​What does it take to be an innovative CMO?

Experts discuss the essential skills and attributes marketing leaders need to drive innovation and remain agile

Innovation has become one of marketing’s biggest buzzwords, but what does it really mean for a CMO to be innovative?

We talk to a host of marketing, brand, technology and advertising experts on the skills today’s marketing leaders need in order to be innovative and agile in today’s fast-paced digital landscape.

Be bold and break the mould

Experts agree CMOs need to break out of traditional marketing moulds. For country manager of food delivery company Deliveroo, Levi Aon, complacency makes it extremely easy for a marketer’s skills to become irrelevant very quickly.

“Gone are the days when you could put out a post on social or erect a billboard and expect to be noticed,” he says. “We live in a very noisy world where we have educated the consumer to demand much more.”

To be truly innovative, Aron believes marketers must apply and expose themselves to areas outside their comfort zone. This includes breaking out of their current company's four walls and gain new learnings from outside.

“That will ultimately help them innovate beyond what was first imagined from within their company,” he says.

In a world where targets and expectations keep shifting, Aron says marketers need to keep refining their skills and knowledge base.

“It is essential they continually engage with agencies and colleges from a range of different industries in order to keep their finger on the pulse and bring added value to their role,” he says.

Embrace test and learn

CMO of business management software company Promapp, Sarah Berkowski, agrees an innovative marketer has the courage to try new approaches, the courage to fail and the intelligence to learn and adapt quickly.

“An innovative marketer is one who has the ability to derive and leverage insights and who never becomes complacent,” she says. “Innovative marketing approaches become dated very quickly. Truly innovative marketers love the test and learn cycle - test, tweak, test, tweak.”

The other key attribute of a successful, innovative marketer is that they not only come up with an innovative idea, they make it happen.

“I’ve always been a fan of marketers who are really good at getting stuff done,”Berowski says. “The best idea on paper is worthless if you can’t manage to bring it to life.”

Managing director of creative communications agency Imagination, Ant Gowthorp, stresses it’s important to remember that everyone is trying to stay ahead in new areas, it’s not just marketers struggling to keep their skills relevant.

“In today’s marketing world, traditional channels don’t cut it anymore,” he says. “A truly innovative marketer should have a willingness to take a risk and a willingness to fail.”

Gowthorp recommends marketers invest in new ways to test the market and see what works.

“For example, 10 per cent of the marketing budget could be invested in non-traditional methods to see what might fly,” he says. “These methods may not work, but a good marketer understands that failing increases learning, which makes for a better future. If you don’t put a toe in the water, you’re not going to learn what works for you and your brand.”

Rocket Fuel’s managing director, JJ Eastwood, believes that in order for marketers to be innovative, they need to move beyond the merits of mere courage and bravery and take risks. And to do this, they need the right people around them.

“We hear a lot of talk about the merits of bravery these days, and I think to a certain extent that’s very true, but it’s important to keep in mind that people are usually at their bravest when they have the right expertise around them,” he says. “The most innovative marketers are smart enough to know what they don’t know and bring in the right expertise to inform their strategies.”

As an example, he quotes a line in Aaron Sorkin’s script for the Steve Jobs movie, ‘musicians play their instruments, I play the orchestra’.

“I’m not suggesting there’s a Steve Jobs hiding in all of us, but I think the general message is right,” Eastwood says. “To innovate effectively, sometimes you have to stand back and see things in concert. This is especially true in areas like data and digital marketing strategy, where opportunities like programmatic trading are available to leverage the big ‘set piece’ ideas in the marketer’s strategy.”

According to creative director of digital agency group J Walter Thompson and Webling, Jay Morgan, the focus needs to be on consistency and discovery.

“I can’t tell you how many marketers I’ve worked with over the years who’ve said 'give the tech and innovation thing a go’ and it doesn’t work so they stop,” he comments. “Innovation is not invention, it’s the process of discovery that leads to insights that leads to more innovation and if you’re truly committed to being ahead of the game it never ends."

If you aren’t fascinated by what technology innovation can do for you, Morgan warns you are at a major risk of being left behind while other marketers innovate.

“There will always be a steady stream of new technology to exploit,” he says. “I ask you to question your choice of work because there simply is not better time to be alive if you’re a marketer than right now. It can be riveting every day.”

Embrace the technology and data matrix

According to head of Ogilvy Ventures, Anthony Johnston, innovative thinking stems from finding an opportunity and being able to develop a commercially viable solution.

“To do this well, there needs to be the ability to fuse data, technology and innovative thinking into outcomes that engage the market, more so than in-depth knowledge in each skillset on their own – this is the remit of subject matter experts,” he says. “It’s important that the marketer has a solid understanding of each skillset, but the fusing of these into a solution is a real skill that requires active development.”

Co-founder and head of analytics at Big Datr, Avrill D’Costa, also believes innovative marketers are those bridging the gap between data, technology and implementation.

“There are so many innovations happening in the space and it's easy to get lost in it all,” she says. “Marketers must understand the business case they're trying to solve and then select the best data sets and technology platforms for that implementation.”

Ikon Communications’ head of digital, Sian Whitnall, sees marketers who use data to immerse themselves in their consumer mix as dynamic and innovative.

“We now have more information on our side to be able to make better informed decisions, we just need to ensure we show the restraint in the volume of data we utilise to ensure we don’t lose focus,” she says.

Aron says Deliveroo is looking for marketers who not only have extensive experience and great ideas, but boast of even stronger analytical and execution skills.

“From Google Analytics, to understanding data sets across a wide range of social, app and e-commerce platforms, today's marketer needs to be able to digest huge amounts of info and make calculated decisions as a daily routine,” he says.

But despite modern marketing, becoming extremely analytical and numbers driven, there is still a place for traditional marketing skills, adds HotelQuickly CMO and co-founder, Christian Mischler.

“For performance marketing I’m looking for people who can code and have an analytical background, more than anything else,” he says. “It’s different in partnership marketing, where a more traditional marketing skillset is still required such as interpersonal skills to build a personal network and to successfully pitch campaigns, creativity to come up with new and out-of-the-box ideas, stress resistance to be able to roll out a large number of campaigns and be able to deliver under time-pressure.”

Mischler claims innovation today comes from finding a cross-channel marketing mix that delivers superior conversion.

“For instance, Growth Hackers’ attempt to be innovators in this space and find ways to create viral loops or self-reinforcing forces across channels,” he says. “But simply packing a campaign into a creative copy might not be enough anymore to create a sticky message.”

Think business and APIs

In order to be truly innovative, marketers need to have an ability to see the business outcomes, gather the data to come up with the right strategy and to execute quickly and effectively, says MuleSoft’s senior APAC marketing manager, Marcus Rossato.

“This means being flexible enough and having access to real-time data to make real-time decisions,” he says. “In addition, marketing leaders must leverage latest and greatest technologies to meet how your prospects and customers want to be engaged.”

On top of this, Rossato stresses marketers should place more emphasis on APIs to build "digital business applications".

“APIs are at the core of enabling application transformation for digital business, giving access to functionality and data in your current applications to the new digital business applications,” he claims. “All these digital business applications are usually short-lived, for instance, a retailer creating a digital campaign or promotion for the holidays. While these applications are disposable, they will need much of the functionality and data sitting within IT. APIs make this connectivity between the old and new possible."

Understand your customer’s needs

According to Tactical PR’s marketing consultant, Abey Malouf, innovation is the by-product of truly understanding your customers’ needs.

“It’s not about incorporating CGI in your latest TV spot for pet food,” she says. “Many people think innovation is what they see in campaigns, when in fact it often happens behind the scenes.”

As an example, she refers to how Target’s data-mining efforts helped them predict pregnant shoppers and develop laser-targeted marketing campaigns with tailored products.

“Amazon’s game-changing Recommendation Engine is another great example of how data insights improve the user experience through greater personalisation, thus increasing customer satisfaction and retention,” she says.

Netflix is yet another example of innovative marketing, Malouf says, which has reversed engineered Hollywood by tagging and analysing every movie and TV show imaginable.

“They’ve come up with more than 76,000 micro-genres to describe these movies and improve the viewing experience of 40 million users,” she said. “That algorithm now tells Netflix what shows it should be making, transforming the company from a distributor of content to original owner and producer.”

Make friends with digital disruption

According to CEO of digital transformation software company Squiz, John-Paul Syriatowicz, innovation means embracing digital disruption and treating it as an ongoing process, not a one-off project.

“Marketers must prepare for a future where almost all customer interactions will be digital,” he says. “Analogue broadcast marketing channels have become digital service delivery opportunities and those that have learned how to use these tools best are the current market leaders.”

There is no doubt marketers now have to work hard to adapt and stay relevant in the modern world and Syriatowicz believes being a marketing ‘visionary’ is becoming harder and harder. But the great news is that marketers who are prepared to adapt to the rapid pace of change are in huge demand, he says.

“The quality of digital strategy and execution is improving industry-wide, as organisations are adopting new strategies faster,” he adds. “One of the best ways to ensure you are keeping up with the status quo is to read up on market trends, engage your team and ask for their ideas on how you can improve, and learn from those around you. Surround yourself with people who have different skills and experience to your own.”

Ogilvy’s Johnston agrees it’s getting harder for innovative marketers to stay ahead of the curve in the face of technology advancement.

“Staying ahead of the curve in terms of both how you personally keep up with developments and how you market to your customers is difficult and requires constant attention,” he said. “Channels, customers, technology, globalisation, and commoditisation of ideas, all have impacted on the marketers role and the need to be diversified to remain relevant.”

But despite these pressures, Johnston believes there are still real opportunities to disrupt with creative thinking.

“It’s just that the creative process has changed, as has the way you talk to your customers,” he says. “To remain innovative, you need lateral thinking - the ability to solve problems through an indirect and creative approach, using experience and reasoning that is not immediately obvious.”

Collaboration is key

Through all of this, Syriatowicz encourages marketers to focus on collaboration with cross-functional teams.

“Foster an open, cooperative relationship with IT and collaborate as much as you can,” he advises. “Working together will help build knowledge and confidence in both of your teams.

“Finally, don’t forget vendors. Every time you engage a third party to help deliver a digital project, use the opportunity to up-skill your team. Ask vendors if they can train and mentor your staff. This will help you retain staff, improve project outcomes and improve your team’s digital capabilities.”

Gowthorp notes Imagination’s Innovation Lab provides a space in which everyone can come together with creative, technology and content teams to invent, collaborate, create and test solutions in real time.

“This way you can really under the hood and get your partner to show you the underlying technology and how it works, so you can work with them to solve business problems,” he says. “You can then open yourself up to game changing and the innovation you need to solve the problem really well and let partners come in to help you explore new ways of achieving the outcome.”

Employ the right talent

In addition to collaboration, digital agency Brightpoint Digital’s general manager, Dan Young, says CMOs need to ensure they have the right talent within their team to drive innovation.

Digital as a method of marketing is demanding in terms of resources, know-how and immediacy,” he says. “It has created a number of specialists’ roles in the form of data analysts, community managers, search marketers and ad specialists.

“But marketers don’t need to master all of the above – it’s simply not possible. Marketers should surround themselves with advisors, whether they be in-house or external agency partners.”

Young suggests marketers also need to equip themselves with a broad understanding of the digital marketing landscape and make a call as to the mix of in-house and outsourced support and specialisation.

“Marketers should maintain a healthy scepticism towards marketing innovation and wait for proven results in the form of ROI before committing heavily,” he adds. “It’s critical to also remember that there is no silver bullet marketing solution – the most effective marketing is integrated across multiple channels.

“My advice to CMOs would be employ people with the right skill sets to manage your digital marketing execution and invest your energies in understanding your audience and evolving your brand.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+: google.com/+CmoAu

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