Be careful what you wish for.
For many years this industry has heard the doleful plaintive lamentations of CMOs echoing the halls of company headquarters, bemoaning their exclusion from corporate inner circles and C-suite offices. One exhaustive study found that a third of Asian CMOs felt unsupported by top brass and that marketers’ careers appeared to be sliding down the corporate ladder below their professional colleagues in departments like finance and HR.
But that bleak portrayal has been brightening considerably, as evidenced by the commentary emanating from the panel discussion during the recent Campaign360 conference intended to talk about ‘sleepless nights’ for marketers.
“Companies are asking questions about marketing in a way that has never been done before at the C-level”, said Edward Bell, general manager of brand, insight and communications at Cathay Pacific. “Now you find yourself in a meeting with CEOs talking about the attribution model. I mean, I don’t know when that would have happened in the past.”
“I think the CEO and CFO are definitely getting more involved, not just from a KPI perspective but from a performance metrics standpoint and even the channels,” agreed Erica Kerner, APAC vice-president of marketing & communications at Tiffany & Co. “So I spend more and more of my time with senior management across the board talking about marketing programs and strategies than I ever have before.”
So why the change of heart from decision-makers to remove the locks on their doors and allow the CMOs in? Numbers, of course. Lots of numbers. CMOs are now a treasure trove of data thanks to digital engagement, which CEOs are eager to swipe.
“CEOs are paying for things to connect them to their most valuable customers and they want to know what they’re paying for,” said Ruth Stubbs, global president of iProspect. “They’re putting themselves into the mix so they can really understand what the value exchange is. Do they really need that?” Added Stubbs, “I think that’s fantastic but it does add another level of pressure, it does add another level of exposure.”
The double-edged data sword
“What it’s definitely bringing is a level of rigour and more than ever a focus on those KPIs and being accountable than ever before because you can’ get away with talking something through the board,” noted Kerner. “You have to be able to justify it, to have the metrics and deliverables to stand behind something.”
Ah, and so return the sleepless nights—no longer about whether CEOs believe marketers but whether sales attribution shines through the marketing data. And it doesn’t end there. A larger worry might be that C-suites have become hooked on short-term, data-driven outcomes to the detriment of longer-term initiatives.
“The digital platforms make it so easy for the focus to be about immediate response” said Bell, who noted that clickthrough revenue has become such a powerful metric to companies that it makes other functions like customer loyalty and brand building sound “fluffy”. In the process, he argues, marketing departments are looking more like sales departments.
“In the past marketing was seen as a way to build the business,” said Bell. “Nowadays a lot of the CFOs and CEOs are saying, 'Where do I put my bets?'. Marketing is under pressure to deliver. 'What’s the contribution to business growth?'”
“Brand is just a way to sell product, “ he continued. “So if you’re not selling then brands will look to technology or automation or something like that to get results.”
“I’m not as pessimistic,” said Kerner, who argued that brand remains front and center for Tiffany, but simply has to be built alongside short-term initiatives. Yet marketers “do get very caught up in the short term results and platforms”, she agreed.
Power to the platform
This focus on winning with digital platforms may have a detrimental side-effects for brands, Bell argued, citing observations in China during his long agency career there.
“The three brands that are being built in China are Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Everyone else is losing power.” Bell cited a recent 11.11 campaign where Alibaba used multiple brand taglines to build its own superbrand, something he viewed as a “changing of the guard”.
“I’m concerned that we’re all marching toward a lower-yield future as brand marketers because we’re all putting more and more effort and investment into platforms that are really not owned by us, but by these other big players,“ Bell said.
Few brands, however, would say they have much choice in the matter and still see the platforms as the only way to get close to their customers these days. “If Alibaba are making the access to your brand easier then you should embrace that as well,” countered Stubbs.
Hands off our data
The other issue that’s keeping CMOs up at night post-Cambridge Analytica scandal is data access, limiting the degree of collaboration between brands and agencies.
“There’s so much risk involving data being mishandled and the level of trust with our clients is perhaps not as good as it should be,” admitted Stubbs.
Bell said giving agencies access to your data is problematic given data security issues and consumer trust which was paramount for Cathay. “I think once you give the impression that that’s vulnerable for consumers then that’s a big price to pay,” he said. “So I think it’s difficult to do.”
“We’ve become extremely good at workarounds” said Stubbs, who tells brands to imagine what they could do if they allowed her agency access to the real data. “But the last thing I’d want to be responsible for is the data getting into the wrong hands. That’s absolutely critical.”