Marketers must be at the centre of transformation, not at the edges

Marketers are often guilty of focusing on superficial innovations – they should be at the heart of efforts to develop totally different digital business models.

transformationMarketers are often the advance party on innovation and digitisation in any business. We explore how to make our brands crackle and spit. Burn brightly. Stand out from the crowd. We will be the first in the business to build an Alexa skill, release an app, or deploy a chatbot on our website. We will test new formats on Instagram, filters on Snapchat to better engage customers. I once even worked on deploying interactive postboxes that made Christmas elf sounds using motion sensors when people posted a Christmas card.

In operating so well and so quickly at the periphery, however, have we inadvertently created a veneer of digital transformation that organisations use as a comfort blanket? As a colleague of mine once joked to me, “you have replaced your colouring pencils for a Game Boy”, which says so much about the leap senior executives need to make if their ventures are to succeed in the digital age.

Providing our organisations with a vestige of modernity could, in fact, be achieving no more than superficial reassurance for senior management, who have only just switched from their BlackBerry (yes there are many leaders out there who secretly mourn their demise). We may in fact be part of the digital transformation problem. Not from inaction, but from staying on the edges.

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We celebrate our creativity and pioneering innovation. But creativity, as author and cultural visionary Sir Ken Robinson once said, is the process of having original ideas that deliver value. A significant task for marketers today is to ensure our divergent thinking, so essential for the creative process, has a voice at the executive table. If we are to deliver true value through transforming our organisations for what Tom Goodwin calls the “post-digital age” in his book Digital Darwinism, we need to move from the periphery in the organisation.

Common failings

The marketer’s challenge is that few of our colleagues in commercial, finance, HR, technology, operations or legal departments are really thinking about how digital transformation will completely reinvent the markets we operate in, and how we find growth and extract value from customers over the next decade. In my experience:

  • Few senior executives and organisations understand new technology and consumer behaviours.
  • Many business decision makers either look backwards or to the competition for inspiration.
  • For many, digital is about replicating existing processes in a digital way (bolt-ons) to improve service and keep up.
  • Increased automation is seen as the latest way to increase productivity and reduce costs.
  • Many in business don’t realise that we have been through a paradigm shift that goes way beyond increased ecommerce shopping due to lockdown.

5G, mobile, machine learning, personalisation. Using these technologies, we would surely build vastly different businesses to meet consumer demand and expectations, if we were starting from scratch today. There would be many new products and services, creating more jobs rather than just removing them.

Some of us have been trying to do this for some time. Getting under the skin. It requires real tenacity to ensure a creative spark delivers value. Several years ago, I took a role that included re-platforming the company website. The platform was out of service, didn’t render to mobile, and the journeys were a decade old. Given we had circa 1 million visitors a day, this needed to be fixed. However, we were significantly capital-constrained, and wouldn’t be able to invest as much as we normally would for such an undertaking. We needed to apply creative problem-solving and our marketing expertise to solve this challenge and deliver value.

On closer inspection, this wasn’t a simple design and content play of upgrading the content management system. There were significant issues with how digital was being approached across the piece. We needed an entirely new operating model. A new way of working between marketing, finance and technology. We needed to introduce agility into the organisation, to ensure that our digital interfaces were dynamic; not static, costly and slow to change.

Luckily, we found allies in finance and technology who wanted to do this also. After much creative problem-solving, influencing and hard work, we got the project over the line. Now, that business has an immensely powerful use case in agile development, which it can use on other digital projects. It can also spin up any digital experience on the website in very little time with a thoroughbred in-house team. It is a case in using a creative and bold approach to deliver value in the core.

Some organisations will invest in incremental change and digitise existing processes to keep up with the curve. A bolt-on approach to legacy systems and ways of working. But the most successful will make digital their core and build out from there.

So, what is the role of the marketer in this period of rapid change? We shouldn’t stay on the edges, sprinkling stardust and constraining our ambition to communications campaigns. Now is the time to lean in, and use our knowledge and experience of cutting-edge technology, our passion for meeting customer needs, and our creative imaginations to challenge and help lead our businesses into the future. We should be a significant part of the answer to the challenges this digital paradigm shift is posing.

Ben Rhodes is the former group marketing director of Royal Mail and chairman of ISBA’s executive committee.

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