Ed Pilkington: Specialists, not brand managers, are the future of marketing

Brands need in-house expertise to keep pace with rapidly changing fields such as media, data and technology. The solution isn’t more brand managers but specialists with deep knowledge, says Diageo’s European marketing and innovation director, Ed Pilkington.

One of the hottest topics around seems to be how to construct a marketing department in an age of such rapid change. We hear lots of debate around generalists and specialists and what the right balance is. One thing is for sure: the old model has gone and there isn’t a perfect new model. Evolution and change will be key.

When building a department you have to go back to what you want to achieve, and then work out how to deliver that. In a world of change it is interesting that the core elements of what a marketing team does have not really changed.

At its most basic it’s about building brands by growing your consumer base and increasing consumption. To do that you still need a vision and an insight-based plan. You need great media plans, a clear content strategy and a view of how your brand shows up in culture. You also need to be clear on your distribution strategy, the role innovation plays and, of course, you need a price and promotional strategy.

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So what’s different? Simply put, it has just got more exciting and a bit more (positively) complicated. Getting to grips with a much more fragmented media environment takes time. We have more data to process and understand and we’re producing more content than ever before.

Every brand also wants to find its purpose and place in today’s culture. Technology is impacting even so-called ‘traditional’ businesses, with marketers grasping new opportunities to use tech to connect with consumers – and at the same time living in fear that their brand and total business could be disrupted and rendered useless.

If there’s one challenge, it could be around career planning – with fewer brand managers and increasingly specific skills required for specialist roles.

The need to keep your brand fresh and yet consistent is greater than ever. Innovation becomes a way of being, and pricing and promotion have become even more critical in this world of price comparison and margin pressure.

On top of this our need to keep finding relevant insights tells us that people want to escape from constant messaging, and to feel and see the world, so we need to deliver powerful brand experiences at scale and then amplify them through social media. A marketer needs to move with the pace of the world, be fluid and flexible, and at the same time draw breath and plan.

The rise of specialists

In an age of such rapid change, we can’t therefore expect a group of people with some version of ‘brand manager’ in their job title to do all of this brilliantly. The brand manager becomes the person who sets the vision for the brand and dictates the play (the conductor or the quarterback). Equally, you can’t just rely on agency partners to bring in all the expertise and heap more pressure on them. So we need to find the right blend.

I do believe that having expertise in house on core specialisms is important. Consequently over the last few years we’ve created a group of teams who support the brand teams and work closely with our agency partners, but who also bring real expertise in critical areas like media, data, technology, innovation, culture, brand experience and in the spaces of shopper and planning.

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These specialists are needed to upskill the broader marketing department on their disciplines but also, and critically, to ensure a quality of thinking and a deep connectedness to their area of expertise, which results in better work and improved results. I appreciate that I’m fortunate to work in a business of some scale, with a relative wealth of resource and talent, but we have made conscious changes to shift the talent mix in terms of brand managers and specialists. Going from a department of brand managers, brand management is now one function within many.

The marketing department of today has to be a blend of consumer-centric business leaders who write and execute brand plans but who are surrounded by experts bringing deep knowledge and competitive advantage. If there’s one challenge with this, it could be around career planning – with fewer brand managers and increasingly specific skills required for specialist roles.

In this scenario movement or progression could become trickier. The key will be for all marketers to try and get a broad range of experience. Some more explicit specialities like data and culture may be the preserve of certain experts but marketers should look to develop a broad base across innovation, shopper marketing, planning, etc.

For some who just love their area of expertise, the challenge is how we make them feel they can build a career path in an organisation, and our opportunity is to make that happen. People will, though, have to live with greater degrees of ambiguity about their career and that could result in higher levels of turnover.

Of course, one of the best ways to keep everyone happy is to ensure that we have a healthy, growing business, which provides new opportunities through growth and evolving structures that deal with the change in the world.

So to sum it up, while the principle of building brands remains the same, we all know that in this world of change we need to keep evolving how we construct our teams. The brand manager should be the beating heart championing the brand, realising that they don’t need to know everything but that they do need to know how to access expertise internally and how to partner with agencies to drive their business.Experts will increasingly come into brand companies as agents of change and delivery.

With all this happening the marketing department will become a more interesting and diverse place, with a greater blend of thinking and skills – and therefore a better place to work.

Ed Pilkington is marketing and innovation director, Europe, at Diageo