Computers and artificial intelligence have come along at an exponential rate over the past few decades, from being regarded as oversized adding machines to the point where they have played integral roles in some legitimately creative endeavours.
Corporate Travel Management’s (CTM) Tom Clark isn’t just a seasoned brand and comms marketer with an eye on the customer; he’s also the company’s digital technologist.
“Technology is becoming more prominent in the customer’s decision-making process, and if you don’t have that, it becomes a real struggle,” he claimed. “Two years ago, we were probably as good as anyone else but now we’re well ahead in the A/NZ market. It’s a highly intense, competitive landscape we’re working within and technology is a marketing advantage.”
CMO caught up with one of Australia’s first marketing and digital technology chiefs to find out how he’s juggling digital delivery with brand strategy, and to understand the skills, strategy and platforms he’s adopted to achieve success.
Getting to CMTO
Clark didn’t start as a marketer or technologist. He kicked off his career as an intern at Prime TV as a news camera operator for regional broadcasts. From there, he joined the sales team, working with SMEs to grow their brand through local marketing activities.
After a stint in metropolitan sales at the Prime/Seven network, he joined News Corp’s print media sales team, working with large organisations such as Commonwealth Bank and Vodafone. It was this big brand discipline that took Clark first into consumer travel tour company, AOT, where he picked up digital skills and global brand experience, then to corporate travel marketing and CTM four years ago.
In 2013, Clark assumed responsibility for CTM’s marketing and digital technology requirements, and last year was appointed the first chief technology and marketing officer.
“AOT really got me into the digital aspect and things like pay per click, SEO and so on, but it also helped me understand the science around digital technology and how moving a button one inch to the left can increase conversion ratios by one or two percentage points,” he said. “That really interested me: That fickleness and the power of small changes that can make big differences in terms of revenue generation.”
During Clark’s four years at CTM, the company has grown annual turnover from $300 million to in excess of $3 billion, and now employs 1800 staff in 23 countries. It’s also undertaken a host of acquisitions globally including New Zealand’s Cavalier Travel, Australian-based Travelcorp, R&A Travel in the US, and Asia’s Westminster.
Clark said the relative lack of digital innovation and data-driven marketing within the corporate travel space had become quickly apparent to him when he joined CTM. So he started looking at using digital technology as a key differentiation point for the brand’s product and services.
“The leisure side of travel is so advanced when it comes to digital technology but the corporate side is just so outdated,” he said. “It would take 15, 20 seconds to get to your flight results page, and you’d have to go back to the beginning to change flight dates. It’s those very simplistic things that needed work. By showing the business where we could go, the executive team saw the potential, which is what led me into this joint role.”
Previously, CTM had a person in charge of digital technology, another covering IT, and operational managers including GMs of each state. This had created a highly segmented team.
Having gained the dual title of marketing and technology chief, Clark said his first priority was consumerising the process of booking corporate travel. He also focused on consolidating platforms and building a strategy for digital.
“We had a subset of technologies and while they were all good, they were legacy oriented and didn’t have that innovation in terms of usability,” he explained. “Getting to one platform helped not only with user productivity, but also to better manage operational productivity, such as development resources, as you don’t have individual teams on different frameworks trying to support multiple technologies. It’s one platform for everyone.”
In two years, Clarke has built 15 major applications, stretching from traveller security and pre-trip approval systems to taxi share tools and online booking. He’s also built three patented corporate travel applications, each with disruptive functionality unique to the corporate travel industry.
The platforms are firmly embedded in Australia and Asia, with the US and Europe to be rolled out over coming months via several large clients. These advancements have saved customers millions thanks to increased user productivity and improved buying habits, he said.
To make this kind of digital transformation possible, executive and staff buy-in was crucial. This was where CTM’s entrepreneurial culture proved an asset, Clark said.
“CTM was built from scratch by a young entrepreneur [James Pherous], and he fosters that entrepreneurial thinking in the organisation. He’ll let you make mistakes, but ultimately let you do what you think needs to be done,” he said.
“What we were trying to do is get that level of thinking within the organisation around needing to change and shift, and worry about what the user feels, touches and sees, then move backwards from that point. It’s a big shift in our industry and mindset adjustment, but CTM has gone with it, loved it and benefitted as a result.”
Customers want usable, quick and intuitive experiences and if you don’t give them that, they will go somewhere else
According to Clarke, there are two ingredients to building scalable and flexible digital capability. One is having the modern, cloud-based technology platforms in place. “We have built our technology from scratch, so we’re building on the modern frameworks and using the most modern techniques and tools to build our code,” he said.
“Customers want usable, quick and intuitive experiences and if you don’t give them that, they will go somewhere else. We’re all about building for that younger demographic – if we can build for that, it will also be easier for the older demographics to use it too.”
The second ingredient is aligning the presentation of information and digital product with geographies and regional customer needs. “Cultural alignment is a big play for us,” Clarke continued. “Rather than one-size-fits-all with one platform that might pull in local data but is presented in the same way, different markets have different needs.”
Skills and acquisitions
The resources required to get CTM to this point have been significant, and Clark has hired many of them into the business. Among his recruits are user experience specialists, application development staff and product managers. He’s also bringing on additional quality assurance professionals and has just appointed a software tester to lift CTM’s testing strategy.
“When we build a platform, I want everyone collaborating and talking together,” Clark said. “With user experience and design, those teams can get ahead of themselves about how it looks without considering whether it can be built.
“We now have a good balance of dev team and product – some of our product guys are very technical and understand the plumbing and systems, then we have others that bring in consumer user experience and thinking. Combining those two skills together gives us a powerful proposition.”
Product managers in different regions, meanwhile, have the autonomy to gauge the needs and requirements of their market, but work with the Australian dev team build, Clark said.
CTM also has an in-house IT infrastructure and support function and Clark said they’re actively collaborating. “They’ll come into our standups every now and then so they get a sense of what we’re doing and can help support us,” he said. “They’re also overseeing security and governance and as we’ve quadrupled our online audience, it is critical that is supported.”
Data-driven customer insights
It’s in the area of data-driven customer insight and action that the benefits of being both CMO and CTO really come into play, Clark said.
“This allows us to create needs-driven product and that strong relationship between what the customer relationship wants, and how that is delivered through the technology,” he said.
“We do a range of things to get customer feedback, including the traditional market research, but the big thing is it happens within the one team. When we go and get these insights and identify trends, the same people in the same team will be looking and working on those trends, including the guys that build the technology. It’s a really close relationship, as opposed to having research on the CMO side and technology on the CTO’s.”
Clark also makes sure every developer building code for CTM’s digital platforms has delved into customer insights and research outcomes. “That allows us to build product quickly, that works, and that is more in line with the needs of our customers.”
Alongside traditional research through surveys, Clark has also undertaken projective analysis to get into a customer’s subconscious thinking in order to better map out product development priorities.
“Those techniques are things a traditional CTO may not think of or know how to do,” he added.
“On the interface side, we always ensure that usability and the user journey is not impeded by anything else, but I make it at point to always have an icon on the bottom right – we use Kampyle – that allows the user to talk back to us in terms of experiences and what they like or dislike.
“That’s the marketer coming out, whereas a CTO may think it’s going to disrupt a user journey and slow things down. But having the marketers working in the team with developers, and marketers and product managers uncovering these insights through various techniques ultimately gets us better product that customers want to use.”
Clark said he has been met with questions, rather than negativity, from teams working together for the first time.
“It takes a while for them to adapt to the mindset and shift in thinking, but when they see the outcome, that customers are enjoying it and that we’re building market share and winning from our competitors, they fall into play very quickly,” he said.
Wider business outcomes
The differentiation point digital gives CTM in the market has been the big win, and it’s something the sales team is now actively using to close deals. Clark said every tender CTM now features one or more pieces of its digital offering.
“A lot of the time it’s the innovation factor customers will buy. There may be a tool that isn’t going to work in their organisation, but they want to partner with a company because they want to partner with the most innovative TMC,” he claimed. “The market share shift has been enormous based on having this technology we didn’t have two years ago.”
Sharing the digital vision with the rest of the business has been an ongoing focus for Clark, and he said the transformation has even brought some employees to tears.
“It creates this clear vision on us being the market leaders,” he said. “A staff member may not understand what the application does, but they can see the vision on the screen immediately. It’s given people a lot of confidence in the journey we’re going on and in the sales process.”
To keep staff focused on innovation, Clark holds weekly meetings where everyone puts forward three new ideas that could potentially disrupt the industry.
“That’s a measurement of innovation and that’s the driving philosophy of everything this company does,” he said. “We don’t agree with brainstorming session – if one of the product managers has a great idea, then yes, market research can come into play, but if we think it’s going to work, we’ll get going and measure the results.”
CTM’s next digital priorities
Clarke’s current priority is rolling out the technology stack globally. “We have these great systems in place, so it’s about refining those for the new markets, and then getting some good product development processes in each individual market, with feedback loops from customer insights,” he said.
On the marketing strategy side, Clark is focused on brand alignment, engagement and evolution. Because of CTM’s rapid acquisition activity, it still retains the Westminster brand in Asia and Chambers in the UK, and there’s work to be done bringing all brands in line.
And on the operational front, Clark is looking to refine his team’s agile approach to ensure it sticks to a “lean and mean” way of doing things.
“We have grown so quickly and have so many new developers on board, we’re trying to pull that back into the whole development processes,” he said. “We want to make sure the sprints are held accordingly, we do retrospectives on what went on, and so on.
“I couldn’t have envisaged getting to this success in terms of numbers of users and investment we have gained. It’s been really exciting, but it’s created lots of challenges. As you bring in a larger development team, processes need to come into play, but you also don’t want to disrupt productivity.
“We’re trying to do it in a way where we still get a lot of product to market very quickly.”
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