How to build a marketing function fit for the future

As technology evolves and consumer needs change, marketing departments require an acute focus on the right skill sets for the job. That means closing the gap between traditional marketing methods and innovative new tactics, spanning silos and building function competencies. The stakes are high.

Argos-digital-concept-store-Old-Street-Fast-Track-2Technology is transforming the role of marketing like never before. From the rise of the multi-screen population and expectations around multichannel to the growth in smart homes and the shift towards the sharing economy, brands need to continually update their capabilities if they are to keep up with today’s consumers. “You have to constantly innovate and reinvent yourself as an organisation to keep up with consumer demands and needs,” suggests Ash Roots, director of digital at Direct Line Group.

Digital direction

For Direct Line Group the latest chapter in this continuous reinvention has most recently meant ‘Complete Digital Transformation’. Few elements of the marketing or business function remain untouched by digital so it is crucial to find leaders who can inspire digital collaboration within the organisation to harness the latest innovations.

“It’s easy to focus purely on the technology, but at DLG we are trying to focus on much more than that: the right outcomes include developing and attracting the right people with the right skills and mind sets,” explains Roots, who has spent the last two years building in-house capabilities. “My ambition was always to build a highly talented digital team in-house who can take insight through to highly performing digital experiences and this is what I have now done.” In order to enable specific digital working practices to be conducted, his team quickly adopted agile methodologies including test and learn, data driven testing and iteration and scrum.

Roots also acknowledges that achieving change within the marketing department is a process of belief. “I learned that in order to make culture change happen you need to embrace role models or initiatives that resemble the place you are trying to become, rather than just talking about doing it,” he says. “Even if you have a strong vision for the future, you need to hold faith that going step-by-step will not take forever.”

Crafting change

Argos provides another example of how making fundamental changes can help future-proof a brand. Last year, Stephen Vowles, marketing director of Argos, spearheaded the relaunch of the dated-looking catalogue brand, repositioning it as a digital retailer with attractive unique selling points: 20,000 items available for immediate pick up and fast delivery. Termed ‘Get set, Go Argos’, this initiative signaled a significant shift in the retailer’s approach.

“Some things that have worked for us [in the journey] so far, include: an authentic vision and strategy built from inside the business and owned by the business, a good mix of new and old people and making change the responsibility of the existing business,” says Vowles. “Marketing skills need to drive the strategy of any consumer business in a competitive market. In most, great marketing execution is also vital and that is what is important rather than the formality of departmental structure and department reputation.”

In order to meet customer needs profitably, marketers also need to know their competition and the bigger business picture. Vowles attributes the success of recent executions – including a major re-launch of the brand across multiple media and launching new brand Heart of House in the homewares and furniture markets – down to this combination of skills and knowledge.

“You need people who embrace and enjoy rapid change: people who appreciate the skills of others and understand why those are important; people who are constantly curious and want to work out how what they do fits with and integrates with what others in marketing and across the business are doing,” he explains. “Marketing craftspeople who don’t see beyond their specific craft are not the answer, you absolutely need the craft but you need crafts people who will put their craft into a much broader context and enterprise.”


If any business wants to grow in the hearts and minds of its potential customers it needs to perfect a deep understanding of those customers and deliver the things that are going to better satisfy them. In today’s world of digital, mobile and social media, this means developing a deep understanding of that customer and a sophisticated, agile approach to connecting with them, effortlessly and in real-time.

Transport hub Gatwick Airport has a strategic intent to be London’s airport of choice. As a central part of that goal, Alex Authers, head of market research and insight at Gatwick Airport, works with a complex range of data sources, sifting through the most important metrics to find those ones that unlock the key to customer satisfaction.

If successful marketing begins and ends with the customer, it stands to reason that a superior customer insight capability is a competitive advantage. “Our separation from BAA [in 2009] means we have been freed up to think about things more from a passenger-centric point of view,” says Authers. “It is like going from production orientation to marketing orientation: it is starting to do things differently because that is what our passengers want of us.”

Within this context insight has to be an agile, commercially oriented function itself. Communicating salient insight through to the boardroom is a crucial part of making that strategic intent successful. “You can make your data work harder for you by sharing more of the metrics with more people so they better understand some of the issues,” comments Authers.

“We can spin lots of plates and churn out loads of data and each of those bits of data will help someone within the business improve something,” he adds. “But we need to understand which are the most important ones that we should highlight most often to people at the top of the business, in order to say we are going in the right direction to achieve our corporate aims.”

Staying informed

This focus on using insight better is also a key concern of Jane Frost, CEO of the Market Research Society, who sees it as vital to marketing’s place in the corporate hierarchy. “In creating a knowledge base founded on an understanding of the customer that is both deep and dynamic, marketers can own something that is incredibly valuable to all aspects of the business,” observes Frost. “This balances the increasing trend for IT/technical to own the outputs known as big data, just as finance historically ‘owned’ the money.”

She makes a plea for an intelligent, informed client on the brand side: a marketer that knows how to provide intelligent briefs and how to get quality. “Marketing directors need to create a real or virtual centre of excellence to provide them with actionable evidence-based insight,” says Frost.

“This includes hiring for talent and training well, ensuring appropriate specialisms are covered, gaining a basic statistical understanding and fluency in sampling so they know what data to trust and building cultural and wider involvement with their customer knowledge programme.”

By continuing to leverage the opportunities of data and digital technology, marketers will secure their influence and increase their impact on the business as a whole. Marketers need to be on a constant journey to deliver an engaging, integrated experience that is fast-moving and highly relevant. Like the consumers it serves, the marketing function of the future is always-on, dynamic and demanding.

Ash Roots, Stephen Vowles, Alex Authers and Jane Frost will all be speaking as part of the Big Debate on 29th and 30th April at MWL ’15 and Insight’15. Crafted around the needs of senior marketers, these conferences bring together some of the industry’s brightest minds to share their expertise

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