In this series, we dig deeper into the stories of our expert contributors. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
As founder and CEO of marketing technology management platform CabinetM, as a writer and keynote speaker, and as a tireless evangelist for the well-constructed marketing stack, Anita Brearton is one of the most familiar faces in the martech space. She’s also a MarTech contributor.
Q: Before founding CabinetM in 2014, you had a career as a marketer. How did that come about?
A: Not very strategically. I was working in engineering for a high tech company and realized that growth within that company, in an engineering role, was not going to be available to me. I didn’t have an engineering degree. So very cockily, as a 25-year old, when the president of the company asked what I’d like to do next, I said “I’d like to move into marketing.”
He asked why I thought I’d be any good at marketing and my answer was: “How hard can it be?” In hindsight, it was crazy. It was a 1500 person company, a public company, and they said to me “Go figure it out.” It was a crash course in learning.
Q: You went on to a series of leadership roles in marketing for various companies. Did that all happen quite quickly?
A: It did. I ended up moving to Australia and had planned to leave that company and get a different job out there. The day before I left, the chairman of the board called me and said, “We don’t have a marketing presence in the Asia-Pacific. Do you want to take that on?” So I did. Another steep learning curve, learning about channel marketing and working with 13 different countries.
When I came back to the States, everything happened really quickly. I went into Cascade Communications, a high-flying company that had gone public six months earlier; I was brought in to make their marketing positioning clearer. From there I went to Sycamore Networks as the twenty-ninth employee and positioned the company, did the marketing strategy and we went public 18 months later, then the twenty-fifth biggest IPO in NASDAQ history.
Eventually I stepped away from that world, did a little consulting for other high-tech startups, then took a right turn and went into angel investing; I ended up running a chapter of an angel investment group called Golden Seeds for a couple of years. [Editor’s note: Golden Seeds invests in women-led ventures and offers women entrepreneurs strategic business advice.]
Then Sheryl and I got together. She’d been investing in martech companies while I’d been experiencing the pain of figuring out how to use the martech — and from that, CabinetM was born.
Q: Did you meet Sheryl Schultz, your CabinetM co-founder, president and COO, in the investment space?
A: No, I met her before that. People started bringing us together on advisory boards. We ended up having to travel to this one specific advisory board and so we started spending days together. When I went into the angel investing world, I pulled her in alongside me.
Q: How did the idea for CabinetM germinate?
A: Back when we started CabinetM, I think the common wisdom was that there were about 500 to 1,000 martech tools. Scott Brinker’s landscape, at that point, had about 750 on it. I’d seen how hard it was for my teams to figure out what to use. So the original idea was to create a marketplace where we could expose all this technology, because at the time there weren’t really any directories. Scott’s diagram was useful but it didn’t really dive down — at the time.
So we began by building a database, manually, and — naive us — we thought if we got to 500 products we’d be in really great shape. Here we are, several years later, and we’re at 15,000 and still adding 100-plus per month. It’s really crazy.
As we talked to people, they said to us, yes, finding technology is challenging, but figuring out what we’ve got and managing it is a bigger problem. And the stack is only getting more complex.
Q: Talk about the current state of play in martech.
A: There are two big things happening. One, the pace of innovation just continues to go crazy. Also, the lines between tech and content are becoming very blurred with generative AI. We go through a period where we accept that these are the market leaders, these big platform guys. Those form the core of your stack. But now we’re in this crazy period of innovation with AI and it is not a given that those are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Q: So many marketing tech solutions have some kind of AI baked in. How is CabinetM dealing with AI as a category?
A: That’s one of the things that we’ve grappled with. We now have a category in our database of generative AI products. Is anybody really writing an RFP or a proposal for AI? In the case of generative AI I think they are. But for other products, leveraging AI just for the sheer scale of crunching data, then you’re not leading with, I need an AI-driven x — an AI-driven data warehouse, for example. Where we’ve come to is, we always ask ourselves “Is this enabled by AI and is AI critical to its function?” If the answer is no, it stays in its original category.
We’re heading into turbulent times, with marketing operations being constrained because of worries about the economy. Companies are freezing budgets and at the same time marketing organizations don’t have a handle on all the technology they’re using and can’t easily articulate the value of that technology.
If you can say, this technology is critical to aquiring, engaging and retaining customers — we can’t lose this technology — will that get you further? I don’t know, but I suspect it might.
Q: Next year will be the tenth anniversary of CabinetM.
A: It’s terrifying to think it’s gone so quickly! Tik-Tok didn’t exist when we started; CDP was a tiny category; people were not talking about ABM; they were talking about AI, but not so much in real world applications.
Also, for ten years people have been talking about this industry consolidating. It’s only gotten bigger.
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