The past decade has seen enormous change in how brands run their marketing operations. The emergence of digital channels and analytics tools have allowed in-house marketing teams to gain a clearer view of the relationship their brands have with customers than ever before.
“Digitisation has been the biggest catalyst for change over the past decade,” says Simon Kahn, chief marketing officer, Google Asia Pacific. “The relationship between brand and consumer has become more intimate and immediate.”
Kahn says this is particularly pronounced in Asia, which is home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies. “Innovations in e-commerce, online payments, and communications are driving new business models and are shifting consumer behaviour in ways that are starting here and impacting the rest of the world.”
The shift to a more digital-first approach has seen an increasing number of brands building up their own in-house marketing teams and relying less on agencies, with an aim to enhance the accuracy of marketing strategies and the efficiency of the communications.
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"Interest and adoption in in-housing has come from a dissatisfaction from marketers who feel that they are unable to be as effective and efficient working with external agencies," says Greg Paull, co-founder and principal, R3.
The holistic relationship that brands must now develop with customers across multiple touchpoints has put pressure on in-house marketing teams to respond in real-time and to optimise efforts across the customer journey to be more effective. "We are moving towards smaller, decentralised teams that are able to work with more flexibility and to solve problems more quickly," says Kahn.
The development of new privacy regulatory frameworks and growing concerns stemming from customer advocacy groups, also play a major part in this shift in in-house marketing paradigm. Brands now exercise much more caution over data collection and use, especially when it comes to first-party data.
"From a regulatory and business standpoint, this move to in-house makes perfect sense," says Sisca Margaretta, CMO, Experian APAC. "Brands want to minimise the risk of data mishandling by third parties, which could result in heavy penalties and reputational damage today. At the same time, by running a tight ship when it comes to managing critical data assets, marketers stand to benefit from more speed and flexibility in delivering effective communications plans."
As in-house teams are increasingly taking the lead on shaping marketing strategies and more proactively engaging with customers, there are some tasks once assigned to agencies that are now being done in-house.
For Peggy Fang Roe, chief sales and marketing officer at Marriott International Asia Pacific, while she values the expertise and external perspective that agencies bring, she finds some tasks are better performed in-house. At Marriott's Asia Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong, Roe's team has a dedicated, real-time social media command centre called M Live. M Live allows the team to stay tuned-in to pop-culture and Marriott's guests 24/7, which provides opportunities for creative, socially resonant, brand-aligned activations delivered in timely, buzzworthy ways.
"Being able to monitor and respond to check-ins and mentions around the clock means we are ready to react at moment’s notice in relevant, authentic ways," says Roe. "This is the type of service that digital agencies offer, but it’s vitally important for us to be listening to our customers and building enduring relationships with them directly."
For Grace Dong, CMO Greater China at Hewlett Packard (HP), building up the in-house marketing teams, including an e-commerce team, has been critical to success. Dong says it has provided the opportunity for her team to work more closely with important e-commerce partners like T-Mall and JD to develop new product launches and seasonal promotion campaigns, rather than managing or buying resources via an agency.
"E-commerce’s development in China is very advanced, and there aren’t many role models we can learn from globally compared to traditional marketing," says Dong. "Without an in-house marketing team that is equipped with a solid understanding of both product and customer insights, without a team that is trusted by business units and sales teams, we wouldn’t be able to succeed."
But while more tasks are being done in-house, Paull says that marketers are aware that making in-housing successful requires finding the right balance. "A marketer might outsource media strategy to an agency, but bring media buying in-house," says Paul. "A brand might engage an agency for creative direction but execute internally. For many, it’s not a question of either/or."
Zilingo, a Singapore-based online fashion marketplace, does almost everything in-house including digital marketing, media buying, event management, creative production and public relations. However, the company still finds great value in working with agencies, but more in a co-creating capacity.
Above: A Zilingo film about one of its own production mills
"We have seen that working with agencies allows us to leverage their existing clout, scale and relationships, while in-house teams excel at nailing down strategies and speaking the language of the brand," says Zillingo’s CMO Marita Abraham. "We prefer to co-create with agencies and bring them into the fold, rather than treat them as service functions."
In addition to in-house marketing teams taking on more tasks and responsibilities, the unprecedented growth in digital consumer data has also brought changes.
"The biggest change has been that we have been able to create campaigns that are personalised to individual interests," says Google’s Kahn. "Data and insights help us cut through the noise in a crowded marketplace by delivering messages that are relevant to our customers."
But Kahn says while Google wants to gain a better understanding of the customer journey, remaining respectful of their users’ privacy preferences is critical. To do that, they use aggregate information to customise interactions while using minimal amounts of data. "Bringing our customers relevant messages at scale is the ultimate goal," says Kahn. "Advances to machine learning are helping us get one step closer to achieving that goal."
There's no doubt that data has transformed marketing in the past 10 years. Apps and digital partnerships are giving brands like Marriott far more accurate data than ever before about their consumers—who they are, what they are spending and where—to achieve tangible business results.
"China is blazing ahead because of its unique and integrated digital ecosystem," says Roe. "Through our strategic partnership with Alibaba, we are able to leverage data and insights from the Alibaba team to understand our consumers and reach them through channels like Alipay (mobile payment) and Fliggy (travel) and unlock new opportunities."
An example Roe gives is her team using data to identify that women in China are the decision-makers in more than half of travel consumption and spend more on travel than men. "To capture this demand, we launched our Marriott Bonvoy account on RED, the largest lifestyle sharing social-ecommerce platform in China, with a monthly active base of over 60 million users of which nearly 87% are females," says Roe. "This was quite a milestone as Marriott International was the first international hotel company to have an account on RED."
But while some brands and marketing teams have clearly made huge strides in effectively using consumer data, R3's Paull says that lack of proper data management and insufficient knowledge on how to use technology to reduce friction has often resulted in efforts being unsuccessful, and even detrimental. "If marketers don’t figure out how to use data effectively, we might see them abandoning efforts if risks outweigh the benefits."
More than ever, it's become clear in the last 10 years that in-house marketing teams need different skill sets than in the past, driven largely by the increased focus on data and technology. But what's also clear is that marketing teams are investing heavily in strengthening these skills.
"We have been on a transformation journey over the past 18 months to really look at all of our marketing data and how we use it," says Tricia Weener, global head of B2B marketing, HSBC. "It’s been a hugely successful programme to fully utilise existing technology and deploy critical new martech platforms. As part of this we have made a significant investment in empowering our people to feel confident with these new tools by equipping them with the data capabilities essential to driving greater value through insights."
Looking to the next decade, it looks as though in-house marketing teams will need to be even more nimble, fast-moving and business savvy than ever. Creativity will be needed to join the dots between emerging innovations and current business models in order to unlock new revenue streams. But overall, thanks to the rising availability of digital advertising and marketing tools, in-house marketing teams are better equipped to take full control of branding activities than ever before. Content creation, creative production and media planning have all taken a digital-first approach, and in-house marketing teams are definitely more involved in the process.