In Good Company

In Good Company: For Cisco's Karen Walker, there has never been a better time

The network is key as digital world shifts to embrace the 'Internet of everything'

In May last year, the airwaves, Internet and traditional media outlets such as newspapers and magazines were plastered with video clips and advertisements from Cisco bearing the theme "There has never been a better time".

Rolled out near-simultaneously in 42 countries and 86 languages, it was the first time the world's premier networking company had thought of a marketing campaign globally, rather than merely looking out from its Silicon Valley moorings. Partner companies were brought into the campaign, which involved a series of stories that promoted the merits of the networked world.

One of the most successful pieces was centred on rhinos and involved a Cisco partner, Johannesburg-based Dimension Data. Thousands of the animals were brought to a reserve and electronically tagged, the rangers in the region connected to a network. Not a single rhino was lost to poachers in three years.

The sign off? There has never been a better time to save a species!

The brain behind the campaign was British-born Karen Walker, Cisco's senior vice-president and chief of marketing, considered one of the most influential women in her field.

"We were the first business company to trend globally on Twitter," the 56-year-old Ms Walker told me recently. "I said: 'My kids would be proud of me'."

Ms Karen Walker considers Singapore a special place, not just because her younger son was born here, but also because she always gains new ideas from the Cisco team here.
Ms Karen Walker considers Singapore a special place, not just because her younger son was born here, but also because she always gains new ideas from the Cisco team here. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Cisco - the name is derived from the city of San Francisco, and its logo designed to draw a connection to the Golden Gate Bridge - is in a unique spot in the evolving landscape of digital transformation.

That's because everything, from the Cloud to mobility and the Internet of Things (Cisco used to call it "Internet of everything"), is centred on the network. And no other network company comes even close to its size and scope. Last week, Cisco announced a full-year turnover of US$48 billion (S$64.5 billion).

More recently, Cisco launched another campaign based on story-telling, called the Network Intuitive, which features the network as a hero. "Intuitive" because Cisco believes the network can have very personal and human qualities.

"It's as we say about women's intuition," says Ms Walker. "They kind of know what's going to happen, able to anticipate. Likewise, the network is constantly learning and adapting. So, it is time to think about the network as a living, breathing thing."

The two ad campaigns were evidently hugely successful, adding some US$6 billion in value to the Cisco brand.

"Our brand value is over $30 billion, and on Interbrand we've moved up to No. 16 in global brands," says Ms Walker, who was promoted to her current role in June 2015. "And that list includes consumer brands such as Apple, Google and Facebook. We are pretty proud of that. If your brand is strong, people will buy your products without consulting others."

Once a switching company, Cisco has evolved over the years. Its series of acquisitions - some of it specialised software companies - underscore the transformation. From a pure hardware company that had an operating system on top of it, Cisco sees itself as both a hardware and a so-called SAS company - software as service.

Still, the focus on networking and security remains. Uber and Airbnb, Ms Walker points out, transformed the cab and hotel industries. Their success rides on the network and security that underpin the technology.

"Now, if you think of the Internet of Things and all the billions of sensors, you see how things are tied back to the network. It is going to be really important."

  • Fast facts about...

  • THE EXECUTIVE

    Karen Walker is the senior vice-president and chief marketing officer (CMO) at Cisco.

    She is 56 years old. Previously at Cisco, she was senior vice-president of Segment, Services, and Partner Marketing. She joined Cisco from Hewlett-Packard, where she held business and consumer leadership positions, including vice-president of Alliances and Marketing for HP Services and vice-president of Strategy and Marketing for both the Consumer Digital Entertainment and Personal Systems groups.

    She's been named as one of the 50 Most Innovative CMOs in the world by the editors at Business Insider for 2016.

    A mother of two boys and a girl, she was born in Scotland and holds a bachelor of science degree with joint honours in chemistry and business studies from Loughborough University in England. She is married to Mr Richard Walker, a CEO and entrepreneur.

  • THE COMPANY

    Cisco Systems Inc is the largest networking company in the world, with annual turnover of US$48 billion (S$65 billion). It has more than 73,000 employees worldwide. The technology conglomerate is headquartered in San Jose, California.

    Through its numerous acquired subsidiaries, such as OpenDNS, WebEx, Jabber and Jasper, Cisco specialises in specific tech markets, such as Internet of Things and domain security.

Companies like Cisco are having to adapt to another trend, this time within their clients' offices.

Information technology used to be a function that resided with a chief technology officer. But today, as the digital world speeds along, IT is moving into lines of business, with heads of verticals given more autonomy to pick the technology that best suits the purpose.

This has implications for vendors. Cisco and its partners, Ms Walker says, find themselves spending more time talking to the lines of business. They also increasingly help the chief information officer build an architecture that pulls all the pieces together.

"You are selling a solution, so it is more complex and takes longer," she says, explaining the downside. "But it shifts us from being a vendor to a much more strategic partner. There's never been a better time to embrace it."

The Internet of Things used to be primarily about machines and data. But today, it is moving to embrace people and processes. Cisco, for instance, sees governments as big customers, hence its programme called Country Digitisation.

Earlier this year, in Dubai, I heard Cisco executive chairman John Chambers spend 10 minutes of a 15-minute presentation lauding the initiatives in that direction launched by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Which industries are most critically poised for digital transformation? In Cisco's assessment, financial services and retail top the list. What about the human being himself? Would we all need to be loaded up with sensors and turn out to be something rather robotic?

"We had a top scientist in at a conference three weeks ago and we asked him whether people would start preferring to work for robots rather than human beings," Ms Walker says. "The answer was, while robots would probably be more logical and rational, the human will still be able to think strategically, with all his faults."

In her own field, much more of the grunt work in marketing is now done digitally-"A human should come to the party when the customer needs something that is not available online."

The football-loving Ms Walker - she is a Sunderland fan - began her career in a back office function in England with Hewlett-Packard (HP), the world's top computer company at the time. Of humble upbringing - her parents ran an orphanage for a while and her father-in-law was a Fifa referee - she says her parents thought HP was a ketchup company when she announced that she had been hired.

AN INTUITIVE NETWORK

It's as we say about women's intuition. They kind of know what's going to happen, able to anticipate. Likewise, the network is constantly learning and adapting. So, it is time to think about the network as a living, breathing thing.

KAREN WALKER, on Cisco's belief that the network can have very human qualities.

At age 25, she moved to the United States with her future husband, Mr Richard Walker, who would rise to be a company chief executive officer himself subsequently. Working her way up in HP, she got transferred to Singapore in 1991, eventually leaving the firm in 2009 as vice-president of marketing for the Americas in the Technology Systems Group.

She reminisces about the five happy years she spent in Singapore. The second of her sons was born on the island and he recently returned to visit the land of his birth.

"He went to see Mount Elizabeth Hospital and came back saying 'Mom, it isn't a hospital, it is a hotel!'," laughs Ms Walker.

Singapore, she says, is "very special for me" in other ways as well. A Cisco innovation centre is now based on the island, one of a handful worldwide.

"Every time I visit, I come away with new ideas because the team here looks at things very differently. Our products are very well-manufactured, but some of them are built for an air-conditioned environment. They are very stable for North America and Europe. But if you are going to create tech for India, it is probably going to be sitting outside a shop with a tarpaulin overhead. So, you have to think and design products more attuned to the developing world, with a different price point."

That is the kind of insight that has caused Cisco to move on what she describes as "global decentralisation". In marketing, which she heads, more and more resources are being moved out of headquarters and closer to markets. Most of the recent recruitment in her own division has been in places like Australia and China. This allows Cisco, where 70 per cent of business is concentrated in 11 markets, to be more agile.

Ms Walker remains intensely proud of Hewlett-Packard, her first employer. Indeed, she considers herself fortunate to have spent years with the company when the legendary "HP Way", with its policies of empowering executives and encouraging innovation, was in full swing.

She says she sees in Cisco shades of what used to make HP so special. Cisco's Mr Chambers, in his years as CEO, used to have a policy that newly joined senior executives had to introduce themselves at the town halls he held frequently for management.

"When I said I am Karen Walker and I just joined from HP, John's response was 'Welcome home!' and he was so right," she says. "At Cisco, we often say we are HP South."

The problem with living in the networked world is that there are few secrets left in the world. Researching Cisco insider trades, I discovered that Ms Walker sold some Cisco stock not so long ago.

If Cisco's got so much promise, why has she been selling? Ms Walker broke into a peal of laughter.

"I have three kids who are on my payroll doing PhDs or masters degrees," she says. "Besides, we just remodelled our house in Los Altos, California after 21 years. I am actually bummed that I had to sell the stock since it has been up since."

She doesn't say it out loud, but the inference is clear: There's never been a better time to hold Cisco stock.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'For Cisco's Walker, there has never been a better time'. Print Edition | Subscribe