, which account for about 90% of our sales. So it’s actually our core route to market. And this includes global strategic partners like IBM, Apple and Google to value added resellers that resell our software, hardware, and our networking solutions with their own unique added value and services. So for us, our partner success is our success. So as I mentioned, I lead the global partner marketing team at Cisco and our goal is to help partners transform and accelerate their marketing practice. So in essence, this means that we focus on two simple actions with our partners: We provide learnings to help elevate our partners marketing practice, and we also enable our partners with marketing playbooks and services to accelerate Demand Gen. So I think one thing I’m really passionate about is the digitization. And the ability to find new ways to reach and engage customers. Especially at a time like this with COVID, marketing is on the frontline of digital interaction. So it’s critical that we help our partners reach customers in new ways. And that digitalization of marketing also means that we have to reach customers across all channels and across all devices. So we’re very passionate about helping our partners develop and activate their digital marketing strategies, and at COVID we’ve seen this accelerates much faster than ever before.
Christian Klepp 03:58
Well, that’s amazing. Thanks again so much for sharing that. And I’m pretty sure you’ve seen these trends, especially even pre-COVID that digitalization and the advancement of it has picked up pace. And the current crisis and the looming recession, obviously has accelerated that process considerably.
Boon Lai 04:20
Christian Klepp 04:20
Yeah. So Boon, in your, in your current role, as you mentioned, you’re helping Cisco’s 50,000 partners to elevate their marketing practice, most especially in the area of digitization. So, as we all know, marketing is not just about the product or the solution, but rather also the experience that the users and the target audience will have with said product or solution. So with regards to Cisco, like, what does your organization been doing to help bridge this gap?
Boon Lai 04:53
Well, that’s actually a great question, because we’ve actually been talking to our partners a lot about marketing their edge. In marketing, we talk a lot about differentiators, right? How you create a differentiation, to identify the things that make our company different, that sets us apart from competition. And then using that differentiation to position ourselves in the marketplace. And at the core of this conversation, it’s really around the why. Why do we do what we do? And Simon Sinek, we kind of talked to him a little bit, and he puts it in as people don’t buy just what you do. They buy why you do it. And it’s actually what makes brands like Apple and Nike so successful. Beyond the product and services that we offered. It’s really about the real human connections that we nurture. And Cisco has a great example and in our grand campaign, which is to build the bridge to possible and it’s actually become one of our most successful campaign ever, because it’s really about connecting real people with technology to solve challenges and business problems, not just from product perspective. And I think as marketers, we all have great stories like this to tell. And this can be our edge, right? This can be your edge, and how you can set yourself apart from the competition. So I think this is really something that’s applicable to most companies that we have to market our edge to impact the bottom line.
Christian Klepp 06:18
Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And I think you brought up a really good point there. And it’s something that we’ve seen happening across different facets of B2B industries, where they’re starting to like humanize or shall I say, inject that human element into their marketing and branding initiatives? Because at the end of the day, yes, the technology is helpful, and it supports operations and the way people work, but at the end of the day, it’s also about the human aspect and the human story behind that technology.
Boon Lai 06:52
Yeah, I think that’s very fair, right? I mean, if you look and as consumers and as customers, we all have choices on the technology and the solutions that we want to purchase, but it’s really about that connection and the trust in the brand, and the relationship that we build with the brands that actually makes a longer term commitment and relationship, right? that actually helps us to build that association with the brand.
Christian Klepp 07:18
Right. Indeed. Boon, you’ve probably heard this like several times over in the past couple of months, but we are going through a crisis of an unprecedented scale. And that crisis has caused massive disruptions across multiple industries. But let’s try to look at it from a more purposeful and constructive perspective instead of sliding directly into the doom and gloom. So, despite the crisis, the current state of affairs has also helped us to accelerate the speed at which digitalization and technological advances have been prioritized. So just from your point of view, what are some of the recent marketing trends that you’ve seen? And how do you think these trends will affect your customers, your organization as a whole, as well as your partners?
Boon Lai 08:11
Yeah, good. That’s a really great question. I think I see two trends: The first is around, for B2B enterprise marketing, that the role of digital marketing is transforming so quickly, especially during the COVID era, right. I talked a little bit about that earlier. And we know that 71% of B2B buyers prefer to research digitally, rather than to reach out to a sales reps. And that’s been pretty consistent. According to a study by Google B2B decision makers are using search ads on mobile, online video ads, and even ads on social media to really accelerate their B2B purchases. Over the last past 30 days, we know that 63% of buyers have actually increased their use of online video ads, and actually is 52% in buyers increase the use of online search ads to search for B2B products. Again, we’ve seen pretty unprecedented transformation in the marketing industry as well.
Christian Klepp 09:12
So when you’re saying social media, you’re referring to the likes of like, LinkedIn, for example, and Facebook.
Boon Lai 09:22
The other trend that we see, especially in B2B marketing is around how events are really shifting to virtual, right. I mean, we know that we still need to really deliver on that same amazing experience. That customer expects a live event. However, it’s a quite a different ballgame when it comes to grabbing and maintaining the attention of our customer. Who’s really watching from a screen remotely, right? They’re looking for shorter, and even more concise content delivered in a entertaining manner for virtual events. They’re looking for ways to engage and interact with us with a clear call to action. Yeah, so a great example of this is at Cisco, we’ve seen record attendance across some of our major recent events, including Cisco live and marketing velocity. So the virtual events actually gave us the opportunity to go beyond the traditional live events limitation. So if you think about it, when you host a conference, say in Vegas, it has venue capacity, it has travel costs and time commitment, right, to get your attendees to come with virtual events, we were able to invite more attendees in a much more flexible and fluid manner. A great example of this is Cisco’s marketing velocity event, we’re able to actually increase our attendee attendance by four times. So four-fold of attendees attend this event. And we’re also able to extend this from one annual event to really engaging our audience over a series of say, six weeks with ongoing webinars that actually continue to build on the message that we started off with.
Christian Klepp 11:00
Wow, those are incredible observations. And I think you brought up so many great points. I mean one about the recent trend that you’ve seen in terms of where B2B purchases go. And when they’re making a decision about like, pivoting events to like virtual and online, although I believe that Cisco has been doing that for a while, like you guys are not strangers to the virtual events space, rather. But then again, you’ve also had your fair share of live events, and it probably by the looks of the way things are going right now, it might take a while for us to go back to those but we will, eventually,
Boon Lai 11:44
Yeah, I think will be a new way of balancing between live events and virtual events. I think customers will start to realize that they don’t have to travel to Vegas every other month. They’re actually able to get the concise, like I mentioned, very concise insights and information through a virtual setting. So I think would actually change the way that our customers are consuming our marketing.
Christian Klepp 12:08
Yes, they’ll certainly have more options at the very least in terms of like whether they wish to attend an event online or whether they in the future plan to just fly or travel to a certain destination in order to attend that set event.
Boon Lai 12:24
And it’s right.
Christian Klepp 12:25
So Boon, before I ask you the next question, let me share some research findings. And this was research conducted by Accenture. So I have grouped them into three main areas. So point number one is regarding trends. So according to this research conducted by Accenture, post-digital people will have high expectations, but companies are still building tech-driven products and services with outdated playbooks. Right. So that’s point number one. Point number two is regarding AI. The research says 76% of executives agree that organizations need to dramatically re-engineer the experiences that bring technology and people together in a more human centric manner to a point that you raised several minutes ago. Point number three regarding the Internet of Things, or IoT, this market is expected to grow to $75.44 billion connected devices by 2025 with a projected market value of $1.1 trillion by 2026. So here comes the question. Based on this trends and the research, we know that there’s no such thing as a one size fits all roadmap, but in your professional opinion, what role do you think marketers have in terms of ensuring that their organizations adapt to these changes accordingly, while at the same time overcoming tech clash?
Boon Lai 13:54
Well, I mean, those are pretty powerful trends and data that you get. And I think two things. So the first thing is that marketing should always be the voice of the customer. And so the did your point around the trends of focusing around providing customer outcomes rather than just product. And technical services and so on, we should really always focus. And actually marketing has a role to play, to really share the customer expectations and requirements from an outcome and a solutions perspective back into the organization. The second area, I would say is in terms of leading with data. Clearly, there’s no argument with metrics, right, and specifically, with AI and IoT, there’s so much more data that’s available to all of us. And marketers should really leverage the insight and analytics to help make our case. For example, at Cisco, we’ve been looking at how our partners are using our enablement platform as prioritize how we should be investing behind the different functionality and features. So in short, I think data driven decisions help direct everyone in the same direction, so there’s less second guessing, and also less politics involved.
Christian Klepp 15:06
Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
Christian Klepp 15:07
Hey, it’s Christian Klepp here. We’ll get back to the episode in a second. But first, is your brand struggling to cut through the noise? Are you trying to find more effective ways to reach your target audience and boost sales? Are you trying to pivot your business? If so, book a call with EINBLICK Consulting, our experienced consultants will work with you to help your B2B business to succeed and scale. Go to www.einblick.co for more information.
Christian Klepp 15:36
Okay, Boon, I’m gonna push you a little bit out of your comfort zone here. So, on July 16, you were one of the panelists along with nine other industry leaders on Adweek’s Asian American summit webinar as part of their diversity and inclusion series. Now, during this webinar, you and other participants discussed very relevant issues that hit close to home: Discrimination and work place issues that affect people of Asian descent, the bamboo ceiling and really the challenges, sponsorship versus mentorship, and the need for conversations about difficult topics in order for us to progress as a society in a positive way. Now, why do I say that this hits close to home, because you’re someone clearly of Asian descent. And in my humble opinion, you are in fact living proof of someone who hasn’t let these stereotypes, and these bias, and this prejudice slow you down. If anything, in fact, it’s done the complete opposite. It’s helped you to persevere, thrive and succeed in your career. So talk to us a little bit about what it was that motivated you to succeed in these roles that you’ve had across industries?
Boon Lai 16:46
Well, that’s really a great question. Thanks for that. I guess I can only speak for myself. First of all, I would say that like many of your listeners out there, I was really confused and also very angry with the inequality and the social justice that we see around us. Most recently in the Bay Area, you might have seen that there was a tech CEO, who actually had a racist rant, to an Asian family in a restaurant. And that really hit very close to home for me. From my four year old twin girls who are mixed raced, I am concerned about how they might be bullied or grew up in a society that might discriminate against them. And so I’m personally very feeling very motivated to do something and take action. I feel very optimistic that we can make a change, that discussions like this is actually making a difference and opening up the conversation and empowering all of us to have a voice. So while I personally haven’t been racially attacked in my career, in my life so far, I would say that there has always been implicit biases throughout my career. I shared this in the panel right, that the three most asked questions from my entire career, the first one question is sort of where are you from? How come you speak such a great English? And always kind of laugh at that. Because I grew up in Singapore, which was a British colony. Right. The second question I always get asked a lot is, are you really good at math? And I guess the short answer is yes, but I don’t like it.
Christian Klepp 18:18
And you do play a musical instrument as well?
Boon Lai 18:21
I did, actually. I guess everybody else grew up in Singapore, such generalization right. And then the third question I get asked a lot is, wow, you look really young, how old are you? And these used to be questions I used to get really embarrassed by. But now I actually embrace it. And I kind of find it pretty funny. And I’m actually using it to my advantage, right. So throughout my career, I’ve had to learn to adapt to different situations, but also more importantly, work hard to prove myself. Not just working hard but working smart. Right? Focusing not just on that tasks, but impact that we can make.
Christian Klepp 19:03
Well, I mean, that’s a really great attitude to have, Boon. And quite frankly, if somebody says that you look young, just take it as a compliment, right?
Boon Lai 19:12
Yeah, it’s funny, because actually, when I came for my interview here at Cisco, I met with the CMO, Karen. And the first thing I did when I sat down was I basically joked about how young I look. I might look too young for the job but my resume. And she kind of laughed, and she basically said, I wish people would tell me that more often… that was very gracious of her. But yah I try to, you know, bring it up front and use it to my advantage as a strength.
Christian Klepp 19:40
Yeah, no, absolutely. And thanks for sharing your story there. Could you also talk to us about what you think needs to happen in places like North America for diversity inclusion, and when I say that, I mean what needs to happen for it to be not just a box, that organizations tick, that they can say, Okay, yeah, we’ve done that, check. But what is what is it that they can do? In terms of like, how diversity and inclusion can be embraced and incorporated into the DNA of society?
Boon Lai 20:16
Well, another very deep question. I again, I think I can only speak for myself. I mean, I do believe in personal leadership. As you mentioned, I’m an Asian, I’ve worked across four continents, and I’m not working only with the US. So I don’t have the traditional Asian American view. But I do think leading is a really about bringing a global perspective for global companies like Cisco, where there’s so much dynamics happening, it’s constantly changing with the geopolitics, with 5G, with trade. So it’s really important for us to be able to share our experiences and our background. A great example I always talked about is how a lot of my global colleagues are asking me, now that I’ve lived here in the US, why is so difficult for Americans to wear masks? Trying to explain black life matters to my friends in Asia, where that is not a trending issue, for example, right. And so there’s lots of opportunities for us to share our background, the history, and our understanding of why things are a certain way in different parts of the world. I also think that getting personally involved in Asian and other minority communities is actually a great way forward. For example, at Cisco, we had a talent Expo for our African American black employees. So I sign up to become a mentor, it’s actually an opportunity on both sides to learn and to help. I’ve also reached out to our Chinese American employee group to offer to become an executive sponsor. So I’m really kind of taking small steps myself, because I know that we need to actually go beyond mentorship and above or beyond giving advice to taking it to the next level with sponsorship. I talked a little bit about this in my panel. According to the Leadership Research Institute, people with sponsors are 23% more likely to advance in their career. And the problem here is that there is a significant gap between white male who have sponsors versus women and minorities. One in five white men have a sponsor. one in eight women have sponsors and one in 12 minorities have sponsors in the environment. So, I’ve actually taken a pledge with a non profit called the Multiply Effect. It’s called multiplydiversity.com, where it’s really about helping and sponsoring diverse talent to their next, to advance and their next… in their career. So this is really something that I’m quite passionate about.
Christian Klepp 22:57
Yeah, these are all great insights and observations. To be very honest with you, Boon, I think you were being very humble when you’re saying that you’re taking small steps. I think these are pretty big strides that you’ve been taking. So Boon, you’ve brought up so many great and insightful points with regards to diversity and inclusion, and how to address prejudice and racism. And that kind of brings to mind a quote that I read in the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. So the book is called Long Walk to Freedom and that quote, a saw appropriate for this discussion. So he basically said, no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. So what am I getting at here? So in order for us to truly progress as a society, we need to let go of hate and fear. And it is our duty to educate others so that they can see that differences are something to be celebrated, not feared or looked down upon. And yeah, it is going to be difficult. I mean, nothing about this journey is going to be easy. And as you all know, I, myself have an Asian mother, and I spent most of my life in Asia, and the Asian way of dealing with conflict is to keep quiet, not saying anything, and somehow hope that the problem goes away. But come on, you and I both know that’s not the right way to initiate change. Change requires us to push back, speak up, and most important of all, say something if we feel that something is wrong. So we need to continue to educate others, encourage open dialogue, and even have difficult conversations so that we can break barriers down.
Boon Lai 24:54
Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with that. I mean, growing up in Singapore, or pretty much a lot of the Asians culture, we’ve really been taught not to speak up, not to cause trouble, keep to ourselves, do our job, and kind of look away. And I think, the last few months have really taught us that we can’t really do that anymore. Right? With the COVID situation where the President is calling it the China virus and so on, really there’s a lot more xenophobia and hate crimes that’s going around. And even if it doesn’t affect me personally, or us personally, it is happening, and it’s happening to all these different communities and proacting we owe it to ourselves to speak up, to have a voice. It’s definitely out of my comfort zone, personally, when I joined the Adweek CMO, Asian American panel, but actually I had such overwhelming feedback. I had over 100 people kind of share comments with me on my LinkedIn and social. We had over 2000 live attendees at that panel, and it’s because it’s something that really resonated with people, and that we actually just by speaking about it creating a platform to allow people to share their experiences, and to really talk about what we could do as a community and as a society.
Christian Klepp 26:20
Indeed, and once again, just to reiterate what’s been mentioned earlier, you probably got such a tremendously positive resonance from people because it is so close to home. Yeah, these problems are real. This is not something that’s made up by the media. I mean, this is something that’s happening right now, this wasn’t, it happened 100 years ago too, but it’s still happening in 2020. I think, again, you brought up of course, the current situation in the United States. And I think we’re just really fortunate here in Canada that our government takes a different stance on these things. And not to make this very political but like one of the things that they do try to communicate very clearly is that our diversity is what gives us strength. On to the next point, did you have any recommendations on the actions that people can take? Because to read about it, and to be aware of bias and racism and prejudice is one thing, but to actually take action and act upon it, it’s a completely different story.
Boon Lai 27:30
Yeah, I mean, I think great question. I think for me, three things. The first is during this COVID era, it’s really important for us to take time to really empathize, and really ask people how they are. As peers, as managers, we need to recognize that this is a stressful time for everybody. And so I try to do my best to start meetings with being human, being vulnerable and really trying to support my teams and my friends, and also giving my team permission to have more flexibility, right? This is very kind of strange time that we’re living in. So second of all, I think we need to report racial incidents and classify them as hate crimes. We talked a little bit earlier about how important data is. And so it’s really critical for us to ensure that we don’t look away when that hate crimes happen that we do call out for what it is. And we fill out a report with law enforcement to really document that, we need to hold people accountable, such as Amy Cooper from the Central Park incident, or Mike Lofthouse, the tech CEO I was talking about, and really use the power of social media. And it’s also quite important for us to contribute to the Asian American nonprofit organizations as well as businesses. So for me, that’s something I’m very conscious of trying to do. And then last but not least, I think just staying positive focusing on what I can do, staying grateful to that everything is, everyone I know is safe and healthy. I really support my team, as I mentioned earlier, with empathy but really expand my mentorship to sponsorship, and to really create a voice for the wider community.
Christian Klepp 29:12
Right, those are some really great advice. Thank you so much for that. And yes, you’re absolutely right. It’s really important to stay positive, as we all know, it’s not always a very easy thing to do, especially under the current circumstances. Okay, we’re gonna shift from an extremely deep and heavy topic to one that’s a little bit lighter. Why don’t you, tell us or state the one best piece of advice that you’ve received from a mentor over the years and how does it apply to your professional life today?
Boon Lai 29:47
Yeah, I love this quote, I read somewhere around how you know, “when we change the way that we look at the world, world around us changes with us.” So it’s really about looking at things from different perspective. And you and I both know that having lived in many different countries, and working in both global and regional roles, that is really important for us to understand our team, our customers and our stakeholders, to really kind of share the shared experience, and also look at things in many different angles, so that we actually provide a much more holistic and comprehensive view. And so that’s what I always tries to do, right, which really to take on different perspectives and look at things in different point of view.
Boon Lai 30:30
And the second advice that I have is really to do what you love. One thing that was really interesting for me was that post my MBA in London Business School, I did a career switch. So I left marketing and I took on the job that is completely not in my wheelhouse, as a strategy manager reporting to the CFO, in a large multinational company. And the idea was to really broaden my strategic thinking. You know, taking MBAs that a life changing experience. I wanted to make the most out of it. But it was a great two years’ experience because I actually really, really hated that job. Mostly sitting in a room looking at a spreadsheet, and working on a gazillion M&A scenarios, on WACC, if anybody remembers that. And actually, that was a great learning experience because it actually made me realize what I’m really good at. And what I’m really passionate about. I know that I’m a people person, and that I’m a marketer at heart that I love learning and talking to people and insights and observing behaviors, using data and analytics to make decisions, looking at how you know through the work that I do can shift cultural perception. So while taking on this role that it’s not in my wheelhouse, it actually made me realize that I should really, you know, focus and double down on working in marketing. And then careers switch was the best decision because it made me really focus and actually helped to subsequently accelerate my career. I joined Philips post this strategy role to become the Global Head of Brand at Philips. And then within two years, I became one of the youngest VP appointed at the head of Philips. So I really thank that experience in my life, to kind of take away any self-doubt, and actually helped me to focus on my strengths.
Christian Klepp 32:32
Wow. That’s pretty much the only way I can react to that story. The youngest VP of marketing at Philips, I mean, that in itself is an incredible accomplishment. And I mean, if anybody took anything away from this interview, it’s ‘don’t let other people’s perception of you stop you from achieving your goals and your dreams.’ That’s as cliche as that sounds, but you’re living proof of that, Boon. And it’s an incredible story. And thank you for sharing that with our listeners.
Boon Lai 33:04
Christian Klepp 33:06
Boon, this has been an extremely insightful and thought-provoking session and that in itself even sounds like an understatement. But thank you so much for coming on and sharing. What’s the best way for people out there to connect with you?
Boon Lai 33:19
Well, first of all Christian. Thanks very much for the opportunity and for the great discussion. It feels really nice to be talking to an old friend again. For people out there listening, feel free to reach out to me, Boon Lai, via LinkedIn or on Twitter.
Christian Klepp 33:36
Great, Boon. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to have this conversation with me. It’s been interesting. It’s been fun. It’s been engaging, it’s been eye opening. So please take care. Stay safe. And best you in the family and I’ll talk to you soon.
Boon Lai 33:52
Thank you. Really enjoy. Bye.
Christian Klepp 33:54
Bye for now.
Christian Klepp 33:58
Thank you for joining us on this episode of the B2B Marketers on a Mission podcast. To learn more about what we do here EINBLICK, please visit our website at www.einblick.co and be sure to subscribe to the show on iTunes or your favorite podcast player.
REGISTER NOW FOR WEBINAR
How to Get a Meeting with Anyone