Sangster: Why associations must become the right-hand man to businesses

Outgoing CEO of ADMA reflects on the significant evolution of industry associations to cope with the shift in marketing from communications to whole-of-customer engagement

ADMA CEO, Jodie Sangster
ADMA CEO, Jodie Sangster

Today’s industry associations must increasingly play the “right-hand man” to businesses in order to help them make the enormous step to customer-led thinking, ADMA outgoing CEO, Jodie Sangster, believes.

Sangster announced her resignation after seven years at the helm of the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) last week in favour of a new, as-yet undisclosed role with IBM Watson. She stays on until April and is being replaced in an interim capacity by recently recruited chief operating officer, Steve Sinha, while an executive search is conducted for a permanent new chief.

Speaking to CMO following news of her resignation, Sangster reflected on the significant shift ADMA has made under her tenure – from direct marketing to data-driven marketing, multiple acquisitions and a realignment under the group umbrella of Australian Association of Data Leadership (AADL) – and what it takes as an association to keep up with the changing nature of marketing, digital and data transformation.

“So many associations have become irrelevant as they haven’t kept up with their industry,” she told CMO. “The associations that get it right will be the guiding partner with businesses as they go through change and be someone to rely on and link them to others going through the process.”  

This is a far cry from when Sangster took over as CEO of the Australia Direct Marketing Association in 2010, which was arguably facing a crisis in brand relevancy and purpose.

“For the first six months, every time we had meetings with members, they’d say they weren’t in direct marketing. Time and time again, I was having this conversation,” Sangster recalled.  

“There was a clear disconnect between what we as an association said was direct marketing, which really was data-driven marketing, and what the industry felt was direct marketing – mail, phone, email and more traditional channels.”

The first big call became changing the association’s name to the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA).

“Within months, the conversations we were having changed. People wanting to have that conversation changed and companies becoming members changed,” she said. “It was a milestone because it set the course for the next six years after that on what data-driven marketing became.”  

According to Sangster, the second significant shift was the technology platforms coming into the market.

“It wasn’t just about understanding and crafting the message going out; the role of marketing was becoming a technology led discipline. That was a big change,” she continued.

The third change ADMA had to tackle was elevation of the role of the CMO. “At the time I joined, it wasn’t as prevalent a role and you had a head of marketing. Three years in, and the CMO role was gaining significant attention,” Sangster said.

“A big focus for us was going after the CMO, and creating a network of people in those senior positions.”

Sangster suggested rising importance of CMO changed the face of marketing, too. “It’s not about campaigns, it’s become a very technical, wide reaching role across the whole organisation,” she said.

“Marketing is not just about communications, it’s about engagement and experience.  The conversation and what we had to provide as an association as a consequence, began to change. That was another key moment in time.”  

Having shifted from direct marketing to data-driven, and from communications to customer experience, and having seen the amount of data now available grow exponentially, ADMA’s focus in the last three years has been around building organisational nous to cope.  

“We have seen more change in marketing than any other time in recent years and the need for people to understand the data, technology, channels and how to have two-way conversations all suddenly meant we didn’t have the right skillsets in Australia,” Sangster said.

“For me, the focus on education has been about allowing businesses to have a data-driven future. Again, it was a necessary shift. Without that, we won’t have the right people in place to deliver.”  

From one to many: AADL

From there, it was a natural extension to start looking across the fragmented association landscape and try and bring more alignment to what members needed to do, Sangster said. It was this thinking that led to ADMA striking an alliance with the Institute of Analytics Professionals of Australia (IAPA) in mid-2014.

“You can’t have data-driven marketing without the data analytics team, so it was a natural extension for us to bring that different community in and have them sitting side by side,” Sangster explained.  

“Digital was another no-brainer, as everything has become digital. That community has to be interconnected as well,” she said by way of explanation for ADMA’s acquisition of the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA). This rebranded to the Digital  + Technology Collective nearly 12 months ago. Data governance was next, and ADMA launched Data Governance Australia in October 2016.

“The extensions occurred where it makes sense to deliver to what businesses need from us,” Sangster said. “As member needs extended, our footprint extended along with it.

“They are different communities, personality types and different needs and wants, education and networking requirements. You can’t shoehorn people together these days. Have to understand how different audiences want to interact.”

Hence the formation of the Australian Alliance for Data Leadership (AADL) in mid-2017, the next chapter in ADMA’s evolution.

So why leave now? “As a CEO, there’s a period of time we you provide ideas, and do what you need to drive the association forward. Then there’s a point when it’s right for the organisation to have fresh thinking,” Sangster said.

“It’s the right thing to do for the industry to have someone with that fresh perspective taking the association through that next step of its evolution. I will be involved still. But it’s right for the CEO to recognise that it’s time to go.

“I have loved the last seven years. This is an association and board that’s let me do things never thought I’d be able to do, whether it’s new elements put in place or taking advantage of opportunities. With AADL as a group of associations, it is important to get the right person to drive that focus on the customer forward.”

Acting CEO, Steven Sinha, will hold the reins while an executive search goes on. Sangster said the group hoped to have a new CEO confirmed by the end of the financial year.

From marketing to customer experience

Where Sangster sees the industry now heading is under the banner of customer experience. She pointed to the rise  of the chief customer officer as illustrative of this trend.

“Within that, you have marketing, analytics, customer service, digital components, all sitting under customer experience,” she said. “That feels like the next natural step. It sees marketing evolve but there’s still a role for marketing to build that two-way engagement with customers.”

As a result, it’s vital for the association and industry to keep that focus on the customer.

“When you start to pull away the layers, the reality of what organisations say and do is disconnected,” she commented. “The shift from a business perspective is that if you are to truly going to deliver customer experience, you have to live and breathe what the customer is about. And that has to come from the top down.

“Our role as an association is to enable companies to do that. Because it’s a hard transition to make. Whether it’s ‘ education’ at the CEO level and understanding what it means to be customer centric, or it’s the structure of the team to make that happen, or the skillset of the team to deliver on that… Our future role is enabling and helping organisations do that. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge in business.”

By way of example, Sangster pointed to ADMA’s recent skills assessment work across 30 companies, which found every company suffering a lack of digital skills. She also agreed organisations are experimenting with c-suite roles such as chief digital or data officers, depending on where they are struggling to change the most.

“It can be very reactionary rather than the right company structure and then realigning to that, bearing in mind there’s a longer-term play to address,” she said. “That’s reflective of the speed with which things are moving.”  

Data and measurement is another ongoing challenge, and one Sangster believed the industry needs to work even more closely together on.

“We are clear on our three reasons for being and these remain the same: Advocacy; education at every single level; and promotion of our industry to recognise the great work that happens,” she added. “We are clear that way in terms of our foundations; it’s up to the new person to put their own lens across that.”  

Whatever direction AADL’s new chief takes it in next, what’s clear for Sangster is that the role of the association has changed.

“There is a need for association that has evolved and play the right-hand man to business to help them through these changes,” she said. “So many have become irrelevant as they haven’t kept up with their industry. There is a very clear board focus for AADL to make sure AADL goes that way in future.” 

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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