"I hate the word agnostic, because it makes you sound like you don't care. We care tremendously." Justin Stayrook, SVP, marketing platforms, at Merkle, was explaining how the agency makes considered recommendations to clients about filling the gaps in their marketing stacks. Stayrook prefers the phrase "unbiased opinions." "Adobe is the premier partner," he said. "They rank highly in every category, but in any situation with a client there are going to be conflicting views. That's the value of our platform architecture practice." And with any client, there's legacy software to be addressed. "Maybe the endpoint is moving to a single vendor, but that's a journey; so we have a really strong, skilled team that can work on that progression for clients. Clients usually do things step-wise, because there are no green fields," he explained. "And you can't stop marketing for six months, implement everything, then turn everything back on." A client might have Adobe Analytics or Target in place, but not be using them efficiently. Perhaps they think they need Audience Manager. Merkle can demonstrate how these components integrate and function prior to implementation using the Merkle Innovation Cloud platform. After all: "It's a leap of faith for marketers to buy all that technology and then just hope it all comes together, whereas we can show the incremental value." The initial iteration of the Innovation Cloud was launched last summer, with the motto “making it real." The platform provided a space for clients to experiment with activating different configurations of their stack, with what Stayrook calls the "special sauce" of Merkle data added. The 2.0 version of the Cloud, announced at Adobe Summit last month. "With the 2.0," said Stayrook, "we really just started to focus on the newer things Adobe has been bringing to market, like Sensei. We've been able to focus on smart tags, and bringing in more personalized imagery and things like that. One of the advantages Adobe has over the market is that they've been experience and creative focused for so long." At Summit, Adobe had demonstrated Sensei's proficiency in tagging, recovering, and activating content (especially graphic content) at scale. But the Innovation Cloud isn't just a glorified sandbox. "One aspect is just doing a really strong demonstration for clients of the power of the tools," Stayrook said. "But it's also a real, functioning instance, so it's a jumping off point for us. We can take those instances and scale up to get into a real enterprise situation. But the fundamentals of what we built persist in what we do." In other words, configuring a set of solutions in the Innovation Cloud is a big step towards real-world implementation. After all, "the holy grail is starting with that strategy component, understanding what they need to put in place, and putting some architecture round that." Innovation Cloud is also a source of reassurance. "We try to get through the implementation phase as quickly as we can, because that's where there's usually the most anxiety with clients." While pure systems integrators go no further, for Merkle the value of their approach manifests at the next step: "Where we're actually helping the client operate, helping them run campaigns, helping them optimize campaigns. That's where you get to Merkle's people-based marketing approach." For Stayrook, "Merkle is unique, in that we have a heritage of activating customer data for our clients. That's taken many shapes and forms over the years, from traditional direct marketing to digital. What I'm really excited about this year is AI becoming real. Marketers had to have a crash course in digital. Over the next five years, they're going to have to have a crash course in data. The companies that can address that the best, with really user-friendly ways to do it, are going to succeed on the software and services end."