Mark Phibbs: Cisco’s chief change officer

APAC marketing boss for Cisco on his influences, ambitions for his company and why he thinks it's never been a better time to be a marketer.

Marketers often claim to have worked with inspirational people. Mark Phibbs, Cisco’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Asia-Pacific and Japan, can do much better than that. He once worked with a saint.

“I got to work with Mother Teresa in the House of the Dying,” says Phibbs, who went on a school trip to India while studying at Marist Brothers Eastwood in Sydney. “We worked with Mother Teresa in her house of the dying. Her whole thing was that people should be able to die with dignity. Rather than people dying alone on the streets in Calcutta, she took them into a hospice and gave them food and drink. Someone would sit with them in their last hours of life. I did that a number of times – it was pretty confronting for an 18-year-old.

“It taught me to be thankful for what I have. It taught me you only had one shot at this life so you should make an impact. It also taught me that if you’ve been successful and been lucky in life, you should give back.”

Sitting on the 24th floor of Cisco’s outstanding North Sydney office that overlooks Sydney Harbour and the CBD, Phibbs says he is grateful for all he has achieved in work and life. Right now, having only recently started work at Cisco after 11 years at Adobe, he feels particularly satisfied.

“I think there’s never been a better time to be in marketing,” he says. “For the first time in history, marketers can prove their ROI, and what return they’re making on the business.”

Singapore-based Phibbs says he was brought to Cisco to do one thing: increase the impact marketing has on one of the world’s biggest B2B technology companies. “We have a very smart team [at Cisco] but we can do so much more,” he says. “Not just developing demand but thinking through the whole pipeline process and taking leadership across inside sales – tracking campaigns from the top of the funnel to bottom.

“Then you can say ‘Give me $1 million of marketing and I’ll give you $6 million in revenue’. Then marketers become like CFOs. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s possible. I’ve seen it done at Adobe.”

Phibbs is happy to be a change agent. “Cisco is an incredible sales company – these people know what they’re doing,” he says. “This is a hugely successful business but they’re also open to adapting.

“Sometimes [businesses] say they’re open to change and then you find they’re not, but so far they seem very open to it. For example, we now have a working group between marketing, inside sales and sales, and I think that’s the new world. The world of marketing being in isolation, just trying to do stuff, is never going to work anymore.”

Early influences

Phibbs has always had a passion for the commercial world. For this, he credits his late father, Terry Phibbs. “My dad was in sales and marketing in the appliance industry – at Malleys and Whirlpool,” he says. “I suppose I grew up around the kitchen table hearing about his stuff and I was always fascinated by that.

"I've always looked up to Richard Branson and what he does from a Virgin point of view. That human, funny approach and building experiences around that brand have been core to its success. I think it's a lesson for anyone in any business."

Phibbs completed a Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology Sydney before starting his corporate career in IBM’s sales department. He has also had the chance to complete professional courses at many prestigious learning institutions, including the London Business School and Haas School of Business. In 2014-15 he gained a Marketing Academy Fellowship from the Marketing Academy in the UK.

“Marketers need to show leadership and they need to be brave. They really need to stand up for what they believe in.”

Before joining Cisco, Phibbs held marketing and leadership roles at Adobe, Microsoft and IBM, managing large teams across Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. The accomplished marketer is proud, however, to have started in sales. “If [marketers] have an opportunity [to work in sales], then I think it’s very valuable,” he says.

Phibbs knows Cisco has an entirely different corporate history and culture to Adobe, a creative tools business. But he says that regardless of a company's size or scope, marketers need to make difficult decisions about what they do – and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t do.

“Marketers need to show leadership and they need to be brave,” Phibbs says. “They really need to stand up for what they believe in. To be successful in this digital world, you’ve got to make some tough choices. You generally find the funding for it.

"Adobe talks about 75 per cent of its marketing spend in digital; Cisco is not at 75 per cent because we're not a B2C brand. It might be 50 per cent at some point. But how do you do that? You don't get it through extra budget. You get it by cutting event marketing, perhaps, or by cutting partner marketing, where it doesn't pay a great return. You still do events – events are important – but if you don't have a good structure, you don't have an assessment of what the ROI is on the event."

This is an example of what Phibbs calls "tick in the box" marketing; marketers might feel good about doing something but the business ends up receiving no trackable benefits. "What was the pipeline represented at the event? How much acceleration did you manage from the pipeline? What new pipeline did you generate? People just get attached to the way they do things. Marketing needs a scientific approach."

Cisco's future

At Cisco, Phibbs wants data to play a more significant role in decision-making while developing strategies to better "humanise" the brand. He wants all Cisco employees, particularly its executives, to be more active on social media. He also wants content to play a more prominent role in educating and enthralling customers.

“The challenge for marketing is not to do traditional boring stuff,” he says. “There’s even room for humour in B2B marketing because you’re dealing with humans, right?

“You’ve got to be genuine, and it’s got to be relevant and consistent with the brand. We’re doing more short, interesting videos that involve ‘What’s the impact of our technology on our customers’ business?’ because that’s when it really comes to life. These are very technical products, so you’ve got to make them real for people.”

Phibbs’s fundamental belief is that modern marketing is all about customer experience. “Thankfully, the world is seeing marketers as the ones who can really influence that,” he says. “Is the brand delighting them and exceeding their expectations? If it does that, you’re going to be more successful. It also keeps you in touch with customers because you can adapt your products and services over time.

As well as spreading his influence at Cisco, Phibbs is driven by a desire to make a difference outside of work. “I’m involved in a charity called Room to Read,” he says. “It’s an incredibly successful program about educating girls in the developing world – helping build libraries and schools. That’s my way of getting involved in something worthwhile and a passion.”

Mother Teresa would be proud.

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