Suki Thompson: 2017 is the tipping point for marketing transformation

As an endless list of challenges including Brexit, tech disruption and new structures impact marketers, those that tackle transformation head on and instill it across the business will be the ones that succeed.


Close your eyes for a moment and think about the one big thing that has happened in your business environment over the past year that has directly impacted you.

Brexit and economic instability, tech disruption, being hired and fired, downsizing, new marketing and agency structures, information overload, the need for speed… the list is endless.

For the marketing industry, change has been huge.

“The defining challenge for marketing organisations in the 21st century is structural,” as an article in Forbes puts it. “It’s not about the marketing department any more, it’s about marketing at the core of the business,”

I couldn’t agree more. 2017 is, I believe, the tipping point for transformation.

With this in mind, the first Oystercatchers Club evening of 2017 tackled transformation. Some 200 UK, European and global senior marketers and agency chiefs gathered in search of inspiration and a very frank exchange of views.

On stage with me were three marketing leaders who had a transformation story to tell. Macmillan Cancer Support CEO Lynda Thomas, who has launched the charity on a root and branch transformation and Lisa Gilbert, CMO of IBM UK & Ireland, who arrived in the UK from the USA to change the shape of the marketing function of this 105-year-old company.

Also on the panel was Jon Wilkins, executive chairman of Karmarama, who sent shock waves through the industry with the recent sale to Accenture, and Simon Kingsnorth, global head of digital marketing at Citi Private Bank, who has been driving digital transformation through many companies in recent years.

READ MORE: What Accenture and Karmarama’s deal means for marketers

Much was discussed including the impact of technology, culture and shared tips for success.

Tech is a great enabler at the right time, in the right place

Technology is a crucial enabler of transformation. IBM’s Gilbert revealed that the tech firm is beginning to integrate Watson’s artificial intelligence capabilities into its media buying. But technology remains ahead of social acceptance. Consumers are growing alienated by the technology brands are using and consumer trust declines year on year.

The result? A growing trend for retro-marketing as nostalgic baby boomers long for a taste of their childhood while millennials rebel against the digital age. Consider the rise of vinyl, Kodak bringing back traditional camera film, the hostess trolley coming back into fashion.

The lesson is to return to marketing basics, understand the psychology that motivates consumers and refuse to be distracted by bright, shiny things.

Culture should take centre stage

Culture is the differentiator; and happens when no-one is looking. It’s important to have a vision and carry your people with you. Ignore internal communications at your peril if you want to engage your teams, then take them on the journey.

We use Squawks at Oystercatchers as a way to involve people in shaping the future culture and customer experience and a forum to debate issues and discuss hot topics impacting our people, clients and shareholders. By turning your team into storytellers they can convert sceptics into champions, who in turn become your strongest advocates.

Of course there are enemies to transformation. Success can breed complacency.

To keep culture strong and commitment to creativity, Wilkins of Karmarama has a manifesto. And faced with the challenge of transforming a risk averse culture to one of trust, Gilbert introduced a ‘bold and brave’ initiative encouraging celebration of epic failures as well as successes.

Don’t lose sight of the customer in the rush to innovate

The customer always comes first. Brands must stay in the mind of the consumer and so marketers must read what they read, watch what they watch and shop where they shop. Ditch the office and talk to the people who are buying your brands.

Of course there are enemies to transformation. Success can breed complacency, but hunger will bring innovation and change. Structure can be a stumbling block and businesses can fail if they take the teams who are keeping the motor running and ask them to lead transformation. The most successful companies today are building a transformation structure.

I recently met Chris Capossela, global CMO of Microsoft, who talked about five key areas the organisation considered through its transformation process – each one resonated with me, and I intend to build them into the next steps of our transformation journey at Centaur:

  • Wallow in your own reality
  • Define your core and brand
  • Live your future culture
  • Innovate way beyond product
  • Focus on your fans

I welcome the pivotal year ahead. But I know that we cannot play it safe, after all, growth and comfort do not go hand in hand.

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