Ask the expert: How to land a Martech partnership (for the long-run)

An interview with Philip Wright, formerly of Hilton

It’s a jungle out there!

For every major global brand, there are hundreds of Martech providers promising them the earth – faster, cheaper, more robust solutions than ever before.

Whether it’s advertising and promotion, commerce and sales, content and experience, data, management, or social and relationships, Martech specialists are all pitching for a piece of the brand pie.

With 18 brands, 978,000+ rooms in 6,000+ properties across 118 countries, Hilton is arguably the largest full-service hotel brand on the planet. As such, it isn’t exactly short of offers from ambitious Martech providers – from London to Los Angeles.

Phrasee connected with Philip Wright, former Senior Director Customer Engagement Platforms: Data. Having spent eight years at Hilton, most recently reporting to the Global Head of Customer Platforms, Philip was responsible for (among other things) “owning the transformation and future strategy of the new data platform.”

Philip talked to us about the inherent risks involved in onboarding a new Martech partner, the rationale for Hilton selecting Phrasee and the most effective ways to maintain a long-term partnership.

“Subject line performance quickly educated us in understanding how certain brand language could be adapted to include specific terms that were previously believed not to be a good fit.”

Philip Wright

Here’s what Philip had to say…

Phrasee: Hilton is steeped in more than 100 years of history. Having previously worked for this global brand, which is also an iconic household name, what was your most common experience as a marketer when you were there? 

Philip: At Hilton, everyone gets a chance to see the annual Martech Landscape infographic at some point.

Working in global enterprises, and specifically in the technology and marketing departments, it often felt like all of these companies in the infographic were trying to get:

a) a “15-minute (never 15 minutes)” introduction;

b) a connection at a conference; or

c) a follow-up to a random piece of office stationery with their brand emblazoned on it – asking if we liked it (mostly, we didn’t!).

Phrasee: Given that Hilton is synonymous with hotels, the company’s brand equity is almost second-to-none, which is beneficial to any company affiliated with it. How were you able to discern when a company solely wanted to have Hilton as a client for self-serving purposes? What were the tell-tale signs?

Philip: While reviewing multiple proofs of concept, requests for proposals and partner engagements during my time at Hilton, it was clear that, more often than not, a partner found it more important to have Hilton on its client roster for future revenue growth and sales opportunities rather than to make our company more efficient, more effective and more successful.

Oftentimes, you can see the tell-tale signs when you start to negotiate. When attempting to meet the necessary legal demands of global enterprises such as Hilton, snippets of information are extracted from partners about the actual size of the company and internal limitations.

Phrasee: Onboarding a new Martech partner – particularly at such an established brand – can be fraught with difficulties. What were some of the intrinsic risks involved?

Philip: Even though budgets may be in the millions at some organizations, the resource availability and processes required to onboard new Martech partners can be limited in global enterprises. This is due to the complexities of ensuring that any new partner will not put the brand at risk at any stage.

Between IT security assessments, legal liability assessments, endorsement policies, business cases, steering committees and governance reviews, you have to be committed to knowing that the new partner will be worth the effort. Otherwise, it could adversely affect your internal reputation. It could also undermine any confidence that senior management had in you to finish the transformation journey you started.

“ have to be committed to knowing that the new partner will be worth the effort. Otherwise, it could adversely affect your internal reputation.”

Philip Wright

Phrasee: The year 2017 marked the start of the Hilton-Phrasee partnership. How exactly did the relationship come about?

Philip: One day, an internal colleague was referred to Phrasee. At that time, I was looking at data and solutions across Hilton’s global enterprise. My task was not to understand how we could transform the entire department, but rather how we could, firstly, make incremental gains, secondly, be at the forefront of AI across existing technology platforms and, lastly, to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

I attended a breakfast demo where I got to see Parry – in full presentation mode – explaining the myths of AI and showcasing the simple, but brilliant, platform that Phrasee had built. It was also exciting to me that there was no exchange of third-party data and therefore easy to onboard. I was immediately hooked and knew this would be a significant win for our global capabilities.

Phrasee: Phrasee has worked on multiple Hilton campaigns, which have significantly improved the brand’s email subject lines and push notifications. Did having Phrasee as a Martech partner have any unexpected benefits for Hilton? If so, what were they?

Philip: Phrasee also helped Hilton embark on an education and awareness journey around what AI is and how it is empowering human endeavors across all industries and facets of human life.

From Hilton’s executive leadership to the teams at the hotel, a continuous theme of understanding AI, educational webinars and training was developed, which created a deeper connection to Phrasee and allowed Hilton to embrace the platform on a more global scale.

Internally, we created a global buzz around our engagement with Phrasee, which is not always easy for a global company with so many international, national, regional and team objectives that may limit the time people have available to adapt to new opportunities.

Phrasee: Despite AI’s prevalence in everything from copywriting to customer service, some business leaders are still nervous about investing in AI to represent their brands. How did you manage to get the buy-in of senior management?

Philip: Before we got into specific negotiations with Phrasee, I wanted to understand our team’s position on subject line technology. I was shocked to discover that we had already unsuccessfully trialed a subject line proof of concept with a different company. This knocked me back a bit because I knew that it might be difficult to integrate Phrasee’s platform into the team – especially considering the negative consequences of the previous experience.

Fortunately, feedback on the prior vendor’s technology, such as “it made our jobs harder”, “it was too complicated”, “it wasn’t very flexible”, and “navigation was tricky” meant that I could sell Phrasee to the team and ensure that it was invested in, and embraced, globally. This is simply because I was confident that Phrasee didn’t have any of these glaring deficiencies.

Phrasee: This question is about relationship management. According to the late Peter Drucker, the inventor of ‘management by objective,’ “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” How did Hilton measure the success of its Martech partnership with Phrasee?

Philip: KPIs were set for our engagement across the pilot and ongoing commercial agreement, the main one being “Were the AI-generated subject lines always outperforming our human-generated ones?” Whilst the answer was always a resounding “yes”, we also identified new insights into customer behaviors that weren’t easily identifiable previously.

Subject line performance quickly educated us in understanding how certain brand language could be adapted to include specific terms that were previously believed not to be a good fit. We also constantly canvassed our internal teams, posing questions like “How can we improve efficiencies?” “Can we integrate with our email service provider better?” “Do we need to go deeper on an algorithm to extract more value?”

“Phrasee also helped Hilton embark on an education and awareness journey around what AI is and how it is empowering human endeavors across all industries and facets of human life.”

Philip Wright

Phrasee: In business, even the most compatible partners are never guaranteed success. What steps (if any) did Hilton take to improve the prospects of its partnership with Phrasee?

Philip: It was important for us to identify an “internal champion” for the partnership. We needed someone who had specific commercial KPIs in mind and end-of-year goals attributed to its performance. We needed someone who woke up, every day, knowing that they had to sing about the relationship from the rooftops!

This underpinned our global objectives and enabled Hilton and Phrasee to become more aligned as partners on a day-to-day basis. In hindsight, this was a critical factor in the success of Hilton’s engagement with Phrasee.

Phrasee: Based on your experience of the Hilton-Phrasee partnership, what are some of the most effective ways for brands to develop and nurture a successful, long-term relationship with a Martech partner?

Philip: In addition to identifying and using an internal champion, I believe it’s critical for your Martech partner to understand your brand’s annual objectives and monthly/quarterly performance. They need to know enough to allow them to pivot quickly, support the enterprise needs and allow them to be flexible without having to consult the contract after every review or engagement.

It’s also important that the partnership isn’t owned and operated on an island (metaphorically speaking!). Make the necessary strategic introductions across the enterprise and allow for relationships to grow. This not only helps to build your personal brand and networking capability, but it can also be justified on the basis that the partner embeds a deeper knowledge of global cultures, leadership and markets, which can be tweaked according to the service offering.

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