How Sitecore's CMO balances digital technology with cultural change

Sitecore global chief marketing officer, Paige O'Neill, shares the surprises she found in setting the digital experience tech vendor on the course to personalisation, plus the challenges of executive alignment

Speaking: Sitecore's Paige O'Neill
Speaking: Sitecore's Paige O'Neill


Balancing technological change with cultural change is part and parcel of digital transformation. And yet even at digital experience platform provider, Sitecore, its chief marketing officer found many employees were still not clear on why culture was as important as technology in transformation.

During last week’s Sitecore Experience event in Sydney, global CMO, Paige O’Neill, shared her version of five tough truths hindering modern experience-led marketing.

Afterwards, O’Neill sat down with CMO to detail further the challenges she sees CMOs facing as they strive to support modern customer engagement expectation. She also disclosed how she as a marketing leader has gone about digital transformation herself, and where the role of marketing is going.

In your presentation, you talked about goal setting and alignment being key to modern marketing success and digital transformation. What are some of the key ingredients?

Paige O’Neill: All too often, you can get wrapped around analysis and not make progress. With the customers I’ve talked to driving real change, alignment has happened at the CEO/board/c-suite level. Then, whether it’s the CMO, chief digital officer or chief information officer or via a partner driving this, they’re able to make progress. So ideally, this has to start with an alignment of the executive team around the business strategy.

It’s amazing when I’m talking to CMOs how many work for companies still struggling to get that alignment and discussion around digital transformation going. People are busy, there are other priorities, or it hasn’t risen to the top. The other thing I hear is yes, we know we need to undergo digital transformation, but it’ll take years and we don’t know where to start, so they’re putting it off. But you have to start somewhere.

In recent times, we’ve seen the rise of the chief growth officer, a c-suite position arguably designed to corral the business towards growth. There’s also an increasing number chief customer officers for similar alignment around customer. Both suggest the psychology around what a CMO is getting a shake-up. What’s your view on how we reposition the CMO?

I’ve also read those articles asking whether the CMO role is going to go away. I don’t think it will – of course a CMO doesn’t think it will. But I think it’s being driven for many reasons. In the recent Harvard business Review on the state of the CMO, the authors talked about just how broad the CMO role can be, and named alignment around this as one of the reasons why it often fails.

It stands to reason if you have a role that’s gone out of control in terms of what it can include, it’s ripe for some kind of rightsizing. Whether that’s the company making sure they’re aligned on what they’re hiring a CMO to do, or ensuring that alignment is in check as tenure progresses, or rightsizing, are all options.

In more mature organisations, where they’re bringing in a chief digital officer or chief growth officer, they’ll already have a strategy and are going down the digital transformation path. The CMO may need a partner, or you want the CDO to be driving it from a tech perspective. I’ve seen such partnerships in that instance work well. In contrast, I’ve talked to companies that jumped on the bandwagon of bringing in a CDO, with a completely undefined role where there’s no digital transformation strategy or alignment of c-suite. And they’re exiting eight months later.

The choice of role relates to the company’s maturity level and strategy. Not surprisingly, there is going to be a higher success rate when those things are more thought out.

When you came into Sitecore, a digital experience platform provider, did you yourself have these sorts of discussions around what your role as CMO was going to be?

Not in terms of my role as CMO – as I went through the process, they were quite clear on the type of CMO they wanted to hire. It was more around setting up priorities. One of the first things I wanted to do was go through the same process implementing Sitecore as our customers go through. Of course we were already using the platform, but not using it to the extent we could from a feature or personalisation perspective.

Paige O'NeillCredit: Sitecore
Paige O'Neill


The talk became getting us onto the latest version of the software. I did have to take a step back and say I want to go through the same process as my customers go through, which is spending up to six months upfront understanding it from the customer perspective. This meant going through an RFP process with digital agencies, selecting an agency, doing customer journey mapping, all while articulating what our digital transformation strategy was.

I was able to make all that happen, but I did get a lot of questions about why I wasn’t just implementing the latest version of the platform. I was surprised not to have that understanding and get those questions about just updating in four months.

Setting expectations upfront on the amount of time it takes to digitally transform continues to crop up as a key issue, as finding success takes longer than many think. Many talk about finding quick wins along the way. Was this the case for you?

Those quick wins are critical. One of the ways I sold the idea of the process taking such a long time was because we chunked the tech transformation into phases. We had a sexy phase one, where we reskinned the website and put new branding up. People thought this was great, but that was just the skin. However, it bought us time. Many in the company didn’t understand what was happening behind the scenes.

Today we not only have digital transformation as an imperative, we also have customer experience transformation. Are they symbiotic?

I think the digital transformation is happening because of customer experience expectations. The mandate customers have given brands is so strong, we’re willing to put ourselves through these multi-year projects and come out the other side because we need to modernise. I talk to so many businesses thinking about being digital-first and it’s a complete 180-degree turn for them. They’re doing it because if they don’t, they know they’re probably going to go out of business. It’s that dire.

What is it still stopping so many digital transformation efforts from bearing fruit?

The cultural transformation is wider underestimated. Companies don’t really want to talk about it as much either – they may think they can send out internal communications and sort it that way.

Volvo, one of our big global customers, spent a lot of time upfront talking about the cultural transformation involved. The CEO made what seemed like a crazy statement: ‘I don’t want anyone to lose their life in a Volvo automobile by 2020’. Then the company reorganised, changing people’s job roles and breaking down silos based around what it learned about the customer in order to drive change. It’s why Volvo has been successful – the business spent as much time thinking about the culture as the technology element.

In striving to replicate the journey your clients go through at Sitecore, how much did you have to reorganise marketing?

We do the technology for a living so there’s an expectation and familiarity with going through the process to upgrade tech. But I’m constantly going around the company saying it’s about more than just implementing the platform and getting cool personalisation on the website. It’s about how we do marketing differently, and abandon all tactics we shouldn’t do any more. It’s also about how we’re going to partner more closely with sales and impact the entire process, and make the website the centre of that.

Everyone is very receptive, but when you start to getting into crossing the Ts and dotting the Is of how people’s jobs have to change, you often have to double back and remind everyone why you’re doing it, what the outputs are going to be from change. Part of it has to be changing the way we work together.

How much of CMO tenure is hindering organisations from achieving this?

CMO tenure is a big part of the challenge here. Often, marketers are going in and striving to fix things, but then after 18 months they’re out of there. How do organisations make progress in a role that has a revolving door? It’s a big part of the problem we don’t talk about that often.

It’s very true the CMO is not driving the CX culture element for the most part – we can be involved, and certainly suggest programs and share insights, but it’s quickly not our remit because of our other priorities we have. Yet it’s a big missing element if it’s not accounted for in an organisation as digital transformation move forward.

What last advice do you have for CMOs about how to better enact change?

There is a surface-level conversation that goes on when companies are thinking of recruiting CMOs, and there might not be a deep enough understanding of what will drive the change they want or need. The other thing is company priorities change so quickly. And if you don’t have the skillset for that, it can feel they’ve hired the wrong person. I’m sure every role faces it, but the CMO in particular is prone to having that happen in the business as change blows through.

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