Move Over CMO, Digital is the CEO's Job

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

It was Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard who said that marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department – that senior execs must make it their mission as well. But we must update that sentiment. Digital now has become too important to be left to the marketing department and the chief marketing officer (CMO), which means digital agencies are going to have to step up and learn how to speak the language of the CEO.

The reason is that digital has become more than a single channel, tactic or creative process. It’s not a silo you can safely put in the hands of a mid-level employee. Instead, it should be a source of opportunity that’s essential to creating and sustaining a competitive advantage.

The numbers back this up:

         More than two out of five CEOs now expect their next competitive threat to come from outside their industry. In other words, they’re expecting highly disruptive change, which usually involves digital technology.

         The 1st, 2nd and 4th winners in Fortune’s most recent list of the most admired and innovative companies are from the tech sector: Apple, Amazon and Google. CEOs today want digital agencies to help them find that same magic.

         In categories such as financial services, travel and luxury auto, a mere one-point improvement in a company’s customer experience score can generate between $50m and $118m in annual revenue. That should put digital squarely on the agenda of every CEO.

Digital agencies such as ours are assuming an increasingly strategic role. Our recommendations have gone from being important but secondary, to forming the core of what drives businesses forward.

The only problem is that we’ve not traditionally talked with CEOs. We’ve had a more insular and comradely relationship with brand marketing teams. To take on the C-suite, a much clearer and more direct approach is needed.

Here are a few steps to success.

Help navigate complexity, don’t add to it

In 2011 there were less than 100 companies that delivered marketing tech. Today there are 1,824

Together they are bombarding companies with promises about data, automation and efficiency. At the same time, technology decisions have become so critical that CEOs are forced take part in them. Unfortunately, the agency world has long regarded complication and obfuscation as useful tactics to prove our smarts. Now we must start making things simpler, so we can help CEOs understand the landscape and come to the right decisions.

Connect recommendations to business goals

There’s a good reason why management consultants play golf with CEOs, while digital agencies attend SxSW. The former is much better at understanding larger business questions, such as overall strategy, how to lead transformation, and, frankly, how to make money. Digital agencies can learn from them and adopt their practices. In particular, they should start to tie their proposals to the real goals of a business, as well as provide counsel on how to change an organization, if necessary, to adopt new technologies

Make a business case

Marketers have long sold their ideas based on consumer insights or trends. Of course, those insights still matter, but CEOs need more than a trend to approve an idea. Agencies have to make their cases in business terms, ie improving revenue or customer service, just like every other department at a company. Sure, it’s hardly a new idea, but it’s not a common practice in our world.

Speak in plain language

This can be tough, because those inside the digital bubble don’t realise how much jargon they use. Words such as transparency, synergy and authenticity work well in social media and brand circles, but they aren’t going to pass muster in the executive world. The C-suite has little patience with discussions where enthusiasm trumps business sense.

Be brief

We have to say goodbye to our beloved friend, the longwinded PowerPoint presentation. CEOs need a single page or brief summary that gets to the heart of the matter.

Overall, it’s nice that digital is finally graduating from the back of house to front and centre. But like any graduation, this one comes with a new set of challenges. The best advice is to clarify and simplify everything we do. You might think this makes your job easier, but it really doesn’t. As French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (and numerous others) have observed, it takes more work to make something short and sweet than it does to leave it long and meandering.


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