The rise of smartphones and apps means marketers have to develop digital skills to communicate effectively with customers. Photograph: Alamy
A transformation of marketing is underway as we spend more time on our mobiles, tablets and laptops. The challenge for brands is to connect with customers through all these devices in real time and create campaigns that work across social media, display advertising and e-commerce.
The real-time conversations brands have with people as they interact with websites and mobile apps has changed the nature of marketing. The modern-day marketing department needs to combine the creative side of the discipline – using powerful narratives to tap into people’s wishes and aspirations – with the technical side of data, digital engineering and analytics. The two areas do not always sit easily together. Getting creative marketers to work alongside technical staff can be a huge challenge.
To explore these issues, the Guardian, in association with software firm Adobe, invited a panel of five top marketers and digital chiefs to discuss the matter before an audience of about 50 marketing and digital professionals. The question they addressed was: “What does the merging of technology and marketing mean for marketers?”
The panel examined the challenges of bringing together these two distinct worlds. Marketing is concerned with understanding people’s motivations and using these insights to create campaigns that promote brands and encourage people to buy their products. It is a creative and often intuitive process. The technology used to achieve this, however, requires skills in mathematics, statistics and computing. How can these two different areas work together effectively?
As Guardian News and Media’s chief digital officer Tanya Cordrey told the panel: “Where marketing hasn’t changed is the creativity and the passion from brands that have really helped build loyalty and emotion.” But she added: “Those things you still need, but almost all aspects of marketing have changed very dramatically.”
Three areas of marketing which have been transformed by digital are the speed, relevance and reach of campaigns. Mark Singleton, head of sportsbook marketing at betting brand Paddy Power, recalled an incident in the Premiership last March when Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew headbutted Hull City midfielder David Meyler in a touchline clash. Within half an hour, Paddy Power had reacted to the incident with wit and speed by booking print ads referring to the incident for the next morning’s press. The bookie offered a money-back guarantee on bets for Newcastle’s following fixture should one of its team score a header.
“To be able to turn around a press ad at half past four in the afternoon and for it to be in the papers the next morning is fantastic, it wouldn’t have happened four or five years ago,” said Singleton. “The rise of digital means you can be incredibly fast,” he added.
Digital marketing has also greatly increased relevancy. Messages can be targeted with a laser focus to very specific groups offering them relevant content.
Meanwhile, the reach of campaigns has also increased greatly. With so many different ways that customers access media, whether through Facebook, YouTube, news websites, via mobile or tablet apps, a strong idea can quickly gain huge scale. “If you come up with that nugget of an idea, you’ve now got such reach that you can expand that and get tremendous coverage just from a little niche idea,” said Singleton.
Marketers need to update their skills in order to make the most of these fast-moving, and highly relevant campaigns through digital. They need to work closely with data specialists, web developers and social media professionals. Charles Wells, chief marketing officer at charity fundraising service JustGiving, told the panel that the marketer of the future needs to combine marketing and creative skills with an understanding of real-time technology. He said his marketing team has data scientists, engineers, developers and user experience experts, who work together in small project teams to try and create growth. This is a radical change from the way traditional marketing departments work, he said.
He thought the big task for people in marketing would be to find their own niche: “The biggest challenge for the marketer of the future isn’t how do I get skilled up, but how do I get to fit into this machine and which cog am I going to try and be?”
Just as marketers need to become more savvy about technology, data and analytics, so the technically minded staff on the digital side have to get more creative. They are rising to this challenge, said Wells. A fifth of staff at JustGiving are data strategists whose sole job is to identify patterns from the data the service gathers from millions of charity fundraisers. “They are probably some of the most creative people in the building, they are looking for fascinating things and they are building amazing engines,” said Wells. “Some of the algorithm stuff I’ve seen over the past few months has been some of the sexiest marketing I’ve seen for a long time,” he added.
A vital quality for marketers in the fast-changing digital environment is curiosity,
rather than any specific technical knowledge, said Adobe digital marketing director John Watton.
“It’s not about a particular tool or system, it is about being curious about other possibilities because the tools we will use in two or three years time will be totally different from the ones we were using two years ago,” he told the discussion.
A question about the effectiveness of digital marketing was raised by audience member Steve Mullins, content director of brand-e. He felt that targeted advertising hasn’t really improved over the years and that brands are spending a lot of money on technology without necessarily reaping rewards. “Should the merger of buying and tech mean buyer beware?” he asked.
Lisa Bridgett, sales and marketing director at upmarket online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, answered that marketers ultimately need to rely on their natural intuition rather than on technology.
She referred to programmatic ad buying, where computers buy and place online ads in an automated way, and said that there are few people who really understand how such technology works.
“You can’t just say that the technology is perfect because of course it’s not. In fact, I’m sitting with my agency and really unpicking programmatic and the truth is that they don’t understand it at all. I don’t actually think that there is anyone who understands a lot of these things when you get into the world of big data.” She added: “What I do is build up an arsenal of data and then I use my intuition. Time and time again it plays out right. So you need to be dextrous in these two different worlds.”
For brands to work effectively together in the digital world, chief marketing officers and chief information officers must work in unison. But this is hard to achieve for many organisations and the two sides can end up in conflict. Pure digital players such as Net-a-Porter that have always been digital are structured for the digital age.
But “legacy” businesses that need to undergo a digital transformation must decide who should lead that change. Should it be the chief information officer or the chief marketing officer or perhaps someone from a different department? As Adobe’s Watton said: “There is a battle going on. I don’t know who will win that battle.”
Meanwhile, Hema Chauhan, marketing executive at agency TMW, asked whether brand teams, technologists or agencies were best placed to implement new technology systems. The panel agreed that it is usually agencies who are responsible for this. But JustGiving’s Charles Well said agencies had to stop trying to pitch technology and start offering creative ideas that can improve the organisation. “My challenge to agencies is do what you are really good at, which is to come up with amazing ideas,” he said.
The question of how businesses should identify the marketers and technologists of the future was raised by Omaid Hiwaizi, chief strategy officer at agency Geometry Global. “Do you filter them out, grow them or hire millennials and put up with them?” he asked.
The panel agreed that having a mix of millennials and more experienced staff was important. Paddy Power’s David Singleton said it was a struggle trying to hang on to good staff, who might go elsewhere. And Adobe’s John Watton said: “You need a balance, you need experienced people who have learned some of the pitfalls. We re-skill people on the job, we move people from traditional content roles into web content roles and spot opportunities for people to move towards more data roles.”
Another audience member, Gregory Gillette, insight analyst at agency 1000 Heads, asked what kind of skills were needed from those looking to get into marketing.
Net-a-Porter’s Lisa Bridgett said she was impressed by the millennial generation as they see no boundaries to what they can do. Marketers can come from many backgrounds: “I think the dexterity around the disciplines is fantastic,” she said.
Those looking for a career in marketing must be prepared to bring together the magic of marketing and the science of technology to create powerful and relevant marketing campaigns.
Bridgett summed up the challenge. “The real stars are the ones who can balance a passion for technology, data, fashion and creativity at the same time.”
Key discussion points
How has the explosion of digital technology changed marketing? This was the theme of the discussion panel organised by the Guardian in association with Adobe. Today’s connected consumers are using smartphones, iPads, laptops - and even glasses and watches - to access content. As a result, marketing departments need to provide compelling campaigns across these different devices and become proficient in using technology. Marketers need to work closely with IT departments and technologists. They need to understand the processes behind developing websites, handling data and running social media campaigns. The panel discussed how marketers could develop the skills to enable them to work hand in hand with technologists while retaining their creativity, flair and intuition.
At the table
Robin Hough (Chair), editor, Guardian Media Network
Charles Wells, chief marketing officer, JustGiving
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