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CMO50 2022 #26-50: Fabian Marrone

  • Name Fabian Marrone
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company Monash University
  • Commenced role July 2017
  • Reporting Line Chief operating officer and SVP
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Marketing Function 252 staff, 9 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Education
  • 2021 ranking 26-50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    For Fabian Marrone, CMO of Monash University, good marketing comes down to bravery.

    “Bravery first starts with acceptance you will fail at times. Before you can be brave, you have to define what level of risk and failure you will accept. To be brave requires two things. The first is failing smart – something I learned from a fellow CMO while at Cannes. It’s about allowing freedom in decision making where the impact will not be material on reputation, experience and revenue,” he says.

    “The second is in order to foster a culture of bravery, you need to be a vulnerable leader. I try to demonstrate this to the team by sharing my failures, weaknesses, fears, and even some of my personal struggles. The two things can create trust and allow people to be brave within boundaries and without fear of judgement. 

    “I define bravery as being bold, creative and jumping into something without fear, but ensuring you’re not careless.”

    Innovative marketing

    As Marrone explains, universities used to be considered passive institutions. However, now universities are critical drivers of proactive solutions to the challenges facing the planet and people.

    Monash is rallying like-minded governments, universities, industry and community partners via its flagship, disruptive brand campaign, ‘Change It’.

    He is spearheading this multi-award-winning campaign from inception, evolving it year-on-year to a platform which now transcends the brand and differentiates Monash’s proposition.

    Called ‘The Endangered Generation?’, his new non-branded documentary is supported by a brand content strategy. The 2022 iteration introduces eight fictitious babies and challenges audiences to consider if mankind's impact on the planet and civilisation is endangering the next generation.

    Launched at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2022, the film explores the urgent threats to the next generation, and showcases the people, ideas and action needed to make a difference.

    Marrone conceptualised the documentary, set the strategic direction, and oversaw production to bring his vision to life. “We were determined to step outside the norm and invest in a major non-branded asset which straddles exposé, marketing and entertainment. It was a risk the University could only take due to the maturity and success of the campaign.

    “The documentary was three years in the making, a big risk, and the result of many people’s dedicated work, passion and creativity. Monash was a partner in its development and conceptualisation, with strong links to our brand campaign. Seeing the film on the big screen, listening to the applause from the audience, and receiving the positive reviews made for a memorable experience. 

    “Not many brands have the underpinning purpose and aligned strategic goals to justify a documentary. It’s not a natural progression, but Monash’s bold and brave nature, and confidence through brand evolution, to move beyond heavy branding to subtle and powerful content, gave us the opportunity to do something new and radical.”

    With a 2023 cinema release and negotiations underway for streaming distribution, the film signals a leapfrog moment in Monash’s brand history, not only creating a vehicle for mass reach and motivation of audiences to ‘Change it’, but forging potential new brand-driven revenue streams.

    ‘Change it’ has achieved 52.7 million impressions, 1.6 million engagements, with a media sentiment 79.8 per cent positive and neutral (2021) and 83.3 per cent in 2022.

    Lead generation stands at 93,439 leads in 2021, and 48,990 leads in 2022.

    Business smarts

    In 2021, 64 per cent of Monash’s international students were not able to commence or continue their studies due to Australia’s ongoing international border closures. For many, online studies and a lack of campus life were not an attractive value proposition. This presented a critical attrition risk to the University, and subsequent loss of student fee revenue.

    “Preempting this downturn, we diversified the University’s marketing approach to focus on both building future student pipelines and safeguarding student retention,” he explains.

    “We needed an enriched Campus Experience Program to consolidate and align activity across the University, fostering student sense of belonging, creating connections, and embedding a framework of academic and wellbeing support. A key tenet was the programming be co-defined by the voice of students, with CX at its heart.”

    Marrone built this initiative from the ground up, growing it into a global festival of physical and digital experiences across nine campuses, including carnivals, speaker sessions, exhibitions, and the inaugural Monash Block Party which featured performances from 15 of Australia’s most popular artists.

    Following an initial investment in 2021, this program has been scaled into a core initiative in 2022, formalised in the University’s strategic plan with a cross-functional executive sponsorship group.

    Monash was the only Victorian university to deliver a multi-event campus reactivation event series in 2021. Over 150 events were delivered under the program (Jan 2021 - Jul 2022), with 60,000+ students attending.

    As a result, 84 per cent of Monash students reported a strong sense of belonging in 2022 despite a sector-wide decline as low as 27 per cent in 2020.

    Data-driven maturity

    Marrone identified the need for an end-to-end data model across the full student pipeline. This would create a detailed flow of lead intelligence, insights and predictive analysis of marketing, conversion and enrolment performance to inform strategy and interventions for achievement of course load targets.

    To deliver on this vision, he challenged his team to develop a conversion funnel and predictive model with a minimum 85 per cent accuracy and sufficient granularity to:

    • Determine the propensity of a lead to convert to application and then enrolment;

    • Forecast annual pipeline of enrolments against load targets;

    • Identify the optimal conversion window (timeframe); and

    • Predict commencement intake, Faculty of interest and other key attributes.

    “In 2021, this data model became a reality, embedded as a live conversion dashboard in the University’s executive forums, providing critical intelligence into load planning and fee revenue growth strategies.

    “This dynamic view enables real-time optimisation of highest-value marketing, recruitment and conversion activities, and the redistribution of effort as load targets are met.”

    In 2022, Marrone is evolving this data model on the path to full BI enablement. This includes the ability to predict the specific course advertising spend recommended by Faculty to achieve individual load targets at a course level. With the backing of this data, Fabian has influenced a new, University-wide advertising investment model optimised for impact and ROI.

    “It all depends if the data you can gather is well-rounded, a solid sample size, and reflective of the audience mix. When it comes to brand, it’s 80-90 per cent gut, and the rest is data-aligned to whether the creative reflects the brand and will your audiences be receptive of the output.

    “On the flip side, the lead to sales funnel is 90 per cent data-driven. This means demand and lead generation, including placements, costs and conversion predictions, should all be based on data. It takes a while to get there for both.

    “The first takes mostly guts and experience, while the second takes a lot of hard work by talented team members supporting our data and technology needs, particularly integration.”

    Customer-led value

    Since commencing as CMO in 2017, Marrone has driven a strategic agenda to optimise and enhance the student experience. He has woven the student lifecycle together to create a cradle-to-grave journey, infused with CX intelligence and balanced by personalisation, automation and highest-value human intervention.

    “Critical to this was the establishment of a central CX capability, one which would infuse customer experience and customer-led intelligence throughout the relatively traditional space of higher education,” he says.

    “We are driving a categorical shift in thinking about students as customers, and implementing a corresponding strategy to deliver comparable experiences with those demanded in the consumer world.”

    What started with a single CX subject matter expert has evolved into an embedded team of five, dedicated to delivering the best experience and outcomes for Monash audiences across marketing, communications and conversion opportunities.

    An example of this is the development of a Student Voice framework which triggered the reimagining of the University’s approach to 2022 Orientation. The result was a student-defined Orientation journey, weaving together a pre-orientation, digital orientation and physical orientation experience to deliver the highest attendance rates and sense of belonging uplift in the University’s history.

    Commercial and growth acumen

    Marrone explains the biggest risk facing universities globally is the high percentage decline in international student enrolments. It’s a residual effect of ongoing border closures and geopolitical tension, and this downturn is felt nowhere more so than the China market.

    Modelling forecasts of market trends and application pipelines projected without intervention, Monash’s five year international student outlook could be at risk of a significant drop in load and associated fee revenue.

    “To mitigate an over-reliance on any source market, I led a diversified approach to create an optimised market/channel ecosystem linking lead generation, reputation building and conversion across in-country, in-house and agency-supported channels. This ensures the highest return mix of attractions and conversion levers for new market entry, growth and development,” he says.

    “These foundations created a platform to launch the immediate response to rebound international load while sustainably diversifying source markets. Leveraging this mature channel ecosystem and lead strategy, we took decisive action over the last 18 months to increase top-of-funnel with a burst of intervention mechanisms to rapidly build high-quality lead volumes.

    “This includes dialling-up intensive lead generation activity, bolstering incentivisation strategies, and growing direct and alternative source pathways to guarantee the quickest returns for long-term pipeline preservation.”

    This lead to the generation of 200,000+ leads and rebound growth in all diversity markets (China excepted) from 2021 -2022. This is a 12 fold increase in total leads generated since 2018.

    Leadership impact

    In August 2021, Marrone initiated a major organisational realignment of the University’s recruitment (sales) and admissions, and marketing and communications portfolios. This change initiative was a direct response to market pressures and the urgent need to simultaneously retain current students and secure future intakes.

    “By consolidating the lead to enrolment pipeline, student experience and communications journey I was able to enact a cohesive transformation agenda which delivered dual benefits of synergising teams to a shared purpose, while creating immediate impact for the University’s bottom line.”

    This included a bespoke, embedded planning framework to align strategic objectives, performance measurement, and resourcing profiles, ensuring all 28 teams and 200+ staff share a common north star which directly underpins the University’s strategic imperatives and commercial KPIs.

    “We further consolidated enablement functions within the Portfolio, creating two centres of excellence: one focused on operations, performance and governance, the other on infrastructure, experience and intelligence. These centralised teams ensure cultural, operational and systems alignment continue to be strengthened and embedded in an always-on program of continual transformation.”

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