Securing executive power

Randy VanDerStarren still recalls his first meeting as a member of AGF's executive board.

Randy VanDerStarren still recalls his first meeting as a member of AGF’s executive board.

He describes it as a humbling experience, one in which he realized that marketing wasn’t the be-all and end-all for corporate types. ‘You go into a boardroom filled with what I call the Fathers of Confederation – very established, blue-suited, mostly guys, sitting around a traditional mahogany table, with Group of Seven paintings on the wall – and you’re talking about putting Spiderman on a golf course. And that’s going to be your ad. And you expect them to shake your hand and say: ‘Thank you very much.” Formerly an adman who had worked on the likes of Mercedes, Coca-Cola and Campbell before joining the Toronto-based firm seven years ago as SVP marketing, VanDerStarren learned quickly that it would never play out like that.

What was more disturbing though was the fact that most of the suits didn’t get marketing or branding. ‘Most of these guys would never admit in a boardroom that they didn’t understand what a brand was, because that wouldn’t be a very cool thing to say. What they end up doing is pretending…and those are the most dangerous people, because when it comes to the bottom line, they are the same guys that need to approve a $5 million budget. Without a thorough understanding of what brand is, that’s almost an impossible task to go on.’

Still, in his first year, he somehow managed to convince AGF’s senior brass to double its ad spend to about $6 million and drop its ‘lackluster’ advertising, in favour of a campaign that would largely differentiate the mutual fund company from its foes. That campaign, of course, evolved into the highly praised ‘What are you doing after work?’ advertising.

How he achieved what he did, in a conservative business environment no less, is an important lesson, as securing senior-level buy-in has become a necessity in this era of increasing consumer demand. ‘More and more people in the organization talk to consumers,’ says Alan Kay, president of Toronto-based consultancy The Glasgow Group. ‘So the job that used to be the responsibility of the marketing department is now being distributed to other parts of the organization…. It used to be fine if you were a senior marketer with a number of marketing skills competencies. What this stuff requires is executive management skills.’

Brad Costello, principal of Brand Active Implementation Management, which has offices in Toronto and Millbrae, Calif., couldn’t agree more. Like Kay, he consults with marketers on achieving internal alignment and also has over 20 years of state-side experience with companies like Federal Express, PepsiCo, and Pillsbury. The first goal on the marketer’s agenda, he maintains, should be obtaining CEO engagement. That’s more difficult than it sounds.

‘Endorsement is not leadership,’ says Costello. ‘If the marketing executive hasn’t been able to create that script to get the CEO to understand why speaking about the brand should be infused in all the rest of the conversations around business initiatives and objectives, then what happens is it just becomes one of many things [an executive] needs to do.’

Most marketers fail at this task because they don’t know how to create that script in the first place, he says. The CEO is obviously concerned with top- and bottom-line growth, and other business goals, so a marketer must explain how his/her brand initiatives support those needs. ‘Once they do that, guess what? The CEO can then go into a meeting and be more of a partner in the process. So marketers can move the CEO from endorsement to basically integrating brand strategy into business objectives.’

At the same time, he adds, marketers should be talking to their executive peers to get their support, by explaining how marketing will support their respective tactical and strategic responsibilities. ‘You have to say: ‘You know what, it isn’t going to impact you [negatively] and here’s what you get back’ or, you have to be honest and say: ‘Look, it will affect you this month, but let me demonstrate how by doing this, it will drive your quarter,’ and ‘I’ll be supportive of you in a conversation with the CEO or CFO to let them know there’s going to be short-term impact.”

‘Creating a sense of empathy’ with the senior team members was certainly a key strategy for VanDerStarren: ‘You start looking at this group and say: ‘Now, if I was them, what would I be interested in?’…. They understand numbers and research, that’s their world. So you have to make sure you play by their rules. To walk in arrogantly and say: ‘I have the answer’ never works with any of these groups.’

So VanDerStarren, who left AGF a year ago and now runs a Toronto-based marketing consultancy called Oh!, worked at ‘chopping off barriers.’ He conversed with financial analysts on an ongoing basis, because he knew their support was important to the CFO. He pulled in research that concluded the industry lacked a strong brand. He pointed to examples from the U.S., companies like Merrill Lynch, which had success over the years in large part because of their branding campaigns. And he became a self-described ‘forceful diplomat,’ lobbying board members long before he ever presented to them in a group.

‘I would make sure, knowing that I would shock the hell out of people, that they were prepped before they sat around that room. Just like a politician or a diplomat, I would meet with each of these senior people individually, so they had a chance to express their concerns one on one. So much time was spent selling the concept to the individual long before the official presentation at the board level.’

And, to Costello’s point, he translated his points into a language his peers could understand. ‘I always had a carefully constructed plan, to say: ‘Look, I know this will cost $6 million, but we just spent $12 million on a joint venture in China. That’s not going to pay off for 10 years. I’m telling you this money will be paid off in two.’ Those types of comparisons always helped.’

Converting from marketing to business speak is crucial when dealing with not only the executive team, but all members of an internal audience that have an impact on customer experience, says Costello. It’s essential, he explains, because the last thing you want to do is put your organization in a position where they can’t deliver on what you say in your ads.

‘Let’s say your campaign is around excellent customer care, flexibility and innovation. You have to define those and translate them for each key part of the organization that is affecting customer interaction. What does excellent customer care mean in a call centre? What does innovation mean in a call centre? The more you define ‘This is how we’re going to deliver the brand promise,’ the better.’

At press time, Canada Post’s director of marketing communications Catherine Riggins was preparing to do just that. Strategy spoke to her a couple of hours before she was scheduled to present a new spot, featuring a new strategic alliance with eBay, to her board of directors. The latest ad for the company was back in 2004, before Gomery; both spots are part of a wider campaign focused on ‘intensifying connections.’

Because the lag between the two commercials was longer than originally intended, Riggins will be relying on ad tracking numbers – and the fact that after the original spot those numbers flattened out – to promote her cause. ‘I’ll remind them what our challenges were in terms of brand equity in 2004, and talk about how we want to change perceptions about Canada Post. Some of the research we had conducted showed that Canadians were taking it for granted. The whole strategy was to shift them from this position of indifference to infusing an emotional bond.’

Riggins had already been in touch with her executive counterparts, such as Louis O’Brien the SVP of the parcel division. In that conversation, she focused on the eBay relationship and how the ad will build awareness about this new arrangement, as well as support the strategic thrust of growing Canada Post’s shipping business. ‘One of his big goals in forming the parcel division is making it easier for people to do business with us, and having better access to our services. So this ad, even though it’s a brand ad, does a good job of showing how you can actually print a label at home, and slap it on a parcel and put it in a street level box.’

But the most difficult challenge, as in VanDerStarren’s case, remains convincing the CFO. ‘It’s really been difficult to get him to understand how powerful brand advertising is.’ Thus, Riggins has ensured that the eBay spot is complemented by measurable tactics, such as flyers that contain a call-to-action and DM. ‘Typically, they understand the need to advertise, but they look at the media dollars versus doing a DM piece or something that’s a little crunchier. Adding elements with metrics helps.’

Buy-in strategy wins top marks

Brian Woodland, director of communications and strategic partnerships at the Peel District School Board, based in Mississauga, Ont., didn’t stop at convincing his stakeholders to buy into a new brand identity. He actually asked them to create it.

It all started in late 2003 when he first approached his elected 12-member board of trustees about redesigning the board’s logo, which had been last revamped 15 years prior. However, instead of approaching his bosses with the claim that the brand identity was outdated – a viewpoint he knew would cause resentment – he found a way to make it a priority for them. ‘We talked about the fact that we had inconsistent school signage. I said: ‘Imagine that CIBC has branches across the country, but not one of them had a CIBC on it? That’s inconceivable.’ When we had that discussion with people on our board, they said: ‘Wow, we need to talk about that.” Woodland also pointed out that having every school produce its own design for collateral was inefficient, and did nothing to advance the brand of the board, since the logo often wasn’t even included.

Once they agreed change was necessary, Woodland decided that, instead of handling the new identity solo, he would get organizational buy-in by involving reps from all sides of the board, including trustees, the director of education, senior staff members from both the business and educational side, plus front line staff, such as principals.

The ‘picture of the future committee’ then consulted with 500 people via a survey and out of that process emerged three key words: student-focused, diverse and progressive. That information was then sent to design firm Hambly & Woolley, which came back with 10 initial concepts. Says Woodland: ‘Each time we looked at them, I spoke last. I tried to identify that their voice is important and in fact more important than mine.’

The result of giving up that control was that the final logo – which consisted of an image of a smiling child’s face – was accepted unanimously by the board, and embraced by the community. Having representatives from the various groups take part in the process meant that they were able to ‘sell’ the logo they had spent so much time developing to their peers. And the committee members also suggested internal marketing tactics, such as balloons printed with the logo, that Woodland would have never considered, but that in the end resonated with the audience.

While the process was time-consuming, with the new identity finally being unveiled last September, Woodland says it was worth it. For one thing, the committee forced him to think deeply about organizational need, versus his personal preference. More importantly, he says, ‘I highly doubt I would have got the new identity through the board.’ LD