Adobe headquarters building in San Jose, Calif.
PHOTO: Adobe Stock

Major marketing cloud providers have contributed to more than $40 billion worth of acquired marketing technology (martech) software in the last four years. None of them featured marketing workflow and marketing operations software until last week.

Adobe acquired Workfront, a marketing workflow, project management and Digital Asset Management (DAM) provider, for $1.5 billion on Nov. 9. Officials pushed the idea of the growing need to manage actual marketing work and collaboration streams because more marketing teams than ever now work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adobe and Workfront are longtime partners.

The acquisition is part of a larger trend of companies coupling digital asset management with content collaboration and production capabilities, according to Stephanie Liu, an analyst at Forrester who focuses on B2C marketing professionals. “Aprimo, BrandMaker, IntelligenceBank, Sitecore, Wedia, Widen ... these are just some of the companies that have coupled DAM and some MRM capabilities,” Liu said.

How Workfront Matters in Martech

Most marketers know the Adobe story. The company achieved a record digital experience software revenue of $3.21 billion in fiscal 2019. It’s Adobe Experience Cloud is a marketing software mega suite built in part upon 21st century acquisitions in the areas of content management, commerce and marketing automation, most notably — and expensively — the $4.73 billion acquisition of Marketo in 2018.

Workfront falls into the categories of Marketing Work Management (MWM) platforms, or Marketing Resource Management (MRM). It’s part of the “projects and workflow” subcategory on the Martech Supergraphic by Scott Brinker. The subcategory has seen a 41% growth since 2019, third behind conversational marketing & chat (70%) and governance, compliance and privacy (68%).

Gartner calls Workfront an enterprise Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) and collaboration work management platform provider “with distinct support for the marketing use case” in its Market Guide for Marketing Work Management Platforms published June 23. According to Gartner researchers, more than 77% of Workfront customers use the platform for marketing, and 14% of customers are agencies. Workfront already had Workfront for Adobe Assets and was a partner for the Adobe Creative Cloud and Adobe Experience Cloud exchange programs.

Workflow brings efficiency, collaboration and productivity gains to marketing teams, Adobe officials promised in a press release on the acquisition. It also has deep leadership in orchestrating marketing workflows, is agile and includes extensive integration capabilities.

The Workfront acquisition addresses a functional gap between Adobe Creative Cloud and Adobe Experience Cloud, according to Chris Ross, vice president analyst in the Gartner for Marketers practice. The acquisition could allow Adobe to better connect creative and design tools and processes with technologies for execution of digital experiences. Further, Ross added, this acquisition leverages Adobe’s relationships with the creator and design community and Workfront’s marketing work management capabilities.

Related Article: Workfront Adds DAM to Workflow

Checking into the State of Integrations

Seven of the vendors outside of Workfront in the Gartner report — Wrike, Aprimo, RoboHead, Asana, BrandMaker, inMotionNow and Smartsheet — also have integrations with Adobe. And Workfront also has existing integrations with G Suite and Microsoft Office, so this is something to watch as far as developments in the integration and connector arena.

“The vendor ecosystem for creative, design, work management and digital experience technologies is robust but highly fragmented,” Ross said. “A unified value proposition across these domains could be highly differentiating if the multiple existing technologies can be integrated to a cohesive whole.”

Many collaboration and project management platforms are vertical-agnostic, and that includes Workfront, historically, according to Liu. Asana has made a foray into marketing with its Asana for Marketing product packaging, but for the most part, collaboration tools intentionally want to be as flexible as possible, she added.

Message to Workfront Customers

The acquisition makes sense for Adobe, which has been missing out on the increasingly important workflow/operations front in martech, according to Tony Byrne, CEO and founder of Real Story Group. However, for Workfront customers, the deal is less valuable, Byrne said.

“On the plus side, the platform will sit in a very stable vendor going forward, he said. “On the down side, Adobe may focus more on margins and lock-in, and less on stack agnosticism. Workfront licensees should brace themselves for potential fee increases upon renewal. Workfront clients should also push back against Adobe architectural precepts giving precedence to an all-Adobe stack strategy that is likely not in licensees’ best interests.”

Workfront and Adobe have been partners for years. Workfront’s existing marketing customers won’t notice a significant change, according to Liu. “If they’ve been taking advantage of that partnership, they’re in a great place to benefit from the acquisition,” she said. “I am curious to see how Workfront’s sizable base of non-marketing clients takes the news. Workfront was never a marketer-specific tool; it’s used by a wide array of teams to support Agile operations — whether that’s technical development or product launches. This acquisition seems to pull Workfront firmly into the realm of marketing use cases, and I don’t think that’s going to resonate with the IT side of its customer base.”

Related Article: The Evolution of Marketing Operations

Message to Adobe Customers

For existing Adobe Experience Manager customers who want to couple an enterprise DAM with streamlined content production workflows, Workfront could be the “peanut butter to Adobe’s jelly,” Liu said. There are synergies in terms of making sure content production requests aren’t duplicative (e.g., pointing to existing content that could fit a creative brief instead of producing net new content).

“I expect Adobe Creative Cloud will also come into play,” Liu added. “You can’t talk about content creation without involving Photoshop, Illustrator, and the like, so there’s opportunity to unify the tools and processes that span content ideation, creation, production and usage.”

Workfront will provide multiple user vectors for Adobe, according to Ross. Adobe Creative Cloud users could use Workfront for project management of creative and design projects. Many of these integrations are already available and in use through the existing Adobe/Workfront partnership. Adobe Experience Cloud users could also use Workfront to continue projects started within creative teams or use the platform to support their own project portfolios.

Sign of Things to Come in Marketing Ops?

The acquisition is interesting from a martech perspective because the big marketing clouds haven’t traditionally focused on marketing operations, according to Liu. They’ve invested heavily in execution.

The top five acquisitions in martech since 2016 include:

  • Salesforce acquires Tableau (analytics), June 10, 2019, $15.7B
  • Salesforce acquires Mulesoft (API builder), March 20, 2018, $6.5B
  • Adobe acquires Marketo (B2B marketing automation), Sept. 20, 2018, $4.73B
  • Twilio acquires Segment (CDP) Oct. 12, 2020, $3.2 billion
  • Salesforce acquires Demandware (commerce), June 1, 2016, $2.8B

Brinker in a blog post Nov. 15 said digital operations toolsets have converged into what he calls "Big Ops." Revenue operations, marketing operations, sales operations and customer success operations — and subsets of operations within them such as DevOps, Data Ops, Product Ops — are each a "small revolution within its respective field." When taken together, Brinker said, they represent a much larger seismic shift.

"The Big Data movement of the past decade was about managing the enormous volume, variety, and velocity of data flowing through organizations," Brinker wrote. "Big Ops is about the enormous scale and complexity of all the different apps, automations, AI algorithms, processes, and human interactions all operating simultaneously across that data in digital business."

Adobe Makes the First Move

Adobe with this month’s Workfront acquisition is in a unique position relative to other marketing clouds because it has a more modern MRM offering than the other marketing clouds, Liu said, even if that offering is focused more narrowly on project management and content production.

“Of the marketing clouds that do have marketing resource management (MRM) capabilities, it’s a mixed bag,” Liu said. “SAP doesn’t sell marketing resource management as a standalone capability, nor do I think it’s making significant investments in its MRM product. SAS and HCL Unica both relaunched and modernized their MRM offerings, but capability-wise are playing catch up to newer MRM tools.”

The Adobe-Workfront acquisition also validates the marketing work management category, Gartner’s Ross said, and reflects the wider need for marketers to adopt these types of tools.

“As with any acquisition of this type,” he said, “it will be important to watch the transition, ongoing integration efforts and implications on pricing and positioning.”