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How CEO Dennis Self Helped Grow His Company By Building It Backwards

Sarah HallamProfiles
Dennis Self

Dennis Self, the former CEO of Acxiom, started as CEO of Acoustic on June 1, 2020. Courtesy of Acoustic.

Throughout his career, Dennis Self has focused on accelerating change.

The former CEO of Acxiom started his first day as CEO of the marketing platform Acoustic with rapid transformation on his mind.

“I don't want to be a company that just lets things happen by itself,” Self told The Org. “I want to figure out what we want to be, what we want to do and how we want to be recognized.”

Forming this kind of identity has been crucial for Acoustic. In 2019, IBM sold the bulk of its marketing portfolio to private equity firm Centerbridge, which spun it off as a separate company, Acoustic. Although a new standalone marketing cloud platform, Acoustic brought over 3,500 IBM customers and 1,100 employees.

Acoustic OC

As a new entity, Acoustic suddenly found itself in full startup mode. All internal processes, organizational structures and branding had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Self was hired in June 2020 replacing interim CEO Tom Heiser, who now sits as chairman of Acoustic’s board. He was tasked with leading the company into its next phase: establishing its presence as the largest independent, full-scale marketing cloud.

“I was super excited because one, it was MarTech, and I love MarTech, which is a join up of technology and data,” Self said. “It's all about driving top-line growth for the companies you work with.”

But while growing its endeavors in AI-powered product recommendations, journey insights and marketing campaign management, a lot of leg-work needed to be done to get back up to full speed.

“Given the size and scale of IBM, the untangling and re-forming of a standalone company had more challenges than most divestitures,” Acoustic General Counsel and Chief Data Ethics Officer Sharon Zezima, and longtime colleague of Self, said.

“For instance, a massive company like IBM structured its sales organization very differently than what a standalone company would need,” she said. Every major function within the company -- including legal -- had to be built from scratch or re-built in a way that was more akin to a startup than what IBM had.”

Even trickier, the breakaway effectively divided employees into three groups: a third was enthusiastic about the switch to private equity ownership, a third was not, and a third was left somewhere in the middle.

“The team is always evolving,” Self said. “In private equity, you evolve a lot faster than you would any other company. It's a really aggressive sort of approach to managing a business. Things move much, much more quickly.”

He said that pace wasn’t for everyone and there were staffing changes at the company, which wasn’t a bad thing. “You bring new team members And that gives you a chance to just keep refreshing, bringing in folks with fresh perspective, fresh ideas, and you keep evolving, keep growing.”

All of these factors -- building a new team, building a brand, building a new company culture -- were all done remotely like most businesses last year. Everything from his interview process to all-hands meetings has been done through video, something Self feared would impact the trust he knew was crucial to building relationships with his employees.

“Not having that face-to-face contact and those deep relationships where you can count on each other was the real challenge of coming into this company during a pandemic,” he said.

A lieutenant officer in the U.S. Navy Supply Corps for 13 years, Dennis oversaw supply chain logistics and learned a great deal on the “business” side of the Navy. He made the pivot into the private sector in 1998, where he started out as a management consultant with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture).

“It was a great start for my career, and it really helped me forge this idea of being an agent of change,” Self said. “Somebody that was dialed into transformation, because that's all consulting is. Go in and find out what the issue is, and drive change as fast as you can.”

His specialized knowledge in information sciences and fiscal management eventually landed him a role as the Chief Information Officer at gaming company Electronic Arts.

Self read the writing on the wall in the gaming industry, becoming a key player in leading the legacy software brand to a digital-first organization.

“With CIO, the beauty there is it's all about the technology, right? So if you're pressing change, a lot of times you'll hear about digital transformation,” he said. “And the CIO, whether they recognize it or not, whether they take advantage of it or not, they can press a lot of digital transformation, enterprise-wide.”

He jumped over to pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences before landing his previous role as CEO of Acxiom. There he helped lead the marketing agency through an exit acquisition with IPG Media in 2018.

He’s had a long and winding road to the C-suite at Acoustic, a role he views as a “catalytic mechanism” for the rest of the company. Self said he especially wanted to catalyze the formation of new company values, ones that would personally reflect all of the employees.

“Culture is always a work in progress here. We picked up a de facto culture from IBM. But we also all recognize that we're aspiring to be something different. We don't want to be the knockoff of IBM, we want to be our own expression of everything that we are together as a team here.”

This work was further compounded by the extraordinary events of 2020. The U.S. was just three months into the coronavirus pandemic when Self started and was also reckoning with horrific episodes of police brutality, sparking all-time high racial tensions in and out of the boardroom.

“I think it's really making CEOs and companies think about how to really dial into the social nature or more societal considerations here,” he said, adding it gave companies the opportunity to stand back and ask, “what are we gonna do about it, right, to make meaningful change for our world?”

When it comes to Acoustic’s own plan to embed the harsh realities and lessons learned from 2020, Self said it was obvious to him that including as many voices as possible was the key.

“Over and over, it's been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the more people that come in to evaluate an issue or a decision, the more optimal the outcome is going to be,” he said.

At Acoustic, Self said he wanted the whole company involved in resolving issues and making decisions on how to improve things internally.

“I've tried to embrace that almost to a fault to leverage what I call ‘the wisdom of the crowds,’ to help us figure out what we do next as a team.”

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