When Joanna Flint joined Google in Singapore in January 2009 she was one of 50 people, and it had only just moved out of a serviced office. Over the next 12 years, Asia became a key growth region for Silicon Valley giants, and Singapore, as regional headquarters, ballooned in size to 2,000 staff.
Flint describes feeling like she was part of a startup in the beginning of her Google journey. "You were able to inform and shape and be entrepreneurial," she says. As the organisation went on to grow high double-digits year-on-year, that ability to effect change receded.
"Inevitably, as a company that is now 160,000 people globally, things are slower and decision making is more concentrated. So I think the ability to drive the level of impact you could then—we could touch it—where it is a lot more limited [now], and that's just due to the sheer scale," Flint says.
Many executives who joined Silicon Valley giants in their early growth phases now crave the ability to drive change again or "move fast and break things", to borrow Mark Zuckerberg's mantra. This is informing a growing migration of big tech's mid-level executives to smaller businesses or startups.
"I think that people that have been through those hypergrowth journeys and have learnt and grown under that are thinking, well, how else can I do that [again]? So the choices in a career are go to head office, or go to a startup and do that again," Flint opines.
Flint is one such executive. A few weeks ago, she left Google Singapore after more than 12 years, and today (April 21) it was revealed she has joined luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in a new global role as chief commercial officer.
She says was attracted by the opportunity to drive change at a global scale out of Asia, and use her experience to really make an impact.
"Some people thrive as the startup people, some people are the change people, some people are the steady stay people. It's knowing where you play, and what you're passionate about, what motivates you and brings the best out in you," she says. "I'm more [driven] around where can I have the most impact and where can I make a difference? That's where this opportunity for me was a really exciting one, because we're at that next frontier of driving the next phase of technology."
Evolving the role of the CMO
Flint's new role is integral to the future direction of Mandarin Oriental. She is responsible for the development and execution of the hotel chain's commercial strategy, and will oversee all aspects of its customer experience. Her role covers global marketing, sales, strategy, revenue management, distribution and digital.
She describes it as consolidation of a chief digital officer and a chief marketing officer. "For me, it brings together all the elements of digital and data alongside the traditional marketing and brand functions. The two together make it a far more holistic piece."
Flint's chief commercial officer role will supersede the CMO role at Mandarin Oriental, currently filled by Jill Kluge, who is set to retire in September and will continue in a brand advisory capacity. Flint believes the traditional CMO role has evolved from what it was first set up to be, requiring businesses to consider new leadership structures.
"The chief marketing officer has become a bigger role than it originally was, because they are responsible for the brand and the customer and then new services and products. It is a far more broad commercial function than probably it was given credit to in the past, particularly now that data and technology is powering that function," she says.
Where several organisations are opting to create "catalyst roles" such as chief growth officers or digital transformation officers to sit alongside marketing, Flint sees value in consolidating these functions to simplify organisational structures.
"I think what we're getting to is, this is no longer necessarily a catalyst but a core function. We're coming of age. It's part of that maturity of those functions," she says.
Having one person managing all aspects of the brand and its revenue streams will allow Mandarin Oriental to take a more customer-centric approach to its business operations, Flint believes. Bringing commercial and operations functions closer together will also be "increasingly important", Flint says, when actioning this vision on the ground.
"The key thing is that you're looking at putting the customer at the heart of the business," she says. "The mandate is how do we do that better, and use technology to help enable that, through strong understanding of our customer and how that links across all of our touchpoints." This effects everything from the products and services it develops, how it distributes, who it partners with and which business models it will look to invest in.
Learnings from the early days of the internet to now
Flint believes she's well placed to transform Mandarin Oriental, pointing to her experience driving product development and service differentiation in the travel industry in the early years of the internet, combined with a 12-year tenure in the belly of one of the biggest internet companies in the world.
"The experience at both British Airways and Singapore Airlines provided a foundation on understanding how to operate at a global scale. The times that I was at both airlines the roles I had were actually transformational roles—consolidation of global customer databases, thinking about how to integrate all of that across all points of sale, looking at loyalty marketing, looking at value propositions, identifying ways to drive utility and service through digital channels," she says.
She draws comparisons between the disruption the travel industry faced when she was working in it between 1997 and 2004, as it was pivoting to digital for the first time, with the current challenge it faces driving deeper digital experiences and adapting to the fallout of Covid-19.
"A lot of what I was doing at the beginning of digital...was building things and doing things that had never been done before. I think a lot of the principles that were true then and how you approach those problems are consistent today. Just the technology has evolved and consumers expect even more. So it’s thinking about how you apply that to the next phase of innovation?" she says.
She believes the time is ripe for the business and digital transformation in luxury and hospitality.
"I do think that even before Covid-19, hospitality is being rethought. And so if you're looking at whitespace opportunities and the next frontier for new products and services, new business models, new approaches to sustainability and partnerships—actually, the scope of having whitespace for the next phase of digital transformation in luxury and hospitality is now," she adds.
From Google, she will bring a spirit of innovation, agility and responsible decision making, she says. Flint was a founding member of the accounts and agency team in Singapore and helped to define the proposition, business strategy and operating model. She went on to lead consumer packaged goods revenue and partnerships in APAC, graduated to a business leadership role as managing director of Singapore, before moving back into commercial leadership managing Google's media partner business and commercialisation programs in APAC.
"I think a combination of those two [experiences] actually presents a really interesting experience to port into an organisation that is still small. It is a 34-hotel organisation, seven residences, 24 countries and territories. It is a really interesting size that is small enough to be agile, but large enough to really do things well," she says.