Neuroscientists have long debated whether the brains of mathematicians, scientists, and technologists differ from the rest of our just-passed-calculus minds. Who but a genius (think: Albert Einstein and Galileo) can think that conceptually?
From my experience interviewing CMOs since 2006, marketers who lean more toward the sciences, rather than the arts, are, indeed, a rare and interesting species. Those who are left-brained seem less conventional, and they see and do things differently than the rest. Mathematician-turned marketer René Bonvanie, CMO of cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks, is no exception.
Bonvanie became enamored with math when he was about 7 or 8. His father had gifted him with a book about applied mathematics, titled “The Magical Garden Of Mathematics,” by Alexander Niklitschek. Bonvanie was hooked.
“It was a prosaic book about the application of mathematics through everyday problems,” he told CMO.com. “That sparked my interest to understand more. I’ve always been very inquisitive and have a passion for understanding how things work.”
Bonvanie’s love for numbers eventually brought him to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where he majored in math and even taught it at the high-school level during his third and fourth years in college. Next, Bonvanie spent the early part of his career performing data and statistical analysis on the technology side of business, helping to build products and teams who would set an agenda around data and science.
Bonvanie joined Oracle in 1991. Midway through his tenure, the company threw him “a curveball” by asking him to not only bring insights into the business, but to also help shape those insights into a story—you know, marketing. “And it turned out that I was a much better storyteller than I thought,” he joked.
Bonvanie began telling stories to customers, analysts, and the press, using his scientific background for credibility purposes. He was an “odd marketer,” he admitted, automating everything that could be predicted in sales and marketing (not to mention Bonvanie built the systems to do so).
Fast forward to 2009. Following several senior-level stints after Oracle, Bonvanie joined Palo Alto Networks. At the time, the company “had no data because we didn’t have customers yet,” Bonvanie said. “I decided to put a system in that would start gathering all the data and over time could provide more and more insight. A lot of the things that people get wrong about data science is that you actually need data to make it work. You need years of data.”
Five years later, Bonvanie was confident the company had enough data, so he started building a data science team. Today, the team of 12 scientists prepare, analyze, and visualize the company’s data so that anyone within the organization—not just marketing—can use it to make smarter decisions.
In practice, the Palo Alto Networks data science team has helped determine, for example, where the company should host events to get the best customer attendance. The team also tracks repeat purchase patterns and lifetime value of customers, then uses that information to predict which activities yield the highest effect on future purchases. Another example: The team predicts next-best and nurturing activities to improve pipeline win rates and conversion efforts and to avoid churn.
“Having a very data-driven mentality, gathering all the data in as few systems as possible, and starting to apply some operational data science long before you do predictive [work] are all really important for a modern organization,” Bonvanie told CMO.com.
What lies ahead? Ten years from now, Bonvanie said he won’t be drinking a mojito on a nearly deserted island—partly because he doesn’t drink and partly because he doesn’t like beaches, he joked. Instead, he hopes to share his story with younger marketers and entrepreneurs so they can learn from his experiences.
“You won’t find me at the Stanford Universities of the world either,” Bonvanie added. “Those students will have plenty of opportunities to learn this knowledge. I’m committed to helping at colleges that have less privileged students.”