CMO interview: Austbroker’s head of marketing on global thinking, digital delivery and data

Vanessa Lyons talks to CMO about the triumphs and challenges of being a globe-trotting marketer

Austbrokers' head of marketing Vanessa Lyons reveals what it takes for a CMO to survive in today's globally competitive marketplace
Austbrokers' head of marketing Vanessa Lyons reveals what it takes for a CMO to survive in today's globally competitive marketplace

With a career spanning over fifteen years and across Australia, China, New Zealand and the US, Austbroker’s head of marketing, Vanessa Lyons, knows what it takes to make a successful international marketing executive.

“The best way to describe me would be a global nomad,” she told CMO. “I’ve done a full circle of industries, marketing disciplines, consumer, business, as well as of course, going around the globe doing it.”

She has also seen the role of the CMO and marketing evolve rapidly throughout the years.

“It’s a lot more integrated now and a lot more commercial,” she said. “Back in the days when I was working in China, data was small, the Internet was small and we were still using dial-up. As a result, integration across the globe was a lot harder to achieve. Whereas now I think applying platforms on a global scale, getting best practices on a global scale and that ability to take what’s relevant and apply it, has definitely forced marketers to look at things differently.

“We’re no longer a country marketing manager, we’re now a global manager, wherever we see it.”

Much like her project management days, where she always felt accountable for growth and business success, Lyons said marketers now have to take that sense of accountability a lot more seriously.

“It’s no longer just about doing something for the brand, or being a little removed from the sales objective,” she added. “Everybody is a lot more ingrained in the accountability side of things.”

Similarly, Lyons said the CIO-CMO relationship is a lot more integrated now and must operate more like a partnership, working towards a unified agenda. “We’re both leading each other as opposed to one leading the other,” she claimed.

Earning her stripes

Starting out in Philips Electronics in Australia as a product marketing manager, Lyons moved to China to focus on marketing development and portfolio management across the Asia-Pacific. After that she continued her marketing role with Philips in New Zealand, with a focus on the brand of Philips Electronics for the entire country.

“It was a lot of sponsorship, brand ambassador work and working with governments,” she said. “I was also involved getting in with retail chains like Woolworths and Coles and developing the consumer marketing side in New Zealand.”

When Philips extended an offer for her to go to Europe, Lyons felt she needed to hit the familiar shores of Australia again and left to take on a new marketing manager position at Telstra, working predominantly on the 60+ segments for mobile and Internet.

“Back in 2007, when you thought of the big chunky phones, trying to get a senior citizen to actually understand what a mobile phone was, was always an interesting challenge,” she said.

After three years, she was tempted again offshore to Chicago, where she took on a head marketing role at Discover Financial, the third-largest payment brand globally. Lyons spent three-and-a-half years leading the company’s global business development and marketing, working with emerging technologies such as mobile payments, social media networks and also overseeing marketing across various countries outside the US.

After starting a family, Lyons relocated back to Australia and in 2014 accepted the head of marketing role at Ausbrokers.The insurance broking group has equity partnerships, with about a 50 per cent equity stake in about 70 businesses around Australia and New Zealand.

As an ASX top 250 company, Lyons said the first part of her role is making sure that stakeholders and investors understand the broad remit Austbroker Holdings has in terms of its sales and capabilities, then building the brand from that level.

“The next level beyond that is being the central enabling tool and marketing ambassador for our 70 businesses,” she explained. “So it’s about being that driving force in showing how to get growth and real opportunities, whether it’s technology enablement or just giving them new insights, as well as showing them different ways and capabilities that they can apply to their individual 70 businesses to help them succeed.”

Social media marketing is all about relevance

From a social media perspective, Lyons stressed marketing strategy is not about necessarily about having the latest technology, but about whether its implementation is relevant and makes a valuable difference.

“I’ve been in the US and the social technologies and capabilities are lot further advanced than where we are in Australia,” she said. “But I’m a strong believer of digital relevance. It’s not about having the newest technology or the latest mobile or social strategy, it has to be relevant.”

Coming from large corporations and working with companies such as Facebook and Google, Lyons said she has seen a lot of people “doing things for the sake of doing it”, and it’s not a strategy she wants to bring to Austbrokers.

Lyons admitted Austbrokers, along with many Australian organisations, is still at its embryonic stages of social media strategy development and is treading carefully to define the strategy moving forward.

“We’re just starting to define what our social media strategy is going to look like for us,” she said. “But we’re certainly not going to do anything for the sake of doing it.”

A big love for data

When it comes to data management in marketing, Lyons is a convert, especially in her current role where there is a lot of opportunity to leverage big data capabilities within the insurance sector.

“In my former role at Discover Financial, we had data at our fingertips and it was more about what you could do with it. The same applies here at Austbrokers,” she said. “The benefit in the insurance industry is that people haven’t used and abused big data much before, so there is a lot of opportunity in exploring data capabilities. I love the ability, quite frankly, of being able to better define what’s needed and to be more proactive about it. So we’re very much in that game.”

Lyons said all 70 of Austbrokers’ businesses are on one common platform with a common infrastructure, giving teams the ability to obtain information and data in real time.

“This is quite unique and we’re just starting to make sure we’re using it correctly,” she added.

Being more customer-centric

When it comes to digital platforms, Lyons said the insurance sector, like many other industries, has traditionally always been led by IT. Now, the 360-degree view of the customer experience is far more holistic and strategic.

“The customer experience doesn’t necessarily only sit with me, but we’re about driving what’s needed, not just what’s technically possible,” she said. “We’re now looking at it more from the perspective of what’s needed and the experience one has to go through before we get into the development phase.

“Whether it is our lead generation platforms, our communication platforms or our social platforms, they’re all being driven from the need which sits both within the marketing net and within the IT function.”

Lyons also said marketers not treating mobile technology as a staple within marketing, are already far behind the competition. At Austbrokers, mobile strategy and thinking is integrated into each and every element and treated as a mandatory consideration.

“In terms of mobile innovation and strategy, we’re looking at things like the payment gateways that go through the mobile channels now,” she said. “It’s more about how we can use mobile, rather than creating a new platform.”

Future-proofing your skills as a CMO

With technology evolving at a rapid pace, the expectation to keep up means marketers are under pressure to keep their skills timely and relevant.

“I don’t think you can ever completely be upskilled,” Lyons said. “I’ve been fortunate enough in my current and previous roles to be part of the innovations space with the likes of Facebook and Google and going through the whole Silicon Valley exercise. Learning how to think like an entrepreneur, but move at the speed of a large corporate, is important.”

According to Lyons, keeping up with the times as a CMO is about exposure, being open to what’s out there and always challenging what you currently know.

“Because things are evolving so quickly, it’s important to keep up from a global perspective to know what else is going on,” she said. “Australia is not always the leader, so being able to see what’s happening elsewhere really helps us here.”

Lyons saw the role of the CMO continuing to expand and evolve at a rapid pace, presenting its own sets of challenges and accountability standards.

“If you think about all the disciplines of marketing, all of the digital components of it and all the enablement that you need from a capabilities perspective, it’s making the role more and more of a challenge because it’s evolving as quickly as you’re developing it,” she said. “No longer can you just be about the insights or the analytical side of things, and no longer can you just be a great creative or visionary. You need to know where you’re going, you can’t just wing it – that’s for sure. But you also need to be nimble to adapt to any change.”

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