• Elizabeth Fagan, Marketing Director, Health and Beauty, International Brands, Alliance Boots PLC
  • Sara Bennison, Marketing Director, Barclays
  • Harry Dromey, Mischief Champion, Paddy Power
  • Ash Roots, Director of Digital, Direct Line Group
  • Peter Abraham, Executive VP EMEA & APAC,
  • Robin Charney, Business Director, Digital and Innovation, AAR (Chair)

The phrase ‘digital transformation’ is the cause célèbre of business and marketing communications presently. It’s the topic of the moment in the marketing press and the focus of almost every industry conference. It has also been part of or informed almost every brief from, or conversation with, our clients over the last 18 months.

No company is able to escape the digital tidal wave and marketers appear, in the main, to be apprehensive about how their businesses will be transformed in its wake, let alone the impact it will have on their marketing communications.

There are some companies that feel like they are way ahead of the game, embracing and leading the disruption and changing the marketplace in which they operate. There are others who are on the receiving end of being disrupted – and not in a good way.

What is obvious is that we can’t just continue to do business as usual.

Consequently, we decided to convene a panel of senior marketers and experts who are grabbing digital transformation by the scruff of the neck and wrestling it to the ground to benefit their brands and services within their own organisations and ask them to share some of their experiences with an invited audience of marketing and communications directors.

We wanted to know what they have learned along their own journeys of digital transformation.

The following notes are a summary of the points of view, themes and discussions that emerged during the session.

Business transformation, not just marketing transformation

Digital is part of business transformation and only if it is considered in that way can it be truly successful within organisations.

If company CEO’s see ‘digital’ as a silo in their organisations then transformation will not occur. It has to be led by the CEO and felt from the top down. Interestingly, it’s only in the last two to three years that digital transformation has been on the agenda at the top of an organisation; five to ten years ago, ideas that initiated transformation came from the bottom up.

It’s a constantly interactive and iterative process, with a perennial ‘start/evolve/start/evolve’ momentum.

We are always in a state of transformation; we must react to changes in the market, in trading conditions, to issues. It’s no different with digital

If digital transformation is driven solely by the marketing function, it can appear self-seeking or simply to satisfy a marketing agenda which can lead to lack of involvement, fear and rejection of any initiatives by others within the organisation.

It is important for fellow departments and teams to understand that digital is just an enabler and that they shouldn’t feel threatened by it. One way of overcoming any nascent fear is to train them to make the most of digital technology and devices to deliver enhanced customer service and benefits.

Our Digital Eagles campaign evolved from a three month secondment for 20 of our staff to help them improve their own digital skills so that they could help our customers

In terms of organisational development, it’s all about attitude and agility. Everything from

  • Behaviours – are you going to be a challenger?
  • Systems – are your processes agile?
  • Symbols – who and how you recruit, the work environment that stimulates ideas and creativity, connectivity, and open sharing of analytics

The role of the marketer is evolving into a new set of behaviours and partnerships within an organisation.

“My knowledge of IT has increased dramatically over the last few years. I need to be able to have informed conversations with my IT colleagues.”

“I’m not an OD person but have had to become so in order to embed digital transformation in my own organisation.”

Disrupters / Innovators must be inside your organisation

We know disruption is coming. We just don’t know where from

It is much better to have disrupters inside your organisation – even if, when all seems to be going well commercially, they still ask hard questions that cause tension. Better that than to have the disrupters outside of your organisation, taking side-swipes at it.

HR needs to be your friend here.

Getting HR to understand the need for agility and flexibility, getting them comfortable with the concept that it is much less about formal job roles and functions than it used to be and now much more task oriented. One person might be a member of 3 or 4 virtual teams. Different tasks will require different task forces, and those tasks will change year after year.

This is just the kind of flexibility that usually sends shockwaves through HR and it makes educating this function crucial.

Adapting a commercial culture to be more flexible can also be liberating. Corporations have to be open to change and giving their people opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

That’s been hugely successful for us. It’s given our people opportunities that never would have been available to them five years ago

It’s about getting the right capabilities in place, recruiting and managing diverse teams of very different people, some of whom would not regard, or describe themselves, as marketers although they work in marketing.

There a words of caution here, though: it’s very easy to express a desire to change, to employ someone who is very different and will disrupt, and then spend all your time trying to turn them back into you. Cultural evolution takes time and part of the challenge is deciding what battles you want the change agents to fight.

A useful reference recommended here is ‘A peacock in the land of penguins: a tale of diversity and discovery’ by Ken Blanchord et al.

You can also check out a short film of the main themes in the book at

The role of the marketer

The language we use is wrong. There is no online, offline… it’s all joined up – it’s a single journey

Marketers need the capability to be able to grapple with the analysis – and making useful sense of – the mountain of data that is now available. The marketer’s job is to simplify the complexity of insight delivered by the data into a meaningful brand message, and deliver this clarity at speed.

“It used to be that your data helped you to alight upon one big consumer insight that, traditionally led to a big TV ad. Now it’s fundamentally different. Now it’s all about frameworks and not about fixed 24 month plans. It’s no longer about doing ‘Insurance’ in July and ‘Mortgages’ in November; we have to react to what is happening in the financial services market at any given time.”

There is also a strong view that whilst pretty much everything can be measured, it’s about identifying which measurements give insights or clarity which is useful.

“You may have lots of people in your insight department creating reports and publishing data but what’s the point unless you are equipped to make choices. It’s about getting good at what kind of questions you want to ask in the first place.”

“You are blind without data but you need to make choices that link to the primary marketing objective. Get information about the quality of the user experience not just endless data on what they buy.”

The knack is how to choose what is useful and then ‘sell’ this internally to the Board or management team.

“Aggregate up. Don’t be too granular, much as you can in today’s data world. Use econometrics and compelling argument in order to get sign-off. Marketing must think of themselves as – and act like – editors”

The importance of empowering people

With the need for agility comes the requirement for people to be more autonomous, to be empowered to make decisions swiftly without a lengthy sign-off process.

A test and learn, always in beta, culture that feeds innovation needs to allow people to take decisions quickly, with legal and compliance colleagues already on board so that ideas and experiments don’t get bogged down in process.

The supremacy of being customer centric

Customers want things to be easy.

And their expectations, based on the degree of connectivity we now enjoy, are very high.

“Customers don’t care about the fact our systems are 40 years old.”

“Marketing’s obsession should be about how to make customers’ lives better.”

Staying in contact with customers to enable brands to stay ahead of the game, to ask the right questions in terms of what they are doing that is a real advantage to the customer, what they are offering that’s of value, how data is used to keep in touch with or ahead of what customers want, is key.

There is a need to be ‘always on’ and this has an impact on staff contracts to enable customer service to be delivered at the time the customer wants it. With social media allowing conversations with brands to take place at any time, a 9am-5pm contract just doesn’t cut it. All of which links back to the importance of your partnership as a marketer with operations and HR.

Customers, and the way in which they interact with a brand, tend to change before brands do.

If you stop being customer centric the difference now is that you know about it, and quickly! With social media, customers talk back

The role of agencies

There is a trend emerging for marketers to do more in-house as far as management of their digital communications and social media is concerned. Marketers are increasingly making decisions on what can be effectively in-sourced from a budget and capability point of view, and what should still be out-sourced.

There was a collective agreement that digital day-to-day activities, characterized as anything from digital site builds through to community management, were better handled in-house. It costs less, makes it easier to experiment, and gives creatively fulfilling opportunities to internal teams.

You’re the orchestra

However, the value of agencies in the delivery of “game changing ideas”, “giving kick or a spike to a brand”, and creating cut-through in the clutter of messages, was acknowledged.

What was also acknowledged was that the agency model needed to change, as did the way in which some services were charged for, such a film and content production.

A desire to do more, to experiment, to do it more cheaply was expressed.

“If you are working on a project with a budget of £30-40K and it fails to deliver what you wanted, that failure is acceptable. If you are spending £1m to do it, failure on those terms is not ok.”

There was also a view that we could see the return to a ‘full service” approach but that the model would be very different as it wasn’t feasible for agencies to operate a full service approach as they once did.

“What we need from agencies is now a different shape. They need to deliver more personalized solutions: it takes very creative people to do that.”And your final piece of advice?

“Have excellent in-house capability.”

“Bring your colleagues with you.”

“Think of it as business transformation, not digital communications”

“The right internal culture – or cultural change, if necessary – is most important”

“Stay inquisitive… because we are already out of date”