Ask The CMO: A Conversation With Alan Gellman On Marketing As A Lever of Innovation And Growth

Marketing is rapidly moving from a siloed communications activity to a powerful driver of business strategy, innovation, growth and experience. We are in a period of significant business change, catalyzed by the digital transformation that is upon us. This is requiring leading brands to reimagine the marketing function in ways that embrace an emphasis on both brand and performance. No longer is an either-or option viable.  With this in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” series where I talk to some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.

For my second piece in this series, I had the privilege of speaking with Alan Gellman, digital trailblazer, marketing visionary, former CMO of Esurance and current Future of Money Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. We discussed his thoughts on harnessing marketing as a lever to drive innovation, and growth through a lens of brand purpose and winning experiences. Below is a recap of our conversation:

Billee: Digital transformation is new to some, but it’s something you have been doing for years at brands like Kraft, Wells Fargo and Esurance. With that said, what are the key things that people should be aware of as digital goes from a siloed function to more of a critical driver of day-to-day business?

Alan:  I have a pretty strong view around what marketing needs to be in terms of driving growth inside organizations. It’s not just about generating traffic or building a brand, and yet those things are classically critical and always will be. Today, it also has to be about why are you in business. What’s your purpose as a company? Guiding companies to achieve that purpose and to create value for consumers is critical to marketing today and an important part of achieving that is through digitally driven transformation. That means helping to guide, if not owning directly, what the value exchange with the customer is. Marketing isn’t strictly the communication side; I am equally focused on the product and the experiences that we create. So, the starting point on framing for me is building the type of business that will create value for customers. And, then how do you tell them about it and reach the right ones in innovative and compelling ways and make sure they know the value proposition, understand what you’re bringing to them, including through targeting and compellingly creative.

Billee: I couldn’t agree more. But, I find that in speaking to many clients and executives in general, a lot of people seem generally confused about what purpose is and how a company should find it. Do you have any thoughts on top things marketers should consider as they try to pivot their organizations to the bigger picture to provide a grander value than just a product or service?

Alan: So, there are a few things. First, as customer champions, marketers need to lead the organization in clarifying why it exists and how it adds value. In addition, marketers are often quite siloed in their training and in their thinking and in what they choose to tackle. And so, the starting point has to be you’ve got to get out of your own box. And nearly all of us are in our own box. So, start by organizing marketers and teams so that they know their accountability and realize it isn’t just “oh I’m a performance marketer who does search engine marketing work.”  Rather it needs to be about working daily, in an integrative fashion to be impacting positively on the brand as well as performance. We have to change how we develop people so that they have the skills and toolkit and even more important the mental models that say this is about a holistic way of understanding our customers and reaching them and delivering for them.

Billee: Based off of that insight, my instinct is that a variety of things that I am seeing and hearing about are not truly done through an integrative lens. Most notably, as highlighted at Cannes, content experiences don’t seem to have a creative through line that ladders up to a bigger or more purposeful brand voice. So how can marketers have a more holistic view to connect the creative in ways that generate purposeful and authentic experiences?

Alan: I think the first thing is really determining how do you have an overarching storyline and creative approach that works its way through all of the marketing regardless of what type it is. What we developed at Esurance for example, was a very clear purpose. But it was really heavy lifting where we debated every word, as we should have. We did this because without debating it and changing it, it’s not a living and breathing organism. As we engaged with it, we realized it couldn’t be a marketing tagline, but rather what the company was working toward. At Esurance we said it can’t just be about insurance. “Insurance for the modern world” is a great tagline and very much about the DNA of the company. But, what we did instead was say how do you turn that into an aspiration or a why? Where we netted out with our purpose was the direction we wanted to push the company toward: “modernize protection and help people thrive in the modern world.”

Billee: There are many changes taking place like the ones you have just touched upon making it a very difficult time to be a marketer. Can you address the disconnect between the ability for corporate infrastructures to pivot in lockstep with the evolution of the marketing function and how marketing leadership should address these chasms?

Alan: Yes of course. I look at it as integrative marketing as we have been discussing. I have seen in my experience that people have to be developed to be truly integrated marketers. Few offline people deeply know digital and vice versa frankly. Performance and brand need to be approached through an integrative lens to truly drive performance and build the right infrastructure. The key to success is to develop an integrated perspective connecting product, marketing and experience with full and deep C-suite engagement. Understanding and developing that purpose together. And it requires thought leadership coming from marketing as it relates first to purpose and ultimately to how you drive growth.

Billee: So, I think what you are saying is that people need to take charge of their own destiny in the top marketing role. Many people are failing to do this as CMO turnover has never been higher. Any tips on best practices for achieving success in today’s environment?

Alan: I think there are ways where marketers need to evolve. First of all, every marketer needs to be thinking of themselves as a general manager. Many marketers out there just say they’re trying to get budget. Their objective should first be to ask themselves am I efficiently driving growth and innovation for my organization. Think of yourself as owning the P&L. Think of yourself as being accountable for both the top line and the bottom line ; it should never just be about the budget.

Billee: Do you have any thoughts on the best ways that marketers should look at artificial intelligence strategically through a more holistic lens, meaning both creatively and data technology wise. Less shiny new object, more driver of business strategy, growth and experience? 

Alan: There’s not one way, but there’s definitely a way not to, which is it’s not a new toy. And I think that’s part of your point. Artificial intelligence has actually been around a long time and it’s really about ways of being smarter. How can machine learning help you understand how you’re optimizing your creative for a given delivery?  How do you deliver the right message at the right time in the right sequence? It’s about learning and using that speed and use of modeling. All marketers should be experimenting with that now.  These are critical capabilities that are evolving but it’s not one magic bullet and it’s not a panacea at all.

Billee: In conclusion, what’s next for you?

Alan: First, as noted earlier, I’ve agreed to become a Future of Money Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg. I’m excited to work with the team to explore all the many ways money and financial services will evolve to help consumers and society.  In addition, I am exploring how I can help companies in the fintech and healthtech spaces scale their growth, possibly as an advisor. Between the rapid and inevitable move to mobile, the increased expectations of consumers who have experienced disruption in most other categories, and the potential to create value, Fintech is an exciting place to be right now.

Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.

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