By Chuck Kapelke
The future is unpredictable, as the first half of 2020 has demonstrated all too well. However, despite the uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus, there's a growing onus on marketers to future-proof their organizations and evolve their team members' capabilities and skillsets to thrive in a post-digital age.
According to Dentsu Aegis Network's 2019 global survey of 1,000 CMOs and senior-level marketers, 79 percent of CMOs believe the shift to digital means they must transform — not just optimize — their business, and 80 percent believe that marketing must take more responsibility for innovation in the future. Yet nearly half of respondents said they lack the capabilities to maximize the value of customer data.
Gartner Research has found a major disconnect when it comes to bolstering the marketing discipline: brands that invest in their people are better positioned to succeed following an economic downtown, but just 2 percent of marketing budgets are devoted to training and development.
"Something we learned from the 2008 recession is that brands that continue to focus on talent — alongside cost, optimization, and innovation — tend to do better," says Ewan McIntyre, a VP analyst at Gartner Research. "Difficult times allow you to shine a light on the next generation of leaders."
Dirk Herbert, chief strategy officer for the Americas at Dentsu Aegis Network, adds: "The only way to future-proof a brand at this point is to make it as agile and adaptable as possible."
From online training to job rotations and mentoring, major brands use a variety of approaches to evolve their teams' marketing capabilities.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, has created a senior-level role focused entirely on marketing culture and capabilities. The brewer also holds regular "Spark Sessions" featuring thought leaders and senior marketers from other companies for 90-minute discussions.
"We've decided to transform how we go about marketing," says Matt Kohan, VP of marketing culture and capabilities at Anheuser-Busch. "Part of that was developing a new playbook and adopting a mindset focused on continuing to learn, improve our capabilities, and grow as people and as a team."
Agile Marketing Model
Upon taking the helm as CMO of insurance giant Aetna in 2016, Dave Edelman immediately set out to transform the company's marketing by adopting an agile marketing approach, a project-based philosophy pioneered in software development.
"You're working in sprints and you've got very quick, short-term deliverables, with cross-functional teams who are working tightly together," Edelman says. "It's about testing and learning, doing daily standups, looking at progress on a constant basis, and using that to adjust where resources are applied."
Part of the appeal of an agile approach, Edelman says, is that it holds people accountable for their work and encourages them to step out of their comfort zone. "It's a great way to bring out people's leadership capabilities and their ability to stretch," he adds. "The stars can come out and shine because of what they're able to do in such a short period of time."
To help people learn the skills needed to thrive in this context, Aetna's senior marketers maintain a running list of "stretch opportunities," projects that more junior-level people can volunteer to help complete.
Aetna regularly holds "showcases," or monthly gatherings in which marketers share their work to encourage mutual learning. "It's not to show off what you did, but how you did it," Edelman says. "What did it take? Who was involved? What were the key things that made that successful that people should be thinking about if they want to do something similar?"
Key Takeaway: Evolving a team's capabilities requires leadership and investment, and the more opportunities companies create for people to grow, the better.
Throughout its history, as IBM grew from a company that sold clocks and meat slicers to one of the world's largest information technology companies, the company's marketing mission has also evolved. "We're on a journey to become the most outcome-oriented, client-centric, agile-to-the core marketing team on the planet," says Maria Winans, CMO, North America Marketing at IBM, and a 28-year veteran of the company.
Every IBM team member participates in "Marketer's Learning Journey," a closely monitored in-person and online training program that teaches the skills needed for modern marketing. Marketers working at all levels of the company participate in shadowing programs — for example, an event marketer spending the day trailing a data analyst — to promote cross-disciplinary learning.
"Years ago, we didn't have this type of learning, and you got very comfortable with what you knew," Winans says. "With everything digital, marketing has changed, and the challenge we put to every single marketer, no matter how many years they've been here, is that being part of this learning journey is not a choice, it is part of being a marketer at IBM."
Key Takeaway: Evolving talent is not just for junior-level marketers; senior leaders should roll up their sleeves, too, whether informally or through a structured reverse mentoring program. "Our [CMO] has regular meetings with some of the younger people on our team to hear from them and learn from them," says Anheuser-Busch's Matt Kohan. "We've raised the idea that ideas can come from anywhere, and often the people just joining the company know what's driving culture now, more so than some of the more experienced people."
Empower the Front Line
In the last year, management consultancy PwC has concentrated its companywide marketing function, which has improved efficiency while enabling divisions to tap into a dedicated center of expertise, says Reggie Walker, a partner and chief commercial officer at PwC US. "That gives us an opportunity to cross-pollinate," he says. "People learn new skills, new industries, and new competencies at a higher rate than in the past, and it gives us the ability to deliver more value to our internal customers."
A key part of this transformation entailed training marketers on data analytics, cultural competency, and programming, among other areas. "We equipped them with the tools and the capabilities that they needed," Walker says. "We made them a part of the process. And then we brought them all together at once. We all stepped over the threshold together ceremoniously, but to help shift the cultural lines."
PwC's new marketing model also rejects a hierarchy that assumes only senior leaders can have good ideas. "Create that culture of innovation, because if you do that, then you're going to advance the organization a lot further than if it's just a few of us sitting around in a room," Walker says.
Key Takeaway: Evolving marketing talent is about empowerment through creating opportunities to learn. "Empower individuals and equip them with the skills and the techniques and the technology skills they need to lead that change for you," Walker says. "Build teams and allow them to be successful. Because we've done that, we're able to drive more success without actually having to increase our budget."
IBM's Winans agrees that a culture of collaboration and empowerment is key. "As a leader, you've got to get comfortable with surrounding yourself with people who are better than you, who you can learn from," she says. "You have to get comfortable with the tools that we're using as marketers. The strongest leaders are those who are lifelong students. You've got to be curious and have a passion for continuous learning and improvement. It's not a hierarchical organization anymore."
How Companies Can Learn from the Bottom Up
Traditional business hierarchy holds that junior-level employees learn at the feet of their senior-level bosses. But that model has flipped in recent years, as many companies have established reverse-mentoring programs in which senior marketers turn to their younger colleagues to get up to speed on digital marketing vehicles like social media marketing, content marketing, and programmatic ad buying.
PwC's "Digital Accelerators," for example, is a network of roughly 2,000 tech-savvy employees that anyone in the management consulting firm can access. "We've done reverse mentoring for a long, long time," says PwC's Reggie Walker. "We just sort of took it to the next level. It's not always the people who are younger; it's the digital natives, which could be somebody that's been here a long time. If somebody wants extra learning or they're struggling with something, they can reach out to this network and consult with them."
Formal reverse-mentoring programs work best when they are highly structured, with mentors and mentees connecting on a regular basis. "The biggest predictor of failure is that the executive cancels the meetings," says Jennifer Jordan, a social psychologist and professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD, a business management school in Switzerland. "If the senior person doesn't communicate that this is important, the mentor loses interest as well. It's really important that the leader be the one to initiate and maintain those meetings, and the meetings have to have a clear agenda."
Companies running reverse-mentoring programs should also create opportunities for the mentors to support each other via their own networking groups. "Executives are learning from people who are seven levels down the hierarchy, rather than above them," Jordan says. "It's good for the mentors, the junior people, to create a community and meet with one another and share best practices, because it can be quite intimidating to mentor an executive."