Rachel Thornton
Marrying Creativity and Data to Become a $51B Business
Rachel details the demand gen strategy that powers the dominant player in the cloud computing space, and shares the intricacies of the most important leadership principles that fuel successful marketing teams from customer obsession, to diving deep, to thinking big, and much more.
Launched in 2006, Amazon Web Services (AWS) began exposing key infrastructure services to businesses in the form of web services -- now widely known as cloud computing. The ultimate benefit of cloud computing, and AWS, is the ability to leverage a new business model and turn capital infrastructure expenses into variable costs. Businesses no longer need to plan and procure servers and other IT resources weeks or months in advance. Using AWS, businesses can take advantage of Amazon's expertise and economies of scale to access resources when their business needs them, delivering results faster and at a lower cost. Today, Amazon Web Services provides a highly reliable, scalable, low-cost infrastructure platform in the cloud that powers hundreds of thousands of businesses in 190 countries around the world. With data center locations in the U.S., Europe, Singapore, and Japan, customers across all industries are taking advantage of our low cost, elastic, open and flexible, secure platform.
Information Technology & Services

Rachel Thornton is the VP, Global Marketing for AWS, a role she was promoted to in January 2020. Rachel joined Amazon in 2013 as the Head of Amazon Student, and moved over to AWS in 2015 as Vice President, Global Field and Partner Marketing. Prior to Amazon, she served as VP of Marketing for the US, Canada, and Latin America with Salesforce. Prior to this she held marketing and leadership roles with Cisco and Microsoft. Rachel holds a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master's Degree in International Business and Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Episode Summary

This episode features an interview with Rachel Thornton, Vice President of Global Marketing for Amazon Web Services, the comprehensive cloud computing platform that powers hundreds of thousands of businesses in 190 countries around the world, and is on track to surpass $51B in revenue in 2021.

Rachel is a true Demand Gen Rockstar, having been hailed in the press as “Captain of the B2B Marketing Dream Team.” She joined Amazon in 2013, serving as Head of Amazon Student and then Vice President of Global Field and Partner Marketing for AWS before her promotion to her current role in January 2020. Prior to Amazon, she served as VP of Marketing for the US, Canada, and Latin America at Salesforce. 

On this episode, Rachel details the demand gen strategy that powers the dominant player in the cloud computing space, and shares the intricacies of the most important leadership principles that fuel successful marketing teams, from customer obsession, to diving deep, to thinking big, and much more. 

Key Takeaways

  • Be customer-obsessed. Start from the customer’s point of view and work backward. What is your customer trying to do from a business outcome perspective? What are they trying to achieve? Knowing that helps you write a great marketing / demand gen plan
  • Think Big. In marketing, it’s critically important to give teams the freedom to really use their imaginations and get creative with new ideas 
  • Disagree and commit. For any new service, product, marketing idea, campaign, demand gen strategy, etc., it's critical to have an in-depth discussion and encourage disagreement. But at the end of the day, if the decision is made to go forward, then everyone must commit to making it work.


“From a demand gen perspective, one of the most important leadership principles is customer obsession…When we think about our demand gen strategy and any new program or new campaign that we want to put together, we start from the customer and work backwards. I think that's probably what really helps us develop great demand gen and marketing programs.”
“The best way to figure out how you're doing from a measurement perspective is go into the campaign or the demand gen program with a clear set of objectives and outputs that you're looking to get…When we're developing campaigns, we always set up what do we want the impact of this to be? How do we want to define that? And How do we want to measure it?”
“Marketing is the beautiful marriage of not only creativity, but understanding data and doing a lot of data analysis. Because you want to make sure that whatever big idea you come up with–how do you test it? How do you refine it? And then how do you understand its impact? So that if you really love it, you can replicate it.”
“[My advice would be to] Ask a lot of questions. Sometimes I think people don't want to ask questions. They're afraid, like ‘oh, I should know this.’ I'm a big believer: Ask the questions because there are probably other people sitting there thinking of the same question you are. Ask a lot of questions, really dive deep…I just think it helps you be so much more effective and efficient.”

Episode Transcript

(2:25) Rachel’s Journey to the Cloud

  • First job was a field marketing specialist at Microsoft, doing campaigns and events
  • Now she is VP of Worldwide Marketing for Amazon Web Services
  • AWS is the most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform

(3:42) Demand Gen Strategy at AWS

  • Amazon has a set of leadership principles they use every day to develop new ideas and decide on programs
  • Customer obsession is another leadership principle
  • They work backwards and think about what the customers are trying to do from a business perspective, which is their key to developing great demand gen
  • There are two different axis that they think about: self-service and sales engagement
  • There is a whole team dedicated to the self-service motion, helping customers discover, sign up and adopt services.
  • The self-serve team works with digital marketing, acquisition, database marketing, SEO, SEM and display ads
  • The sales engagement team works with field sellers to develop marketing plans to engage enterprise customers
  • For each axis, there are teams that are experts on different segments and industries
  • They spend a lot of time, nearly every day, looking at results, doing a lot of A/B testing
  • Another leadership principle is to “dive deep;” they always look at how things perform

(12:54) The 2020 Pivot to Virtual Events

  • Before COVID, they thought a lot about the in-person experience people had at AWS events
  • As things moved virtual, they carried that thinking over, figuring out how their brand translates across audience segments, industries, and places around the world
  • Once they get good engagement with a particular program, they work on quickly scaling it
  • Before COVID they’d had a series of virtual events for their developer audience which gave them learnings on what makes those good, so they were able to take a lot of those learnings and pivot
  • They pivoted their big AWS Summit event to virtual
  • They also pivoted their annual conference Re-invent to virtual
  • Re-invent is normally one week in Vegas, but they did the virtual version for three weeks this year, based on attendee feedback that they wanted the chance to get hands on with all the content
  • Engagement was really good, with about 300,000 people joining for the three weeks

(15:09) How Rachel Measures Success

  • They dive deep into every marketing campaign, figuring out the impact and incrementality
  • For every campaign or demand gen program, have clear set of objectives and outputs that you're looking to get
  • Marketing works with a BI team, a Business intelligence team, spending time figuring out how to craft the campaigns and experiments
  • She does a weekly business review across all of my teams, which includes looking at outcomes, leads, acquisition, conversion
  • They have a good communication mechanism for sharing with the sales team, and with them, look at not just quantity, but quality of leads
  • They talk about how well sales was able to capitalize on what the demand gen program brought

(18:14) Leadership and Culture at Amazon

  • The leadership principles at Amazon are something that they live and breathe every day: Customer Obsession, Dive Deep and Think Big
  • Marketing is the beautiful marriage of not only creativity, but data analysis
  • She loves working with sales teams because they are communicative, they will tell you exactly what they think
  • At Amazon every meeting starts with doc reading: people come to the meeting with a six page document that talks about what they will discuss and what the questions are
  • The first 20-25 minutes of every meeting is reading, and then the rest of the hour is spent in discussion
  • It’s an amazing process for helping people get grounded on the same information
  • It’s an equalizer because anyone across the organization can come up with an idea and put it down, write a doc, and then get a room
  • If someone were to have an idea for a demand gen campaign, in the doc they would outline their target audience, the campaign, how they’d measure it
  • The discussion could then follow asking how they can take that idea and experiment, test it first; the point is to think big creatively but also see how you can test ideas
  • Another leadership principle: Disagree and Commit
  • Disagreement is encouraged, but at the end of the meeting, after all the questions are out and all the concerns and all the disagreements, they make a firm decision
  • Then once they decide to go forward, everybody commits to it

(35:45) Quick Hits: Getting to Know Rachel

  • She is a science fiction junkie, she watches The Expanse
  • She’s also a murder mystery buff, so she watches Dublin Murders
  • She started baking during the pandemic expanding her range from cookies up to sourdough bread
  • What she’s reading right now: a book by Michael Lewis called The Flash Boys

(36:52) Advice to a New CMO

  • Ask the questions, because there are probably other people sitting there wondering the same question you are
  • Dive deep, really work to understand outcomes


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