IBM’s Caroline Taylor: Embrace what makes you different

IBM’s top marketer Caroline Taylor has just been awarded an OBE for her services to marketing and diversity. As a passionate advocate of inclusivity and equality, she is adamant marketing can change the world.     

Caroline Taylor IBM“I’m keen to lead by example and I’m very much a ‘roll up your sleeves’ marketing leader,” says Caroline Taylor OBE, vice-president of global marketing and communications for IBM sales and distribution.

“The last thing I ever want to do is sit in an office looking at spreadsheets. It’s very important to be authentic, so I try to make sure I don’t get caught up in the idea of being a role model. It’s all about how you can prevent people tripping over the same things that tripped you.”

It is this very willingness to give back, both to her company and society at large, that saw Taylor awarded an OBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list, in recognition of her services to marketing, diversity and the prevention of human trafficking.

Marketers don’t always get recognised for the value that they bring.

An advocate of inclusion, sustainability and equality, she is also chair of the board of trustees at Stop the Traffik, a global coalition against the modern-day slave trade. Her work across a variety of sectors means Taylor does not regard her OBE as recognition of herself alone, but instead a celebration of teamwork and the value marketing contributes to society.

“I often feel like marketers don’t always get recognised for the value that they bring. Marketing gets kicked a fair bit in the media; people say it’s about making people buy things they don’t need and that marketers are at [fault for] the ‘consumerisation’ of the planet,” says Taylor.

“So I do believe when you get recognition like this, it’s not really about me, it’s about the teams I work with.”

An integral part of the IBM team for 20 years, Taylor has occupied a variety of leadership roles at the tech giant, including CMO of IBM Europe and vice-president of marketing for IBM Software Group Europe. She joined IBM in 1997 after six years in sales and marketing roles within the independent software sector, before which she spent eight years working in fine wine retail.

Being just like everyone else is probably the most career limiting thing you can do.

In her current role, Taylor is responsible for marketing strategy and execution across North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Japan, China and Asia Pacific. Yet despite three decades in the industry, Taylor says she fell into marketing after a job as a student and has been in love with the industry ever since.

“At my very first job [in marketing] I felt like ‘this is me and this is what I’m good at’, which was interesting to me as I studied science and thought I would do something in research or work for a pharmaceutical company,” she reflects.

It is perhaps her unusual path into marketing which persuades Taylor that a good marketing team should have a mixture of people who have formally studied marketing and those who fell into it but have a love for the industry. A big supporter of IBM’s apprenticeship programme for 18-year-olds, Taylor prescribes to the theory that there is no replacement for experience.

READ MORE: Do marketing experts need a qualification in marketing?

Looking to the future generation of tech marketers, the biggest challenge is getting women to consider that a career in tech is as good as a career in retail or banking. Female marketers should forget the stereotypes, Taylor argues, and embrace the fact that being different can help you make your voice heard.

“I personally cannot recall a single moment when I felt like me being female was an issue. I have almost considered it a benefit, particularly early in my career.

“The worst outcome in the world is for everybody to become vanilla flavoured and to be treated the same. We should be celebrating the fact that we’re all different. Being just like everyone else is probably the most career-limiting thing you can do,” she adds.

The power of work/life integration

Taylor believes diversity should be a ‘huge priority’ for any business, in particular for marketers who by nature are trying to communicate with a diverse audience. This comes down to diversity of thought, she argues, regardless of gender, ethnicity or educational background.

“I would never, ever want to work somewhere that did not have really strong credentials in diversity and inclusion. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed for 20 years at IBM,” explains Taylor, who argues the widening gender pay gap in marketing is a result of lack of meritocracy.

“You can put in place incredibly precise pay scales, but the reality is it won’t work unless you’re a meritocracy where people are recognised and rewarded for the value they bring. I really struggle to see how non-inclusive, non-diverse marketing organisations can be successful.”

IBM’s citizenship programmes are not about “cheque book philanthropy”, but rather helping other organisations achieve more through a match of skills, says Taylor. Last year, IBM partnered with Stop the Traffik to launch the Centre for Intelligence Led Prevention, implementing data analytics to identify instances of trafficking globally.

Taylor was delighted at what she calls the “amazing collision” of her work world and personal passion for the Stop the Traffik coalition, identifying the value of working somewhere where work and life can mix.

“There was a lot of talk for many years about this idea of work/life balance and then about five years ago there was this concept of work/life integration. It’s about the things that I care about in my personal life, and the things I care about at IBM, coming together,” she adds.

Technology enables us to know so much about our customers and shame on us if we don’t use that knowledge.

Her unshakeable belief in marketing’s ability to make the world a better place, by using engagement as a force for good, means Taylor sees marketing as responsible for balancing the “triple bottom line” of environmental, economic and societal sustainability.

“We as marketers matter to society, because we have a pivotal role in our businesses in order to help them succeed,” she explains.

“But we also have a pivotal role in ensuring that the purpose of the business gets encapsulated in the company culture. Our role as brand champions and custodians of our businesses is a very privileged opportunity.”

Use tech to do better work

The next task for marketers will be to use innovations in technology to deliver an experience that is better, faster and more dynamic. However, such technological advances mean they must use these enhanced insights to benefit the consumer.

“Technology enables us to know so much about our customers and shame on us if we don’t use that knowledge,” says Taylor. “Our customers know we know so much more about them, they expect us to use it and they will be irritated if we don’t. The critical thing is to understand how the technology helps me deliver my brand promise and engage my prospective customer.”

She advises marketers to get away from the “hard sell” and use technology to create marketing that is of service, not an irritation. So while augmented reality, for example, can dramatically improve the experience in certain circumstances, it does not need to be applied in every instance just because it can be.

Instead, Taylor believes marketers should be thoughtful about how they use technology to achieve their goals and understand the “art of the possible”.

“Technology should help us to serve our customers better. If you do then suddenly you’re the brand that isn’t annoying, but the one which gives consumers useful stuff. Getting to that kind of nirvana will be an amazing thing for us in marketing.”

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