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In 2008 most of the world’s content was created with Adobe products—many publishers relied on Adobe software. But Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen recalls meeting with others who told him that Adobe wasn’t mission critical. Monetizing and marketing the content? Now those were mission-critical tasks, he recalled hearing.

“That was one of those aha moments where you look at it and [see that] the role of marketing can be different,” said Narayen, who recently spoke to Chicago Booth students as part of the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing’s Speaker Series.

Soon after those meetings, Adobe created a business model that bridged the gap between the creative, analytic, and marketing needs of its users. After expanding what it offered clients under Narayen, Adobe is now credited as a trailblazer in the booming digital marketing category. Today, millions of users subscribe to Adobe’s services, which include cloud-based creative, document, marketing and analytics tools. For many, Adobe has become mission critical.

Here are three key takeaways from Narayen’s chat at the Kilts Center, which was moderated by the Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing and Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow Sanjog Misra:

Become Comfortable with Uncertainty

Narayen said that when Adobe first announced its move to the cloud for its creative products, the company couldn’t be completely certain of all the cloud’s benefits and pitfalls. He thought they would have a better long-term product if they moved to the cloud, but no one truly knew—the technology was still so new. Years later, Adobe stands as a different kind of company in the digital media category, and the cloud has proven essential in its success.  

Adobe has found success by taking calculated risks, and Narayen said being comfortable with this kind of uncertainty is the hallmark of a leader. It’s rare that a team unanimously agrees on a decision and rarer still that a decision will mean surefire success. Leaders must be comfortable making decisions—even decisions that could be controversial—if they believe that the decision will ultimately help the business.

Think Like a Baseball Player

People often ask Narayen about failure and risk, he said. What ideas didn’t go as you’ve planned? “There’s so many of them,” he said. Wasn’t Adobe worried about moving to the cloud? He doesn’t look at it this way.

“My answer is you always learn something,” he said. “In baseball you can go to the Hall of Fame batting .300. You strike out seven times out of 10.”

Businesspeople are expected to always be right, he said, but nobody is infallible. Narayen has made investments that didn’t work, but he doesn’t dwell on them—he simply looks at them as a swing at bat, a chance to learn.

“As long as you get a few things right and you’re able to quickly learn from your failures, things will be OK,” he said.

Bolster Your Stories with Data

This next generation of storytelling is based in data, Narayen said, and it can help make companies faster and more decisive. With every business review, he asks about the story: What’s the narrative? What’s your instinct? What does the data say?

“Think of the marketing funnel from discover, to try, to buy, to use, and to renew,” he said. “If data underlies all of this, then you can deliver better products, and you can operate faster.”

To learn more about future events from the Kilts Center and engage with the Chicago Booth marketing community, connect with the Kilts Center on LinkedIn.

Hal Conick

Hal Conick


A laptop and different illustrated data elements (wave charts, a pie chart, and bar charts)

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