CMO interview: Becoming a change agent

The new president of US-based Dachis Group talks to CMO about the opportunities presented to marketers through social data and why CMOs need to become change agents

Erin Mulligan Nelson surprised many peers in 2010 when she quit her post as CMO of Dell, one of the world’s leading PC manufacturers and a $65bn Fortune 50 company, to join a start-up focused on social data. But after 11 years with the enterprise giant, preceded by a stint in consumer packaged goods at Proctor and Gamble, she was looking for a different challenge.

“When I left for Bazaarvoice in 2010, I did it because it was operating in a space I loved – social media and engagement – and was experiencing rapid growth in the changing way marketing works,” she recalled. “I spent a couple of years there, during which time we took the company public and more than doubled growth. Then I started thinking the next opportunity I’d like would be to run the entire go-to-market function inclusive of sales and business development.”

Nelson made that leap in March when she was appointed president of social marketing solutions company, Dachis Group. The US-based business started as social media consultancy and has spent the last year building a social data platform for marketers, ramping up its sales team, investing in marketing capabilities and preparing itself to help marketers wade through the wealth of social data to deliver better business efficiencies.

“My agenda is how we can drive what we consider to be significant growth in a market that’s just exploding with potential,” Nelson told CMO. “There have been lots of applications and tools that help people listen [to social chat], but that doesn’t offer as much value as taking data and capabilities to do powerful things that make your marketing more effective. That is where the real competitive landscape will emerge as we try to figure out how we make this great data asset more utilitarian and effective for marketers.”

Art versus science

Nelson was initially drawn to the marketing discipline as a way of combining her interests in commercial engagement and human psychology, and she remains fascinated by the art of compelling people to desire brands, products, take actions while looking at pricing, positioning and product strategy.

The rise of analytics and science in modern marketing fits well with her approach to marketing as a discipline, but she still believes the best professionals can blend both.

“You can measure an awful lot but there’s still the ability to get inside a target’s head and understand what will compel them to act,” she claimed. “You can’t always quantify how that is going to work. The best marketers are the ones focused in on and utilising data to drive decision making, but who have a healthy understanding of the marketplace and know when intuition ought to kick in as well.

“It’s not just a simple ‘in comes x, out comes y’ equation on any of it. The best marketers are the ones who figure out how to define the right data and insights to make big decisions around who to target, how to position, how to go to market and price.

“Marketing is about the psychology of human behaviour and if we were all totally predictable from analytics, it’d be a weird world we’d be in.”

Nelson agreed it is difficult for CMOs who aren’t as comfortable in this new world of data and analytics to achieve the same success as colleagues that might be. “The tools, capabilities and way we do our craft has evolved so much,” she said. “The big challenge is having the ability to navigate big data and technology applications while understanding how to apply that to your business.”

Compelling leadership

In addition, more and more CMOs are being asked to drive change in their organisations. Nelson believed this was because they have grown into the chief customer officer’s post in recent years and must lead the way for delivering against customer and market needs.

“I see that as a very good thing,” she continued. “The CMOs that relish that influential role and look to figure out how to be change agents in their companies will do very well. It’ll become increasingly harder for folks that want to just stay focused on their function. As I look to what companies will be looking for from presidents and CEOs in the future, data fluency, incredible insight into the marketplace and how you drive change are great capabilities CMOs should become more comfortable with.”

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges for CMOs staking their claim to leadership is articulating what their job entails and measuring their performance against defined responsibilities. According to a recent Economic Intelligence Unit report, there remains a lack of clear consensus on the CMO’s identity not only across the c-suite, but also with marketing chiefs themselves.

“Not three of the CMOs I’ve met or dealt with as clients have the same job description,” Nelson pointed out. “Sometimes you have CMOs who are responsible for product innovation and development, some who are responsible for customer strategy, and some who are responsible for business development.

“Look at CFOs as a comparative example: it’s clear what CFOs do. They manage accounting, treasury, financial planning and analysis, and pretty much every one has the same job description. That means it’s fairly easy to consistently measure and manage how a CFO is performing versus their colleagues.

“CMOs are all over the board. I don’t think we’re getting to a point anytime soon where all CMOs have the same job description either. It’s about figuring out where you drive value, what you’re accountable for and making sure you can measure and articulate against that value no matter what the job description is so you become invaluable to the rest of the c-suite.”

Taking up the challenge

Nelson said her experience in product development, managing sales and marketing have well-prepared her for the step up from CMO to the top job at Dachis Group. “Joining Bazaarvoice then Dachis Group is like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes in that I’m marketing to marketers,” she explained.

“I have also had experiences where I already felt incredibly accountable, so being president doesn’t feel that different from other roles I’ve previously held.

“When you’re at a company like Dell, chances are you’ll wake up tomorrow and Dell will still be roughly a $65bn business. There will be lots of things you do over your period of tenure that drive that, but you can’t point to one thing that changes the trajectory of the company. At Bazaarvoice and now here at Dachis Group, there are opportunities to make those decisions that I look back on and point to as the reason we achieved transformative outcomes.”

While coy about revealing too much of the product roadmap at Dachis Group, one important focus for the company is how organisations think about activating their employees. Nelson claimed there’s an ability to drive selling and social selling process that didn’t exist five years ago. “It requires marketers to figure out the right content you want your frontline people to share with their social ecosystems, how you enable that, and how you make it easy and fun for them,” she explained.

Given Dachis Group’s focus on social data, it’s clear the company is on the cusp of technology innovation driving how marketers embrace the new wave of two-way customer communication. This means Nelson has the added challenge of a swiftly changing competitive landscape.

“It’s difficult to know who your competitors will be a year from now. It could be two guys in a garage with a dog we’ve never heard of before,” she said. “In this space there is room for several phenomenal players to emerge; I don’t think this ends up being a monopoly market.”

Whoever wins the vendor jostle, there are a tremendous number of ways today to drive value in the marketing ecosystem that technology is just starting to open up, Nelson said. “There’s a real opportunity to build great platforms and capabilities to process what is the greatest amount of data we have ever seen. The question is, what do you do with it?” she asked.

“This whole earned media marketplace has only developed over the last five years. How to activate audiences and content inside of this is an entirely new opportunity for marketers to engage with customers and drive value that never existed before.

“Bringing data, insight and capabilities to that earned media space is incredibly important. But it’s even bigger than that. There are opportunities to transform the way we think about all media, marketing and targeting, about merchandising. Social data is a resource that can be applied to literally everything a marketer does so they can make better decisions, drive better outcomes and performance.”

3 things CMOs need to be great leaders
1. Data and technology fluency: Nelson said modern CMOs should become fluent enough to understand what the organisation needs when it comes to data. “With the rise of data and the capabilities we have today, you need to understand what you need and how you deploy it effectively in the organisation,” she claimed.

2. Voice of the marketplace: CMOs must also be incredibly tuned in to customers and prospects, and what they like and don’t like. “The role of marketing is to bring the voice of the marketplace inside,” Nelson said. “Again, it comes back to data - the most effective CMOs are the ones who best understand the marketplace and are translating those needs into the things their company is doing to drive value.”

3. Change agents: Whether it’s thinking about the engagement economy, or understanding where the market is going, great CMOs drive incredibly compelling visions of what’s possible. “You need to excited legions of functions, not just marketers, to figure out how to go after those opportunities,” Nelson said. “Skills to distil and provide a vision, drive excitement and get people united around the goal of serving the market place are vital. How are you driving possibility and unleashing potential inside a company to drive innovation? Great CMOs do that.”

More on the CMO's rise up the leadership ranks:

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