Robert Sawatzky
Apr 2, 2018

The top challenges facing digital marketers

APAC brand marketers shared their top challenges at a roundtable sponsored by Essence, co-moderated by Campaign's Faaez Samadi.

A traditional energy company tries to shift toward a digital-first culture as a marketer at an insurance giant struggles with sales attribution. A non-profit pulls together a content marketing team with new objectives while a technology hardware firm sets up a new social-monitoring hub. A consumer goods giant tries to combine data sets to better target consumers while a startup looks for a cost-effective way to personalise its customer messages. 

Brand marketers of all types and sizes may be at various stages in their own digital transformations, evidenced by a roundtable discussion during the recent Campaign360 conference in Singapore. But despite the varied challenges involved, each one is forging ahead to put digital at the center of their marketing strategies.

“We’ve really embraced and put digital in the middle of our marketing”, said Paula Levy, marketing director at Intel Technology Asia.

I think digital can help with cost effectiveness of marketing and it is the most measureable.  So if I need to show the impact of marketing then I can and we can say, ‘this is what we produced’.  
—Paula Levy

But Levy notes the picture gets a lot more complicated when working across departments or with partner firms in retail or manufacturing with their own data sets to build collective trust. “The challenge is ensuring everything talks to each other,” she said, highlighting a commonly shared concern.

Integration with IT

For digital transformation to succeed, the participants agreed the CMO and CIO really need to align, bringing marketing and IT departments together.

“It’s sometimes a struggle to have IT up to speed on digital” says Seb Lepez, APAC director of integrated marketing and communications at Johnson & Johnson, who says a common mistake is to assume anyone who understands technology understands digital marketing or DMPs.

“Collaboration is so important between marketing and IT” agrees Irene Ng, VP of marketing at a leading Asian consumer electronics firm, who says a digitally transformed company increasingly needs staff who understand both. A key challenge, she says is trying to match the new job descriptions of what she now needs with existing job profiles that tend to fall into old silos. 

But for many companies the problem isn’t over when new digitally-savvy staff are brought in, since they need an environment that supports them and is accepting of new ideas.

Levy said it's imperative that IT departments know the marketing objectives so that in building the stacks and core capabilities, it equips marketers with the right interfaces and seamless experiences to fully reap the benefits. “I think that’s always a challenge as to ‘does that platform talk to this one,’” she said, noting that the skills and the capabilities on the less glamorous side is really what makes the more glamorous digital campaigns happen.

The old [IT] mindset was separate the data as much as you can instead of making it useful to marketers and was very system oriented instead of being solution oriented.  Now, we’re seeing a new breed of people being brought in because that just doesn’t work.  
—Veronique Cornu, head of digital, MetLife Asia

A common frustration the marketers cited was in trying to use first-party data and linking it to other data sets to get a more complete picture of their customers and how to best target them. Not only are there IT compliance headaches, but acting on the data at different scales remains a key challenge.

Smarter targeting

In a world where programmatic marketing is mainstream, Lepez said he’s still working to leverage it more effectively.  He’d like to know more clearly where customers are in their purchase journey on mobile and how best to reach them with customized content. But more to the point, how to use technology to do that efficiently, since five different pieces of content might not work anymore – he might need 25.

For Isabella Zhou, the CMO of Singapore retail startup Love, Bonito, the scale may be very different from J&J, but the challenge is similar.

Ecommerce seems to be easy in that everything is tracked, it is complex when it comes to different data you’re getting, 
—Isabella Zhou

Her biggest priority is personalisation, which she knows cannot be solved with a single tool. Starting a loyalty program is one option, Zhou said, since they can identify customers and their purchase behaviour more closely.  They can then recognize their cookies online, target them with ads and monitor effectiveness through online or offline purchases. Zhou also wants to tailor online experiences to adjust to individual tastes and alter the volume of their messaging depending on the customers buying patterns. 


Connecting marketing with sales has always been one of marketers’ greatest challenges.  What digital marketing has done, the roundtable participants agreed, is raise expectations.

Veronique Cornu, head of digital for MetLife Asia said her top priority rides on setting up the key digital platforms since “without platforms in place, I can’t prove that we’re driving business.”

But in a chicken and egg situation, marketers often find it difficult to justify spending on new tools and technologies unless they first see direct payoff. 

“Management will only take note if the use case is of relevance to the business and it shows ROI or sales conversion,” said Ng. “A lot of agencies can create a lot of exciting campaigns and pilot cases but unless we can show and prove to management that the use case of whatever AI or data analytics used to have a single customer view [has a] conversion or business aspect, I think is just [seen as] technology without showing any real value.” 

We still struggle with attribution.  What we still don’t know is what is actually affecting the performance. 
—Veronique Cornu

“Product sales is the ultimate measure we’re all working towards,” said Lepez.  But he warned that trying to link initiatives directly, like attributing 10,000 new customers to a new pilot initiative isn’t easy and is often unrealistic. Yet instead of giving up, marketers should simply look for improvements in KPIs rather than attribute hard sales.

Soft KPIs like customer loyalty and retention are important to us as marketers agreed Brian Fisher, Caltex brand manager for Chevron International, but not to management. 

What may be key is to have a better relationship with the CFO, suggested Essence APAC CEO Kyoko Matsushita

“Today I have some clients who actually work with the client finance team to look at the contribution of marketing activity to the actual incremental sales. I think that must have taken a long time to get there, but what I know is that once they built that mechanism, management started to actually look at changing the way in which they spend the marketing dollars.”

Brand safety

Matsushita also gauged the room temperature on brand safety issues and found it was a hot topic of concerns.

“Brand safety is very important,” said Ng who felt in digital media she has less control yet faces high expectations to respond quickly from consumers.  Here she said you need to rely on good media agency partners to ensure proper placement.

Lepez reminded the panel that J&J pulled out of YouTube last year over brand safety concerns.  And while he recognised there’s been progress to mitigate damage through blacklisting, he’d like to see more done to stop bad advertising placement before it ends up on a site next to undesirable content.

I don’t want to be next to adult content or terrorist content… I want to be super safe.
—Seb Lepez

For Fisher, ad fraud is a greater problem than brand safety.  “Our conversations around brand safety go back to measurement,” said Fisher.  “Are actual real people engaging with our content online or are we talking to computers in Lithuania?”

Playing devil’s advocate, Fisher suggested that most consumers were smart enough to know that ads placed next to bad content were not endorsements of racism, sexism or any other undesirable messaging in the content itself.

“Maybe, but it’s damaging to the brand,” Lepez countered, noting brand equity takes a long time to rebuild.

Off message

While perhaps not as damaging as a misplaced brand message next to salacious content, World Wildlife Fund communications director Kim Stengert shared a different problem related to warped marketing messages. 

His non-profit wanted to maximize engagement and hired PR and digital specialists to help with outreach.  In doing so, reach, shares, likes and audience growth soared on digital channels, yet the overall effectiveness of their conservation aims were not enjoying the same success.

You can post cute little pandas, which helps and gets great engagement.  We all love them. But on the other hand you sometimes need to bring out some of these unpopular hard messages as well which advance our cause.
—Kim Stengert

It’s yet another reminder to not allow the medium to become the message.

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