Eugene Yap
May 31, 2017

Rise of the polymath marketer

Eugene Yap of Iris Concise discusses the high bar today's marketers must surmount.

Eugene Yap
Eugene Yap

Several nights ago, over beer and tempura with the team, the discussion inevitably turned towards the challenge of hiring a great marketing analyst. 

We have been interviewing for months and have seen scores of candidates, but something just did not click. Candidates with great technical skills struggled to pull together business insights, and commercially minded ones lacked rigour and structure in their analysis. 

Interestingly, I see a similar dynamic playing out in our meetings with CMOs, many of whom have come up the ranks from a traditional marketing environment and are now struggling to make the switch to a digital first and data-rich world.

But more worryingly, the agencies and consultancies that these CMOs employ to help them navigate the digital maze are often similarly mired in archaic silos, or simply lack the mix and depth of skills to lead their clients through these volatile times. What ensues from this vacuum is a mad chase for the latest marketing fad—driven entirely by marketing prowess of martech companies and amplified by agencies desperate to sell-in the next big thing. 

In Capgemini’s Digital Talent Gap report in 2013, over 90 percent of companies interviewed indicated that they did not have the necessary skills in the areas of social media, mobile internal social networks, automation, performance monitoring and analysis. Fast-forward to 2017, and while we have caught up in some areas, new developments in big data, machine learning/AI and immersive technologies threaten to widen the gulf once more. 

In my research for this article, I came across an incisive opinion piece from Jake Sorofman, vice president of research at Gartner, that talks about the age of the full-stack marketer. For those less familiar with geek-speak, the term “full-stack” is used to describe developers who have the programming chops to work across different levels of a typical software build—front-end Web/UX/UI layer as well as back-end server and database layers. 

A full-stack marketer then, is someone who has the breadth of skills to understand and work effectively across the web of technology and marketing domains that characterize the modern marketing landscape. 

But while the term full-stack is certainly memorable and indicative of what the modern marketer needs to be, it also risks over-emphasizing the technology aspect of marketing. A Harvard Business Review article, “The Rebirth of the CMO”, talks about three core activities that all marketers must now perform: discover data-driven insights that drive growth, design the right strategies and processes to execute in a multichannel world and become the organizational glue to deliver change. The modern CMO is stretched in both directions—to become more technologically sophisticated, but also more commercially and organizationally astute at the same time.

The word “polymath” comes from the Greek word, “polumathēs” and describes a person who can draw on diverse sources of knowledge to solve complex problems. While technology has impacted how we all work, I would argue that the marketing function stands at the frontline of this disruption. Although finance, HR, and even IT practitioners have had to adapt and learn new skills, the very rulebook of how we do marketing is practically being rewritten every few months. 

It seems apt then that the modern day CMO epitomizes a polymath: someone with an almost encyclopaedic set of skills and knowledge that can be drawn upon to define and re-define effective marketing as quickly as Facebook is able to introduce the next ad format. 

Needless to say, this is a high-bar for any marketer to achieve. The reality is, most CMOs still rely heavily on agencies and consultancies to light the path forward. In turn, agencies and consultancies are recognizing the need to develop a greater breadth of capabilities to support their clients. 

This has led to interesting consolidations within and across the industry. Traditional consulting firms have been particularly aggressive in this regard. Accenture acquired London creative shop Karmarama in 2016 and doubled-down by taking Australia’s most awarded independent creative agency, The Monkeys, into its fold. Deloitte’s acquisition of Heat has allowed the agency to score a significant win to launch LG’s flagship G6 phone. Even venerable strategy consultancy McKinsey is stepping into the fray with the purchase of Lunar and Veryday. 

Ad agencies are responding with ever greater investments into their data teams. Here in Singapore, Ogilvy & Mather and DDB are building out marketing and innovation labs in partnership with the Economic Development Board. Similarly, Iris, with the acquisition of Concise, is further blending commercial consulting with creative agency work. 

Regardless of which side of the client-agency fence you belong to, the multifaceted nature of marketing in today’s world demands a new type of marketer: one who is able to learn, unlearn and re-learn across multiple disciplines of knowledge—a true polymath of the 21st century.                    

Eugene Yap is associate director at Iris Concise

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