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Transition 2014: CMO Tip of Iceberg Meltdown?

While presenters at Percolate’s full house Transition 2014 Conference at The TimesCenter in New York City last week debated the future of marketing, I believe most marketers in attendance left knowing they face a big conundrum. Has technology and social disruption accelerated the beginning of the end or end of the beginning for CMOs?

Whether you believe what is becoming a social media truism—that social has transferred brand ownership to consumers, definitively—and opt to forego a marketing department altogether, like BarkBox, or reinvent your marketing, like Unilever’s commitment to sustainability, I believe there is little doubt that marketers today believe this is only the tip of the disruption iceberg meltdown.  As Marc Mathieu, SVP Marketing, Unilever, put it: Marketing used to be about creating a myth and telling it. Now it is about finding a truth and sharing it.

With CMO tenure currently about 24 months, not really long enough to show measurable results, Beth Comstock, GE CMO encourages marketers to be “instigators.”  Appointed in 2003 as GE’s first CMO in 20 years, Comstock has bucked the tenure trend. How? Part of my job (as a marketer) is to create tension in the system, says Comstock.

Comstock defined GE’s marketing DNA as the 4-I's: instigator, implementer, innovator, and integrator. With a global marketing department of only 5,000 employees, Comstock’s lean GE marketing resources accentuate the need for creative partnering and amplification: Collaboration and transparency: these two things go together. Our problems are too big to solve alone.

Percolate co-founder Noah Brier cautioned on the danger for marketers of losing sight of the power of invention in the 0 to 1 moment—citing Peter Thiel’s book—in a technology-driven marketing world pushing the boundaries of scale: A lot of us are focused on the 1 to n change. But we can't lose sight of the 0 to 1. Where 0-1 is invention (technology, vertical progress, creating new things), 1-0 is scaling (globalization, horizontal progress, copying existing things). 

The context for missed marketing opportunities was underscored by Brier’s co-founder partner James Gross, citing smartphone user growth in the next five years forecast to climb from to almost 6 billion—the majority of the planet, fueled by developing countries.  With mobile now mapping the universe of human relationships, a new unprecedented social graph is now being created, offering new ethnographic dimension and discovery.

Erin Dignan, CEO Undercurrent/Responsive.org spoke about bringing an idea to life, bringing a product to scale, and explained how the Ubers and AirBnbs—underpinned by a platform which is a great enabler in the open source sharing ecosystem—have found a way to knit together 99% of the value of existing tech platforms to create value. Dignan also alluded to psychological shifts and value systems disruptions confronting 21st century marketers.  Where 20th century systems embrace planning, the new model embraces uncertainty. Planning has lot less value, and there is the need for a new system of de-embracing. New systems serve networks versus old serve hierarchies to create value. Old systems centralize control, new systems distribute authority; old enable complication vs. promote simplicity; old manage information vs. process information; old encourage conformity vs. encourage divergence; old sustain status quo vs. enable crossover.

On the topic of data literacy, Greg Hochmuth, founder of Dada, a data startup, and 7th employee at Instagram, suggested a circumspect approach: If you see data that's complex and you don't understand it, don't accept it blindly. Ask questions. Figure it out. Many companies, he admonished, approach their data like a novice pilot approaches the cockpit: a ton of knobs and levers that feel overwhelming, which leads to an over-reliance on gut.  

Brian Morrissey, Editor-in-Chief of Digiday spoke with Eric Hippeau of Lerer Ventures on how media companies are becoming technology companies and how social+mobile has created an “always on” world for brands and publishers. Their word association wrap was a cloud pleaser, with gems such as:  Newspapers: gone. Native Advertising: the future. Fox & Time Warner: Dinos are mating. Paywalls: Oh my god. Clickbait: part of doing biz.

The best definition of media today according to Michael Zimbalist, SVP of Ad Products and R&D at the New York Times: If you are in media, you are in the business of provisioning moments of attention.  While Zimbalist declared that long-form journalism isn’t dead, the Times leaked internal Innovation Report reveals its struggle in adopting digital platforms. Percolate’s Jason Shen’s blog examines some key values and lessons for marketers derived from the report.

My key takeaway from Transition 2014 isn’t a marketing tale of doom or gloom. Au contraire. Today’s CMO has never been in a more enviable position to reinvent, innovate and lead.  The key?  Creative partnering, de-enabling, tenacity and a good dollop of Chutzpah.

And the key to CMO longevity, according to the Comstock mantra:  Marketing's job is to know where the world is going and to help the company get there.

Do you know where the world is going?

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