The CMO Files: Alan Cohen, Illumio

Get inside the minds of the world's top marketing professionals. In 20 questions we find out what they love most about their job... and what keeps them awake at night.

[image_library_tag 18adcdf1-527b-4122-ab42-e09ca32e6ade 131x161 alt="01-02-2017-alan-cohen-illumio" title="01-02-2017-alan-cohen-illumio - " width="131" height="161"class="left "]
Alan Cohen

 Organisation: Illumio

 Job title: Chief Commercial Officer

 Location: Sunnyvale, California, US


  1. Where were you born and raised?  
    I was born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, a few blocks from the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s hot dogs. I lived there until I was 16 and went to college.  
  2. What was your first job?  
    I was always working, even from a young age. I started working with my father in his catering business when I was under 10 — I would put toothpicks in the hors d'oeuvres and wrap trays of food; he would teach me how to figure out the gross margin of a delivery. My first tie and jacket job was with the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., where I was an analyst.
  3. What was the first product you got really excited about?
    From an IT perspective, it was my Leading Edge XT PC. It had one floppy drive and a 10MB hard drive. I wrote a master’s thesis on it and it changed my perspective on writing. From a consumer perspective, it was the Sony Walkman. Taking your music on the move was amazing.
  4. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
    Early on it was my brother who paved the way to my understanding that there are no obstacles to your achievements other than the limitations you impose on yourself — no matter how humble your background. You create yourself.
  5. What has been your greatest achievement?
    The companies that I have helped build sent a lot of kids to college and helped pay a lot of mortgages.
  6. What has been your biggest mistake?
    My mistakes have been around timing. I had a twisty road into tech and started in bigger companies. It took a while to understand how to build a market. My first startup built a brilliant 3G router when there were no 3G devices to take advantage of it. We were all dressed up with nowhere to go. It was a colossal fireball.
  7. What is your greatest strength?
    I am a classic right brain kind of person. Non-linear thinking is useful in the world of engineers – it helped differentiate me from the pack. My experience and track record is the contrarian evidence to Vinod Khosla’s ridiculous comments in about English majors.
  8. What is your biggest weakness?
    In the closing of Othello, the lead character says, “Say not that I loved wisely, but too well.” You need to be a passionate advocate of your product and team if you build a career in marketing, but that means you also must choose well. I have not always chosen perfectly, but I have gotten better in the past 15 years.
  9. What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?
    All too frequently, people see marketing as a discipline or series of sub-disciplines (positioning, demand generation, competitive, etc.). This is huge red flag. Marketers need to understand how customers relate to a product or the company from the first time someone hears about it, through the acquisition cycle, to how people experience the purchase over time. That is the role of a chief commercial officer versus a CMO.
  10. Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?
    Three descriptors that make me squirm are: thought leader, visionary and entrepreneurial. If someone describes him or herself that way, it is likely they are not.
  11. What makes you stressed?
    There are good and bad forms of stress. Stress is what keeps animals alive in the wilderness. When people do not do the best they can, that stresses me out.
  12. What do you do to relax?
    Long bike rides and high-intensity workouts are great day-to-day reducers of stress. Sitting in a glade of giant sequoias and breathing is magical, but I do not get to do that as often as I like.
  13. What is your favourite song?
    Anything by the Grateful Dead or Mozart
  14. Which book taught you most?
    Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning puts pretty much everything into perspective.
  15. Do you have a team or sport that you follow?
    I have been a devoted Oakland Raider and Golden State Warrior season ticket holder for over a decade. I did not just jump on the bandwagon.
  16. Which country would you like to work in?
    I would love to live in Copenhagen for a few years. The Danes must be the happiest people in the world.
  17. Which company do you think has the best marketing? You must answer this question over time versus in the moment (5 years ago you might have answered Apple, but maybe not so much anymore).
    I would say Disney. Disney is an experience brand as much as a product brand, and almost every Disney experience is fantastic. They hook you at very young age and keep you through life, even though you do not know many of their brands are Disney products (e.g., Miramax).
  18. What do you love most about your job?
    I get to reinvent it every day. There is no cookbook for what Illumio is doing.
  19. What is your favourite book?
    James Joyce’s Ulysses. It takes place over the course of one day and you see a historical slice of an entire city, country and culture in it. Imagine if you could experience your life like that every day?
  20. What keeps you awake at night?
    Very little keeps me up, but a lot wakes me up early in the morning (4:30-5:00 a.m.). I always feel like I am behind and there is more to do.