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Ariel Kelman, Oracle CMO, On Leading Start-Ups, Industry Titans and Everything In Between


What do you do after launching a start-up just a few years out of college? If you’re Ariel Kelman, you go on to hold leadership roles at industry giants Salesforce, Amazon, and Oracle.

Currently CMO of Oracle, Ariel previously served as VP of Worldwide Marketing for Amazon Web Services and VP Platform Product Marketing for Salesforce. His combination of technical, sales, and marketing experience gives him a unique perspective and edge.

Growing up in the early days of home computing, Ariel toyed around with programming on his Apple II Plus. After graduating from Cal, he landed a job as a sales engineer at Microstrategy, building data warehouse prototypes and custom demos. As is often the case with sales engineering roles, he also ended up spending a lot of time helping sales reps customize their presentations and proposals. That experience triggered a eureka moment and his start-up idea: create software to link and reassemble content into customized sales material.

While a great idea, the start-up – Ventaso – ultimately failed.

We raised $65 million, grew the company to 125 people, and signed EDS and FedEx. Salespeople loved our product, but we were automating a business process that didn’t exist.

Though his idea didn’t gain traction in the market, Ariel knew what salespeople needed to sell more effectively. So, he jumped at the chance to take on a role at Salesforce helping improve the sales team’s effectiveness in selling to IT departments vs. their typical comfort zone of selling to other sales people. “Marc Benioff gave us an effective litmus test for gauging how well we were differentiating: Would this messaging still work if you replaced the Salesforce name with a competitor’s? If so it’s no good.”

At Amazon, Ariel learned Jeff Bezos’ concept of mechanisms as a management tool. “Jeff believes you can’t rely on people’s good intentions because problems occur in spite of them. I encourage people to think about how we can fix a problem in a systematic way, so we’re not relying on people to compensate.”

Now at Oracle, Ariel walks the halls with another legendary CEO: Larry Ellison. “Larry’s view is that marketing is too important now to be decentralized. He brought me on to create the marketing organization that will take the company through the next 10 to 20 years.”

Running an organization of 1,800 people at Oracle, Ariel has his work cut out for him – and is up for the challenge. “The way people buy technology has changed massively in the last 20 years, and a lot of those changes require you to be good at marketing. In contrast to the past when most customers learned about your products through your salespeople, today, customers will learn 10X more from online sources like your website than they learn from your sales people. In this world that we all live in today, being truly great at digital communications is not something that’s optional.

Ariel’s playbook for getting an organization focused and on the right track:

  • Embrace the plain English imperative. Ariel believes in using the clearest, simplest language possible in marketing.
  • Share your priorities through a clear list of goals and share status on a regular basis with everyone. To keep everyone on the marketing team aligned the relative priorities of all the different things his dozens of teams are working on, Ariel comes up with a list of the top 50 priorities with clear owners.
  • Be transparent. Ariel tells everyone what is — and isn’t — working.