11 Marc Benioff protégés turned CMOs detail the top lessons they learned at Salesforce and how they're applying them at firms like AWS, Confluent, and Twilio


This article was originally featured on Insider.

Salesforce's CEO and cofounder, Marc Benioff, is praised by many as a marketing and sales genius. Under his influence, the cloud-based-software company has gained a reputation as a marketing machine, as well as a training ground for rising CMOs.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. Salesforce

One reason is that Benioff is known to use any opportunity as a marketing move, including turning earnings calls into sales pitches. In one memorable example, he lured press and attendees from his rival Oracle's annual conference to his own pop-up keynote at a nearby restaurant, which he spontaneously planned after being bumped from the Oracle speaker lineup. "Sorry Larry, the cloud can't be stopped," he said in a press release at the time.

Additionally, Benioff isn't shy about voicing his beliefs. He often talks about companies' responsibility to tackle social issues and says business is the biggest platform for change. He's taken a stand on issues including LGBTQ rights, homelessness, and the climate crisis. Taking his lead, Salesforce is vocal about its corporate values, and it permeates every aspect of its marketing.

Salesforce also regularly uses splashy events — like its annual Dreamforce conference — to share news and highlight customer stories. It also focuses marketing on its community of "Trailblazers," who are dedicated Salesforce users at customer and partner organizations.

With this background, over a dozen Salesforce marketing executives have gone on to become CMOs of other high-growth cloud companies. This includes former Salesforce CMO Stephanie Buscemi going to Confluent, which had a successful initial public offering earlier this year. There's also Rachel Thornton, who ran Dreamforce during her time at Salesforce and is now the CMO of AWS.

"These are like game-changing companies," said Kraig Swensrud, a former Salesforce CMO who is now CEO of the sales startup Qualified. "And this set of marketing leaders, we were all trained kind of in the Salesforce way."

Insider spoke with alumni from Salesforce's marketing department who went on to become cloud CMOs about what they learned from Benioff and how it informed their latest jobs. All interviews were conducted via email.

Here's what 11 cloud CMOs who are Salesforce alumni said:

Rachel Thornton, VP and CMO of global marketing for AWS

Rachel Thorton AWS CMO
Thornton. AWS

Currently: Vice president and chief marketing officer of global marketing for AWS, the market-leading cloud provider from Amazon

At Salesforce: Thornton held two VP positions, overseeing Dreamforce and marketing for the US and other regions. She also worked in field marketing and product marketing for Salesforce Service Cloud.

Thornton told Insider that working as the head of Salesforce's largest customer conference and biggest marketing event taught her how to tackle everything with a customer-first mindset. She also credited Benioff with showing her the importance of leading with empathy and understanding.

"Something Marc really drives home with his leaders, starting from the top down, is the idea of 'emotional agility' and the fact that empathy and understanding need to drive everything Salesforce does in business," Thornton said. "Amazon's culture is similar in a lot of ways — we have a Leadership Principle to be Earth's Best Employer."

Stephanie Buscemi, Confluent CMO

Stephanie Buscemi
Buscemi. Salesforce

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the open-source cloud-software company Confluent, which went public in June and now boasts a $21 billion market cap

At Salesforce: Buscemi held several positions in her more than six years at the company including CMO, chief operating officer of Analytics Cloud, and executive vice president of product and solutions marketing.

Buscemi was Salesforce's CMO for almost three years before leaving in January to join Confluent in the same role. She told Insider her biggest takeaway from her run at Salesforce, including her time running the entire marketing org, was to prioritize the customers.

"Marc's maniacal focus on customer love and customer success has been ingrained in me, and that ethos carries on in my current role at Confluent," Buscemi said. "He always says 'Our customers' success is our success.'"

She said in her role at Confluent, earning customers' love was her team's "guiding light."

Kyle Christensen, Zuora CMO

Zuora CMO Kyle Christensen
Christensen. Zuora

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the $2.8 billion Zuora, which provides enterprise software for managing subscription services

At Salesforce: Christensen worked in several product-marketing roles, including for Data.com and Service Cloud.

He started his marketing career at Salesforce while completing an MBA, not realizing at the time that he was in one of the most strategic roles in tech. His most valuable takeaway, he said, was that company positioning is everything.

"It's about figuring out when to pick the right fight against your competition," Christensen told Insider. "With Salesforce, that fight was simple: on premise versus the cloud. It also meant connecting the problem you're solving beyond your company to a larger macro trend. Salesforce could have just been about CRM, but they went bigger to eliminate software completely."

This now informs his role at Zuora, as the company positions itself to be an all-in-one system to help manage software subscriptions, he said.

Sara Varni, Twilio CMO

Sara Varni Twilio CMO
Varni. Twilio

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the $54 billion API company Twilio

At Salesforce: Varni held six marketing positions in her almost 11 years at the company, including senior vice president of marketing for Sales Cloud.

Varni told Insider her love of marketing went all the way back to her childhood when she would run marketing campaigns for student council and memorize radio jingles. At Salesforce, she said, she learned the importance of staying ahead of the market.

"Marc was always five years ahead of the market and constantly pushed us to think about what the intersection was between Salesforce relevance and global relevance whether that was cloud, social, mobile, or AI," she told Insider.

That informed how she helped Twilio market its new customer-engagement platform announced last month.

"As marketers at Salesforce, we were motivated to build events, content, and campaigns that really challenged the status quo," she said.

Anna Rosenman, Automation Anywhere CMO

Anna Rosenman Automation Anywhere CMO
Rosenman. Automantion Anywhere

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the SoftBank-backed Automation Anywhere, which offers cloud-native robotics software and is rumored to be gearing up for an initial public offering

At Salesforce: Rosenman helped lead product marketing for Salesforce's Commerce and Experience Clouds as vice president and then senior vice president. She joined in 2011 to lead marketing for the company's chat product, Chatter.

Rosenman was a consultant before shifting to marketing while doing her MBA. Overall, she told Insider the biggest lesson she learned from Salesforce and Benioff was to "prioritize customers to ensure their success, and always place them at the heart of the business."

She said she's following this in her current role by spending time with customers to understand the business processes they're trying to automate and how they'd deployed automation thus far. She's also seeking to learn form their ingenuity and encouraging them to tell their stories.

Rosenman added that Salesforce also taught her the importance of measuring success along the metrics that matter, a lesson she says she's implementing at her new organization.

Scott Holden, ThoughtSpot CMO

Scott Holden Thoughtspot CMO
Holden. ThoughtSpot

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the $4.2 billion data-analytics startup ThoughtSpot

At Salesforce: Holden held several roles during his seven years at the company, including vice president of marketing for Salesforce Platform.

Holden had stints in investment banking and logistics before joining Salesforce in 2007 for his first-ever marketing job. He told Insider a few key lessons during his tenure: think big, focus on tactics over strategy, don't let the competition push you around, use events to drive alignment, and focus on the customer.

"Benioff was never satisfied, and he never wanted us to be either," Holden said. "But it wasn't just about having a big vision but making it tangible. Salesforce taught me the power of being bold and to push myself to think bigger."

He also learned from Salesforce's use of events, especially to drive alignment both internally and outside the company. He described Beyond, ThoughtSpot's coming annual conference, as "a moment to rally all of ThoughtSpot, not just showcase what we're working on externally."

Kathie Johnson, Talkdesk CMO

Kathie Johnson Talkdesk CMO
Johnson. TalkDesk

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the cloud-based customer-service company Talkdesk, which is valued at over $10 billion

At Salesforce: Johnson joined the company as its head of industry marketing, later moving up to become a vice president and then senior vice president.

Salesforce was Johnson's first foray into software marketing, and she told Insider it taught her the importance of leading with values and contributing to the community.

"Marc Benioff has set the standard proving that companies can do good and do well concurrently," Johnson said.

Using Salesforce's model, she helped Talkdesk implement values to guide it. She also helped launch employee-resource groups and a volunteer-time-off program similar to Salesforce's.

The other lesson she said she learned from Salesforce was its unique planning process, called V2MOM, for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and Metrics. She implemented a similar process at Talkdesk.

Jason McClelland, Algolia CMO

Jason McClelland Algolia CMO
McClelland. Algolia

Currently: Chief marketing officer of the search startup Algolia, which recently quadrupled its valuation to $2.25 billion

At Salesforce: McClelland led marketing for Heroku, a company Salesforce acquired in 2010.

McClelland started his career as a developer and worked on product at Adobe before pivoting to sales and marketing. His biggest takeaway from his three years at Salesforce, he told Insider, was the way the company presented itself.

"Marc prioritized growth and owning every area of the market over all else," McClelland said. "His willingness to spend in order to ensure complete carpeting of any given segment has made it really hard for competitors like Adobe and Microsoft to compete — Salesforce just looks and feels 'bigger' even if they're only slightly bigger."

He also learned from Benioff's ability to use everything as a marketing opportunity, citing the time Benioff was bumped from Oracle's OpenWorld conference and proceeded to throw his own keynote at a nearby restaurant.

Following what he learned at Salesforce, McClelland said, he now always looks "for ways to make my customers the 'Hero' and to tell my customer's story."

"No one cares about how good I think my software is," he said. "People want to hear how people like them are finding success."

Lauren Vaccarello, former Talend CMO

Lauren Vaccarello former Talend CMO
Vaccarello. Talend

Recently: Chief marketing officer at the open-source data-integration platform Talend — which has a market cap of $2.17 billion — before moving on in October

At Salesforce: Vaccarello ran digital marketing during her four years at Salesforce, also working on other projects including a Super Bowl ad, SMB marketing, and content tracks for Dreamforce.

She started her career as a digital marketer in the early 2000s, "long before digital marketing was a socially acceptable profession," she said. She credits Benioff and George Hu, the former Salesforce chief operating officer, with shaping her career as a marketing leader.

"They pushed for excellence in everything," she told Insider. "George instilled an absolute rigor for data. I had to know my business inside and out and how what I did impact the rest of Salesforce."

She also credited Salesforce's passion for customer relationships and family values with helping her "learn how to hire smart people, set a clear vision, and help them realize anything is possible."

Lindsey Irvine, Benchling CMO

Lindsey Irvine Benchling CMO
Irvine. Benchling

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the $4 billion research-and-development startup Benchling

At Salesforce: Irvine worked across various Salesforce marketing departments over eight years, including industries marketing, global go-to-market strategy for Internet of Things, and MuleSoft. Once Salesforce acquired MuleSoft in 2018, she became chief operating officer for Mulesoft and then its marketing chief.

Irvine told Insider she learned several lessons from Benioff, among them "the power of prioritization and alignment, always put customers first, be a great storyteller, go beyond the business, and lead with values."

She says at Benchling, which specializes in software for R&D teams in the life sciences and healthcare fields, she's using those lessons to shape the way she approaches her job.

"The opportunity to put our customers front and center, give voice to their work and impact, and share how modern R&D technology can help the biotech industry get breakthrough products to market faster is incredibly exciting, and important as we look to advance the pace of scientific discovery," she said.

Isabelle Guis, Commvault CMO

Isabelle Guis Commvault CMO
Guis. Commvault

Currently: Chief marketing officer at the $3 billion data-management company Commvault

At Salesforce: Guis served as vice president of product marketing for Sales Cloud. During her two years at Salesforce, she said, she saw Benioff use unique tactics to create a customer-centric mindset in the company. For instance, he would do a dry run of his Dreamforce keynote for customers and then incorporate their feedback into his final presentation.

"Marc's mindset created a customer-centric culture that fostered the design of great products," Guis told Insider. "It also built a strong user community, leading our customers to serve as Salesforce advocates and promoters not just at their current organizations, but at other organizations when they left for new career opportunities. It created customers who are loyal and proud to be 'Salesforce certified.'"

Now, she's employing those same tactics at Commvault. For instance, Guis says, she pushes her marketing team to partner with other organizations across the company when planning marketing campaigns. The marketing, sales, product, partner, and other teams all contributed to planning the experience for the company's recent customer event.

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