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CMO Leadership Requires Disruption And Being Bold

Digital has created a world that is changing faster than ever before and where people are more closely connected than they’ve ever been. Earlier this year, Facebook challenged the traditional notion of six degrees of separation between two people on the planet after it worked out there are now just 3.57 degrees between its users.

It was this theme, along with the pace of change in business, that came under the spotlight at The Marketing Society’s Global Conference in London this month.

“Digital is now at the core not only of how we are as people, but how we communicate. [As marketers] we have to learn from fundamentally adaptive businesses and look at how business can be evolved to build relationships and take it to the next level,” said Nigel Vaz, global chief strategy officer at SapientNitro, in the opening address.

A digital world also creates new roles and opportunities for senior marketers. How well-equipped they are to lead their businesses was a recurring theme throughout the day. “Marketing leadership has to force the re-imagination of the products and services that are relevant for this customer,” added Vaz.

It requires disruption, being bold, and leadership.

Compete And Cannibalise Yourself, Advises Aviva
A 320-year-old insurance firm is not the most obvious kind of disruptive company, but if Aviva plc group CEO Mark Wilson gets his way, that’s exactly what it will become.

Wilson said the company considered itself well-placed for digital transformation but initial attempts went nowhere. “Aviva is a brand with a huge amount of capital and assets, and millions of customers. We thought we have something that works in the digital space and invested £100 milion,” he said. “We achieved nothing after 12 months.”

Realising that for Aviva this had to be done outside, the company took a fresh approach by recruiting data scientists and people from outside its industry and located them as a startup in London’s Hoxton.

Wilson said he gave them a simple strategy: “Compete and cannibalise—I want you to kill the rest of our business.”

As a result, Aviva is starting to engage with clients in a different way and is drawing on information such as widely available public data to reduce the number of questions it asks customers when taking out policies. “We’re able to give our customers predictive advice, that’s the business we’ve moving into,” Wilson said. “We are positioning Aviva as a giant fintech; you don’t need to be one year old to disrupt.”

Returning to the idea of simplicity, Wilson said his biggest frustration with marketers, especially those in Europe, is that they’ve moved away from articulating their differentiation and why they will win. “Technology companies have taught us all about the simplicity of the offer,” he said.

To return Aviva’s focus on this, Wilson has asked each one of its countries to describe why customers need their products in just 140 characters—something he calls the “proposition tweet.” “If they can’t answer, I will kill their product,” he said.

Impact Not Effort, Says Facebook
Despite its ubiquity, tech giant Facebook is not immune to being disrupted. At the same time, it takes its mission and belief that “an open and more connected world is a better world” seriously.

To remain competitive and stay true to its mission, Nicola Mendelsohn, vice-president EMEA, described how the company adapts it culture to continue to bring in the best people and talent.

A “focus on impact” is a core principle. “We use a strengths-based approach. The way people usually move through a company is to be a manager of managers, but if you play to people’s strengths, you make them more fulfilled and satisfied because they’re doing the work they love—happier people make a better company,” she said.

Facebook continually questions how and why things are being done in certain ways. “Make sure you ask yourself what you’re really focusing on—are you focusing on the impact or the effort?” she added.

Moving fast and being bold are also a must, especially as the company grows. “As companies get bigger, they get slower and take fewer risks because the impact of what a risk could mean paralyses you,” Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn conceded that Facebook was late to mobile, but it was able to course-correct and then move quickly. It’s a lesson learnt for its approach to live-streaming video. “When a trend starts to emerge, we stop people doing what they’re doing and move them to focus on it,” she said. “People are tasked with clear goals in a concentrated way. You have to be bold, you are guaranteed to fail if you don’t take risks.”

The Modern CMO Role In Focus
The need for simplicity and clarity was reiterated throughout the day and was picked up again in discussions around the role of the CMO in a digital world.

As CMO of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, David Wheldon has the task of helping the bank realise its vision to be number one for customer service, trust, and advocacy by 2020. That includes being the voice of the customer.

“My job is to represent the customer on the executive committee,” Wheldon said. “I make sure I bring timely measurement to the table. Because of the speed of the feedback loop, I can bring to the table today what happened yesterday.”

Being the voice of the customer also means explaining what “customer-obsessed” means across internal audiences. “I use simple language, and make sure everyone knows and understands what I’m talking about,” he said.

Silvia Lagnado, global CMO at McDonald’s, stressed the need for strategy: “[It’s] really critical so as not to get distracted by the latest toys and gimmicks. I see the CMO as the chief integration officer. We need to break the silos and keep the customer-centric view and strategy up there—and be close to the CEO.”

Facebook’s Mendelsohn added: “As marketers, we’re the ones who are closest to the customer. If we do one thing going forward, it’s about playing the role of translator. The CMO is the chief transformation officer.”

Leadership Bridges The Gaps
Although marketers may themselves appreciate the importance of the role they play in a business, that is often not a view shared by the wider company. Examining why that is so, academic Paddy Barwise said there was a paradox at play: “Marketing itself—customer focus—is considered important, but marketers are not.”

There are three reasons why. First, a trust gap—marketing is mostly about the future, which makes what marketers say sound less reliable; second, a power gap—it takes all of the people in a company to create a great customer experience, but only a handful report to the CMO; and, third, a skills gap—business is changing so fast it’s impossible for marketers to be experts at everything.

How can marketers address these gaps? Thomas Barta, marketing leadership expert and co-author of “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader,” along with Barwise, revealed that in the CMO interviews they conducted “those who were best at marketing were those who were good at leading marketing.”

“They were good at leading their bosses to close the trust gap, and leading their colleagues to close the reporting or power gap with those people who don’t report to marketing,” he added.

Barta reminded marketers they are in the business of change. “The most important thing as a leader is to find followers. You can’t do that by email, you have to go and meet the different species of your organisation,” he said. “You have to tell your compelling and convincing change story and show people how things actually work. Your biggest weapon is inspiration.”

An Astronaut’s Perspective
Providing marketers with a dose of inspiration was former NASA astronaut Dr. Ed Lu. Speaking via a video link from his home in California, Lu told the story of his time manning the International Space Station (ISS) following the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003.

In the aftermath of the accident Lu was required to quickly train how to pilot a Russia’s Soyuz rocket, and then spend a six-month stint on the ISS with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

With Lu answerable to NASA and Malenchenko to the Russian space programme, he said: “We realised that having two different bosses could mean conflicting commands. We decided in advance to tell [our bosses] if our orders were different, and they would need to communicate and be clear on their message, and let us get on with the work.”

The learning for leaders, he said, is: “The message needs to be clear. Don’t micromanage from afar but make sure that everyone knows the big picture.”

A further lesson is that if you think safety is your number-one goal, you’re wrong. “You have to take risks to do anything and to be smart about them, when you get to a stage when the risks are reduced versus the reward, it’s time to push the button and go,” Lu said.

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