Omar Johnson: Marketing discipline, diversity of thought drive big creative impact

Former Beat by Dr Dre CMO shares his key learnings as a modern marketing leader and take it takes to generate impactful marketing

A deficit of marketing discipline and diversity of thought are key challenges modern marketing leaders are facing right now. Fail to tackle them, and you'll miss out on the creative empathy and big ideas needed to cut through to modern consumers.

That’s the view of revered consumer marketing leader and former CMO of Beats by Dr Dre, Omar Johnson, who spoke during last week’s Gartner Marketing Symposium about his learnings as a marketing leader, as well as what it takes to foster truly impactful marketing.

From an education in science, Johnson switched focus and began his professional marketing career working for Kraft Foods and on brands such as Campbells Soup. He then spent six years at Nike on brand and content management, before being invited to join Beats by Dr Dre as its first chief marketing officer.

After the hugely successful business was taken over by Apple, Johnson worked for the consumer tech giant for two-and-a-half years as a VP marketing before starting his own agency, Opus United. Opus is a collective of executives, athletes, strategists, creatives and musicians consulting to brands around innovation and harnessing strategic thinking, employing technology to do so.

For Johnson, it’s marketing discipline that’s suffered as a result of the rapid global disruption and dominance of tech companies today. He claimed the education system for marketers has failed to keep up with such change. One big reason why is the core foundations in marketing learned on the job are often missing.

“Those who typically do a degree in marketing will then go into an FMCG or big company where a second part of your education happens in the first and second years of your jobs. But with the current rates of disruption, it’s not keeping up,” Johnson claimed.  

“You see people then making jumps into tech companies where the growth is, but it’s not where the marketing rigour is. One thing about working in CPG is you learn a disciplined process of how you can market anything. A lot of that secondary education beyond schools is missing.

“Now, when you look at the bell curve of marketers, you’ll find really strong data and analytics marketers on one edge, and really strong creative marketers who know creative and culture on the other. The middle tends to be very mushy right now. So one of the biggest challenges facing marketers is this education deficit.”

The second big problem for Johnson is the lack of diversity of ideas and thought. He stressed the criticality of people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, religion, ethnicity and gender in generating creative empathy and ideas that lead to impactful marketing.

“One thing I always embraced was building a team that looks like my consumer. You’d be surprised how many companies don’t do this,” Johnson said. “At Beats, we were 55 per cent female, black, white, Hispanic, Asian. We had purple hair and no hair, and our ages ranged from 22 to 57. When you think about diversity of thought and bigness of ideas, all those different people brought us a creative empathy you can’t have in group think.

“When you get the marketing fundamentals in a strong way from your education, you know the limits of what you see. You know you have to go an inquire of different groups what they’re thinking. But when you don’t have that education, and you’re in tight groups of homogenous, similar people, you don’t get to those big thoughts and big creative ideas.

“A lot of companies fail through the complexion of talent they’re bringing in and because they lack diversity. That’s why I celebrate people who switch careers and go to different places. I’m always trying to bring in creative empathy, then back it up with the rigour of data.”  

Johnson said the marketing formula for success at Beats always included some data and insight along with diversity of thought to get to the big ideas.

“It always starts with people to power that creative empathy, then how you leverage data, insight and diverse experiences that come from those people to get those big ideas,” he said.

As a leader, Johnson now sees it as his responsibility to engineer and harness diversity of thought.

“The moment I got to a leadership position, I never forgot what it felt like to be the youngest, blackest in the room. I try to keep that feeling alive every day,” he said. “If you remember what that feels like, you don’t want to exclude other people.”  

Johnson also noted the importance of junior employees getting a voice, noting the best ideas at Beats came from its youngest talent. But it’s leadership and experience that ensure these ideas bear commercial fruit.

“From a business perspective, if you answer me for an answer on a big business problem, I’m going to give you a complete answer – a beginning, middle and end, some sort of insights, an idea, execution and some result. It will be a complete sentence. Junior talent doesn’t always know the complete sentence,” Johnson said. “They will know pieces of it. Our job as senior leaders is to help stack the best ideas and take and complete those sentences. If you do that, you’re truly weaponising all the brains in the room.”

As a result, Johnson said he focuses on teaching his senior team that it’s not necessarily about coming up with the idea. “Our junior talent will have the best ideas that resonate. Our job is to help get the ideas out of them, help frame and structure it and move it into the world.”  

It’s this misconception of modern marketing as being an idea or concept Johnson warned CMOs to try and avoid.

“It’s about how you stack the best creative ideas based on different experiences in the room. Because that’s how you bring about the best collective intelligence,” he said. “It’s not what Jim, Sarah or Omar thinks about this, it’s asking those different people for contributions and bringing them all together.”  

Diversity of style

Johnson took the concept of diversity a step further, saying a big learning as a leader over the last five years has been around the importance of diversity of style.

“I was big on getting in a room to solve it. Yet some people want to go off and think, or are quiet, or work better in smaller groups. Our job as leaders is to get the best out of people,” he said. “There are so many dimensions we have to be attentive to in order to hear the biggest, brightest and best versions of the people we have employed.

“It’s not easy. I think there is a huge transition happening right now between the last and this generation of leaders. We are going to have to lead very different in the future. We have to ensure people are being heard and ensure the big ideas come out of our organisations based on the staff we have.

“My ability to bring together different voices is my most powerful weapon as a leader.”

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