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Digital marketing is going to be the next big thing........

One’s forebears don’t necessarily have to be the rich and famous for one to successfully head a multi-billion dollar global corporate entity. That is the message one gets by merely glancing at the story of Mr. Shantanu Narayen, the CEO of Adobe Systems, one of the world’s largest and most diversified software companies, which has also facilitated (indirectly) in hundreds of thousands of others making a fortune. This isn’t your dramatic rags to riches or a scion of a leading business family just inheriting and assuming the mantle and taking it to heights tale. In fact, Narayen’s career should be the standard illustrative story for every student who is without the benefit of the riches or a pedigree but yet that aspires to make it big through proper education, dedication, hard work, focus, and an ability to make the right decisions at the right time.

Early days

Mr. Narayen was born (May 27, 1963) in Hyderabad into a well-settled family. His mother was a mathematics teacher while his father ran a small plastics factory. He did his schooling from the prestigious Hyderabad Public School. Although he had grown up aspiring to be a journalist, he did his Bachelors in Science in Electronics Engineering from Osmania University, Hyderabad, upon insistence from his parents. His aspirations to pursue higher education took him to the US where he completed his Masters in Business Administration (Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, Evening & Weekend MBA Program in 1993) and a Master of Science from the Bowling Green State University (Ohio) to go with it.

The defining period of his life

Having grown up in such positive surroundings, acquiring knowledge from some of the best institutions, it appears only logical that his early career happened to be with one of the best employers, if not the best, in terms of providing the opportunities to learn while one grew into the profession. His first job was at a start-up called Measurex Automation Systems in 1986, which he quit in 1989 to move onto the technology pioneer, Apple Inc. Although, Mr. Narayen was not known to have been an out-and-out entrepreneur, Apple was a fertile ground for the well-bred and aspiring to make it big. It provided him with an opportunity to work and interact, and importantly, learn from the best in the business. As he had also had a peep into the business aspects through his MBA course, he seemed to have gained reasonably good perspective of the technology business while at Apple. In fact, he himself credits his many years with Apple as the foundations of his future as a CEO of a technology firm. He says that it is under Mr. Gurusharan Singh Sidhu, his mentor at Apple, he honed many of his leadership skills.

The interesting often intriguing aspects of pioneering and innovations, and insatiable thirst for trying for the impossible that is so Apple, is what Mr. Narayen credits to have influenced much of his thought process and working style in later years at other employers as indeed at one which he co-founded.

After many years at Apple which he had joined in 1989 holding many senior positions, followed by his association with another electronics firm Silicon Graphics where he was the director of desktop and collaboration products, he decided it was time to give shape to his entrepreneurial pursuits which he seemed to have nurtured through the course of his stints with Apple and Silicon Graphics. Thus, he took the plunge into the now flourishing technology business and co-founded ’Pictra,’ in 1996 which dealt in digital image-sharing on the internet. Although he was able to raise a handsome amount of $10 as venture capital, Pictra did could not sustain, and ended its brief span of existence. While he was distraught at the failure of his pet project and also by the fact that it was one of his rare failures, if one can term it as such, he was quick to gather himself and look ahead. This experience taught him the importance of timing, as it was clear to him, after the not so successful Pictra, that it was way too early in his career, as also perhaps the prevailing market conditions. This aspect was also brought forth clearly when his bid to sell Pictra to Adobe did not work out.

The leap and success

Although his move to sell Pictra to Adobe did not materialize, what it did succeed in was to get a favourable interest from the Adobe management. The then CEO of Adobe, Mr Bruce Chizen, who was party to the dialogue for the sale of Pictra, was quick to spot the spark in Mr. Narayen, which was enough to get him an offer from Adobe. Mr. Narayen was hired by Adobe in 1998 as vice-president and general manager of its engineering technology group. There has been no looking back for the ever-persevering and diligent Mr. Narayen ever since.

In just a year he was promoted to senior vice president worldwide products, and a couple of years later he was elevated to the post of executive vice president, worldwide products marketing and development. Subsequently, in 2005, he was promoted to president and chief operating officer.

Having tasted both success and a bit of failure with his earlier roles and his venture, Mr. Narayen, who knew he had it in him to be the leader that he was soon going to be, put in all he had to give to Adobe.

Expectedly, he gained extensive knowledge of Adobe’s products and platforms and customer experience along the way. So, his exceptional operational leadership skills manifested in the various capacities hereto, easily made him the ideal choice to lead Adobe as CEO. Although, this wasn’t handed on a platter, as he was confronted with another potential candidate for the top post. It was one of his former compatriots at Apple who was vying for the position, and was also equally well-placed as Mr. Narayen to succeed Mr. Chizen. But the fact that Mr. Narayen was an engineer at heart with a solid technical background - although not particularly a pitchman- tilted the decision in Mr. Narayen’s favour, as his predecessor, Mr. Chizen, was also of like technical background and it was a notion that that had to be the natural succession.

Mr. Narayen assumed the CEOs post at Adobe in December 2007, and the ride so far, although not entirely rosy, has been a reasonably successful one. Under Mr. Narayen, and following on from the good work done before, the company grew from strength to strength. With innovation and accessability at the core, it has really expanded its horizons with its range of products. This coupled with a handful of shrewd acquisitions has made his stint in the top position at Adobe really noteworthy, and has done enough to cement his place amongst the best business leaders of the world. Under his leadership Adobe bought Macromedia (for a reported sum of $3.4 billion ), Omniture ($1.8 billion), which helps analyse web traffic, Demdex that provides data on online users, Auditude, a video advertising company, Day Software -- a Switzerland-based company which makes web content management software, and the very recent acquisition Efficient Frontier, a California-based company that lets advertisers place ads on Facebook, buy keywords on Google and purchase display ads on the web. The latest acquisitions also point to the company’s belief that digital marketing and digital media are going to be the platform on which businesses would increasingly rely upon to make their presence felt.

Explaining the strategy where they Adobe sees digital marketing as its largest Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Mr. Narayen himself said that Adobe has supplemented the acquisitions with organic innovation that we have built around social analytics.

While the company has recorded appreciable growth under Mr. Narayen’s leadership and guidance, the journey of late has been somewhat tempestuous one. First it was the apparent tussle with Apple with Steve Jobs complaining about Flash on iPad and other Mac-enabled devices, a supposition which was strongly contested by Adobe and Mr. Narayen himself. This was followed by some apparently improperly handled media reports which seemed to have raised many an eye brow from the developer community. Then followed a situation wherein the developer community which had been so dependent on Adobe products, signed a petition (over 700 signed through seeking the removal of Mr. Narayen from the CEOs post. This was partly due to, again, some ambiguity emanating from reports about the pricing as well as accessibility issues, that has dented the confidence of the developer community in the Adobe management.

Whether or not the criticisms are well founded only time will tell but here are some, as reported on various forums and blogs.

Failure to address the threat to Adobe's brand that Apple presented; failure to provide clear leadership in the web technology space where Adobe is a key player; failure to consider the impact of perception on the brand from a poorly worded and ill-conceived PR statement which has done irrevocable harm to millions of jobs within the Flash Platform ecosystem of technologies. And so on.

The situation and the criticisms notwithstanding, Mr. Narayen has indeed been a worthy successor to Mr. Chizen, and one can only say that he has done his bit in successfully shaping the growth and expansion of the company. His leadership, technology insight and operational expertise have strengthened Adobe’s culture of innovation, expanded the company into new markets, and extended its product portfolio and global reach. Adobe has been able to cement its role as a partner to other technology groups in recent years, working with 19 of the world's 20 top mobile phone handset companies, including Motorola, HTC, RIM, Hewlett-Packard WebOS and Google, to bring Flash Player to their mobile devices. Some 23 of the top 25 European companies, as measured by Forbes magazine, use Adobe products, as do 23 of the top 25 global banks and all the top 10 European banking groups. Adobe’s products have also had a successful endorsement from the television and movie industry. In television, the BBC used Adobe's technology to create its highly successful iPlayer service, while in films James Cameron used Adobe's Creative Suite 4 to create blockbuster 3D film Avatar. Also, the US football team's World Cup match against Algeria was webcast through Flash, while the British Library is using Adobe technologies to transform its online service.

No wonder then that in 2009, Mr. Narayen was considered one of "The TopGun CEOs" by Brendan Wood International, an advisory agency.

And he does not seem to be sitting quite, as we have seen, and is constantly looking to both, consolidate as well as grow and diversify into newer areas such as digital marketing and digital media.

Other positions

His leadership and management skills were well acknowledged by many including the President of the United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama, who in 2011 appointed Mr. Narayen as a member of his Management Advisory Board (PMAB). PMAB was established by an Executive Order in April 2010 to advise on how to implement best business practices on matters related to Federal Government management and operation focusing on productivity, the application of technology and customer service.

That besides, Mr. Narayen is a Board Member of He has been a Director of Metavante Technologies, Inc. since November 14, 2007. Mr. Narayen has been a Director of Dell, Inc. since September 2009. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, and is president of the board of the Adobe Foundation, which funds philanthropic initiatives around the world.


He is married to Reni Narayen whom he is believed to have met while studying at Bowling Green State University. They have two sons, Shravan (21) and Arjun (17), both of whom are also believed to be tech-savvy like their father.


Like most expats as indeed business leaders, Mr. Narayen also does his bit for the society. As mentioned above, he is the president of the board of the Adobe Foundation which was created to honour the philanthropic spirit of Adobe’s founders, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, by leveraging human, technological, and financial resources to drive social change and improve the communities in which Adobe has employees, focusing on arts and creativity and local needs.

The Adobe Foundation funds and oversees Adobe Youth Voices, our global, signature education program, and a Community Grants Program designed to create strategic, high-impact partnerships with nonprofit organizations within the areas of arts and creativity and youth services.

*Global Innovator Award at Nasscom’s 7th Annual Global Leadership Awards, 2011.
*Annual Leadership Award, 2010 by the International Imaging Industry Association (I3A).
*American India Foundation (AIF) Business and Philanthropic Leadership Award, 2009.
*The Haas School’s Business Leader of the Year Award (known as the Alumnus of the Year Award from 1970 to 1998) 2008.
*"Digital marketing is going to be the next big thing."
*"Around the world, when I tell people that I work for Adobe it's amazing to see their faces light up when they talk about Photoshop and how it's changed their world, or Acrobat and PDF and how they've helped them be more effective."
*"We need to keep innovating because ‘there’s always two people in a garage somewhere in the world’."
*"We certainly like to believe that as rich media is being consumed more on these devices ... that both Flash and Reader become essential part of these devices ... We are vigilant to make it happen."
*"Being transparent about our plans enables us to get better feedback"
Hope viewers caught up the spark...