Charting the future of public relations

Data, Politics And Fear: The Challenges Facing Today's Global Marketers

If PR firms are to realise a more central brand-building role, it becomes imperative to understand the hopes and doubts that define today’s CMOs.

Arun Sudhaman

As far as the PR industry is concerned, we have argued in previous years that the key opportunity at Cannes is the sheer density of senior marketing talent. If PR firms are to make inroads into bigger marketing budgets, and realise a more central brand-building role, then it naturally becomes imperative to understand the hopes, aspirations and doubts that define today’s CMO perspective.

One senior marketing panel at Cannes (held on the Festival “fringe”, like so many of the better sessions) helped clarify this challenge in a particularly absorbing manner. Chaired by Changing MO founder MaryLee Sachs, the panel was hosted by McCann, and featured four marketers grappling with the difficulties of driving creativity at large MNCs, in a conversation economy that has effectively rewritten the traditional marketing rules.

Among PR types, it is tempting to think that marketers lack the feedback loop which can determine successful social media engagement. Wendy Clark, SVP of integrated marketing comms and capabilities at Coca-Cola, probably doesn’t fit this template. “Being real in real-time,” was how Clark described her social media approach to the Holmes Report, adding that “it’s not a matter of if you will face a challenge on social media, it’s a matter of when.”

To help plan for the inevitable, Clark has worked with her PR firm on scenario planning around potential issues. The Coke brand features in 15K tweets every day, and many of them are positive. There will be plenty, though, that are overtly hostile to the company, causing Clark to describe one “very difficult” learning.

“The truth is irrelevant,” she said. “There’s no such thing anymore. We have to meet people at their truth and work back towards ours.”

According to Adobe brand marketing VP John Travis, that might be easier said than done, given the demographic profile of his own company’s customer base. “Developers tend to be somewhat bitter and they tend to be very vocal on social media,” said Travis. “You’ll have negative comments and the tendency in my company is to react to everything that’s being said.”

“It’s a constant struggle,” he added. “It’s a balance between what we’re hearing, what the data says and what the instinct is.”

Data vs creativity

The tension between data and creativity, so evident throughout the week at Cannes, reared its head regularly during the discussion. “Sometimes we hear about work that everyone admires, and they never do consumer testing,” said Michelle Klein, VP of global marketing, communications and digital at Smirnoff. “More often than not [research] ends up killing the magic, so you end up with dumbed-down ideas.”

Travis took a different view, unsurprising given that Adobe now owns analytics firm Omniture. “I would say that data has been our best friend,” he said. “As a marketer, we have been able to learn what works best and justify what we are doing, which is always the marketer’s dilemma. Since we have taken analytics very seriously, we have moved so much of our dollars - 75 percent of our global marketing mix is now digital.”

Not all of his peers were convinced. “It is not a proxy for our own decision-making,” stated Clark. “We’re actually not looking for more data; we are overwhelmed with data. Our challenge is processing that data and separating the wheat from the chaff and figuring out how to use it. Sometimes you get such a rush around data and ROI that we forget that as marketers there’s a talent that we bring - how you tell a story.”

Indeed, there was support for the notion that a faith in numbers may not necessarily result in marketing magic. Yet another way to “kill work”, said Gannett CMO Maryam Banikarim, is “through committee.”

Politics as usual

For all that the marketing map has been redrawn, that comment from Banikarim pointed to an issue that endures regardless of the latest trend. “Everyone thinks they are a good marketer,” she notes. “You have to know how to work the funnel in your organisation and in your board.”

It may sound rather more prosaic than, for example, the augmented reality app in your next campaign, but all of the flashy execution counts for nothing if this simple reality is ignored. “An idea can get killed no matter how good it is, based on the politics inside the organisation,” adds Banikarim noting that a company like Gannett, with plenty of journalists, poses particular problems. “There’s a lot of scepticism of anything that looks like marketing.”

Modern corporate structures, meanwhile, do not always lend themselves to aggressive decision-making. “From the client perspective we have a very matrixed organisation and that can be very challenging,” explains Klein. “We try to foster approval with fewer decision makers.”

That approach has implications for the brand’s agencies as well, says Klein, as illustrated by the successful Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange programme. “All the agencies left their discipline hats at the door and it becomes about what are the business goals you are trying to achieve.”

Celebrating failure

Big organisations thrive on process yet, as P&G global brand building officer Marc Pritchard noted in his session the following day, size can stymie creative experimentation. The panellists spent a considerable amount of time discussing this issue, in response to prompting from Sachs.

“You really have to be willing to let go of so much you have been taught,” explains Travis. Adobe recently launched a campaign that called on customers to develop the creative. “The work was lovely. More important was the emotional context that elevated the whole launch. Had that been two years ago, I probably would have had a coronary.”

Perhaps the toughest task of all is reach a situation where risk-taking is rewarded appropriately. “We have an approach that we’re trying to fuel internally, which is getting better at sharing failure,” said Clark. “That’s very difficult for big companies because most of us in our career have been rewarded for our successes.”

“People say all the time don’t be afraid to fail but then they are afraid to fail,” adds Banikarim. “We are trying to change the culture at Gannett. How do you get back to a culture where you give permission to take risks? Your CEO has to set that example. One way is to celebrate the failure in some way - or no one will believe you.”

“The problem for most us at big MNCs is we’re built for scale,” concluded Clark. “It’s our strength. When we scale things its very, very good. We can scale the wrong thing perfectly. If we don’t create a culture accepting of failure we’ll do just that.” 

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