Why modern marketers need to be pi-people

How do you create a marketing function fit for the future? This was the question a newly appointed chief marketing officer asked me last week. It’s a tough question.

Ashley Friedlein

Some of the challenges and opportunities around the future of marketing are well known. Marketers have to deal with everything from ‘big’ data and analytics to globalisation, innovation, personalisation and gain greater agility, while attracting and retaining the right talent.

So how do you create a marketing function best placed to embrace these challenges?

I want to highlight some of the insights that I’ve observed over the past few years.

First, it is possible to assess marketing capability within a brand; we use a capability and maturity model. It is a matrix overlapping the well-recognised planks of people, process and technology with capability columns we call ‘emergent’, ‘managed’ and ‘optimised’.

Our research during the process tends to reveal how companies are treating digital marketing from an organisational design and team structure point of view. We can see that most brands go on a journey of digital maturity, where the organisational model most suited to their stage of transformation changes over time.

This explains the many reorganisations we see occurring within brands. Few organisations can leap-frog from the ‘beginner’ to the ‘advanced’ stage of digital marketing functions. It is difficult to achieve this type of transformation without significant personnel change, particularly at the top where management needs to drive it through over a number of years.

Second, it appears that integrating digital into the organisation properly reaches nirvana only when there is no one left in the organisation with ‘digital’, ‘e’, ‘online’, ‘internet’, ‘new media’ or ‘interactive’ in their job title. There are few organisations that have achieved this state of enlightenment and those that have are typically smaller companies or internet businesses. Most organisations are still scrabbling to hire specialist digital talent.

Third, it’s all about the people. We used to talk about T-shaped people, who were marketers with a broad set of knowledge and skills in marketing but deep specialism in a particular area. But I’ve started talking about pi-shaped (Π) people. These are marketers with a broad base of knowledge in all areas, but capabilities in both ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ disciplines. They are both analytical and data-driven, yet understand brands, storytelling and experiential marketing.

Of course, it is asking a lot for someone to be talented at everything creative and analytical, but these people do exist and represent the future of truly integrated marketing. Witness the growth of job titles such as ‘creative technologists’ or ‘chief marketing technologist’. You want people who focus on the customer, understand data, like change, are curious and passionate.

Katie Vanneck-Smith, CMO at News International, recently exhorted marketers to “marry the technologist” at an event. Meanwhile, Nordstrom Innovation Lab’s description of what the team wants from a new recruit is a great description of the type of marketing people who will be fit for the future.

Fourth, the marketing process is changing. There’s a move towards more agile ways of working, which should affect marketing as much as project management or IT. We have to move from highly linear, highly specified, rigid ways to more fluid, reactive, dynamic approaches.

Social media is ‘on’ 24 hours a day; customers are interacting with brands all the time. Watch Coca-Cola talk about its fluid approach to nurture creativity through content excellence.

Although greater project agility is rightfully gaining traction, it’s not always the right or only way to do things. The future marketing function will find culture much more important than the specific process chosen. The right culture embraces testing, fails fast, focuses on the customer, recognises that data beats opinions, embraces change, prototypes and iterates quickly.

The Government may have a big challenge to become a future-fit organisation but I’m encouraged by what’s happening within the Government Digital Service (GDS). Have a look at its ‘design principles’ that exhort organisations to “design with data” and “build digital services, not websites”. It’s a sign of cultural change as well as process change.

Fifth, if you don’t think technology is as much the responsibility of the marketing department as the IT team, then you’re probably not future-fit. The world of data, APIs, responsive design and what is made possible by cloud-based services is the engine that drives the future of marketing.

It is vital that marketers really understand the technology they use. There is a danger in organisations buying technology in the hope that possessing it will somehow make them future-fit marketers. It is much more important to have a smart vision for the technology and data architecture that will enable a future of marketing that is efficiently and intelligently ‘omni-channel’ and personalised. The CMO and CIO need to own this vision jointly.

Ultimately, the journey towards digital transformation and creating a marketing department fit for the future is not an easy one, but it’s exciting and full of potential.

Ashley Friedlein is chief executive of Econsultancy



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