WITH daniel binns

Five Questions: Ann Lewnes, CMO, Adobe

expert perspective

How do you think people’s expectations of brands have shifted in today’s anxious world? 

Adobe has always had a mission – we create products that empower people to change the world. And that’s obviously never been more important than today. However, in addition to making great products and continuous innovation I think employees, customer and investors are looking for compassion, transparency, equality, focus on sustainability practices, and a commitment to creating lasting change. Adobe’s always been that kind of company. 

The anxious world, I think, is a very good encapsulation of the challenges that we and every other company are seeing, from COVID, to racial injustice, to global warming and disastrous fires. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been really focused on employee wellbeing, and as the pandemic continues that’s becoming even more important. We’ve introduced new wellness and mental health programs like; flexible work hours for employees needing to take care of children or parents; every third Friday off for all employees, because people really need personal time; and we have a very generous stipend for home office set-up. First and foremost, every company has to focus on keeping their employees safe, productive and healthy. 

And equally important, we’re really dedicated to keeping customers going and making sure that businesses continues to thrive during this time. We’re helping creatives so that they can sustain themselves during this period. We’re helping governments stay connected to citizens. We’re helping students and educators – remote learning is not easy. 

The next generation is really important to us, because we believe creativity is a 21st century skill, so we immediately provisioned 30 million students with free Creative Cloud subscriptions. We have daily creative lessons that are livestreamed, we have digital coloring books. And we had a wonderful campaign called ‘Honor Heroes’ where members of our creative community thanked their personal heroes – essential workers – on the frontlines of the COVID crisis. 

Every company is now committed to diversity and equality. That was always our way, but every company has realized this is absolutely a mandate. We are focused not only on diversity and inclusion but giving our community – our creative customers in particular – a greater voice, especially underrepresented minorities. We want to give everyone a platform to elevate their voices and celebrate their creativity.  

Companies have to have to really think hard about how they can connect with their customers in a meaningful way. Adobe Summit on March 30 was crazy—we had to basically take a 30,000-person event virtual, but in the end we had almost 500,000 tune in. 

This week is Adobe MAX and we’ve pulled out all the stops and making that fabulous, because people are sick of really bland Zooms! It’s 56 hours of content and dialogue, featuring creators such as Stanley Tucci, Wes Anderson and Ava DuVernay. I think it is going to be, hopefully, the best event that’s been done to date, because people really want to connect, brands really have to connect, and they have to try really hard to do that.

When it comes to big issues, what should your role as a brand be – how do you decide when to take a stand?

Culture has a lot to do with it. We’ve always been very committed to equality and sustainability. Immigration is another issue that we’ve really had to speak out against. And we don’t pay lip service, we really act. And that’s important to us. 

But that said, I don’t believe, and we don’t believe as a company, that we should engage on every issue. Our practice and our strategy has been to act when our business and our people are directly impacted. We spend a lot of time thinking about which issues we should speak out against – and then act upon, because that’s the big difference. You can sign a petition, but what are you really going to do? 

Companies should be focused on speaking out on issues that they’re going to do something about and put programs in place to support. Make no mistake, we’re going to get pushback from some people on any issue that we speak out against. Every brand has to be transparent. But action is the way that you really see movement.

You’re founded in creativity. What kind of impact can creativity have on the world?

We believe creativity has tremendous power to create change in the world. It has the power to unite us, we’ve seen that there’s never been more creativity than there is today. I think it’s helping people cope. It’s inspiring people. And it always brings us closer together. But now, more than ever, one of the issues that has emerged about creativity is that it needs to be more accessible. And that’s why we have a lot of programs trying to help underserved kids, in particular, get access to technology. 

Not enough is being done to appreciate and celebrate creators that may be different from us, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and ability. Adobe’s focus on Creativity for All is about elevating creators, so the world can see and benefit from diverse perspectives. Adobe partners with organizations and companies that share in this vision; we work with Sundance, where we have a women’s fellowship for female filmmakers, we have the Ignite program of Sundance, which is for young creators, we’re doing a partnership with the New York Times to celebrate female creators, and we’ve created our own program called diverse voices, giving greater opportunity to underrepresented groups. 

We have a creative residency program, and we have a creative fund to provide financial support for creators. Right now, people are struggling, the creative community is struggling. Being the leader in creativity, we have a responsibility to help creators. 

There’s never been a time where creativity for all matters more. And part of that is really bringing people together. Adobe has really successful creative challenges, we ask the community to create work, and then showcase it to the world. We team up with amazing celebrities and musicians to put out a brief prompt, and people create incredible work. We’ve worked with Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Marshmallow, and it’s great for creatives to be able to put work in front of people like that and showcase their work to the world. That’s the kind of thing that is really keeping people motivated. 

How does the brand help people adapt, personally and professionally, in the context of what’s happening to all of us now? 

What we’ve seen is the most tremendous surge in creativity, and whether it’s photography, video or illustration, we are at all-time highs, in terms of people wanting to create work and sharing that work. Creativity is truly helping us cope. But we also think about long term, how do you make creativity more interwoven in everyone’s life? That is absolutely critical. And that’s why we invest a lot in helping kids be creative – self-expression is critical. Creative thinking is important for everyone, in order to be successful in whatever career they choose. So that focus on young people is super important.

What are some of the trends or themes that you’ve seen emerge, that you think will be with us in the future? Not just as immediate reactions, but things that are going to become built into how we behave?

Small and large kindnesses are everywhere today. Despite how grim the world is, I’ve seen so much kindness. And I hope that lasts when we go back to the rough-and-tumble. Sometimes those good things that happen in bad circumstances wither away, and I hope that doesn’t happen.