The nature of change for c-suite marketers

Part three of strategy's CMO discussion on generalists vs. specialists and the speed of innovation.

While no two marketers’ jobs are quite the same, there are challenges common to anyone trying to establish rapport with Canada’s increasingly complex consumers. So when it came time to prepare strategy’s Marketing Evolution conference – a summit of experts exploring how to future-proof marketing – we decided to round up some brand leaders to weigh in.

One conversation took place over dinner at Toronto’s Böehmer restaurant. At the table were Emma Eriksson, VP marketing at General Mills Canada; Lori Davison, VP of brand strategy and communication at the SickKids Foundation; and Jason Chaney, former chief strategy officer at Cossette and now CCO at financial startup Koho. Despite working in different sectors, the group faces common challenges from the speed of innovation to technology investment and pursuit of talent.

The first and second portions of this interview are already posted online, but we now publish the heart of our conversation, which is focused on speed-to-market strategies, cultivating a generalist approach and technology investment.

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of strategy.

MiC_Jan11_2018-4Strategy: We’re seeing companies such as Unilever launch products like ApotheCARE way faster than has been typical. They’re acting like startups. The CPG co’s CFO was quoted as saying it’s more important to be fast than absolutely certain. Are you guys seeing that and are you able to work more quickly?

Emma Eriksson: I think that sentiment is there. For me, there’s some complexity in the supply chain that maybe holds me back sometimes. But the sentiment is there. Go and go fast! But for a lot of the categories, this is what’s needed to bring back excitement for the job.

Strategy: Jason, you’re actually at a startup. Does that culture of speed ever get out of control?

Jason Chaney: Whether you’re in a startup organization or whether you’re in a large organization with an innovative culture, it really comes down to faith in the people to do the things that they need to do properly. Every day, whether you test something or don’t test something, whether you’re iterating and looking at the data or not, every decision you make is some form of bet.

And so, if you’re making that bet, then you’re ultimately making a bet on the people making those decisions. To facilitate that, you really need a culture of trust, hiring the people that you believe are best to do those jobs.

At Koho, our CEO has literally said, “Do what you need to do. Don’t ask, just do. I’ve hired you to do these jobs. I don’t want you to ask to do your jobs.” We communicate quite often. And I think the frequency of communication is probably greater than anything I’ve experienced in my life. It’s a little bit easier because we’re a smaller organization.

Strategy: Is there much opportunity to use this approach in the not-for-profit world?

Lori Davison: Our culture is surprisingly entrepreneurial. That was a really delightful surprise when I went to SickKids. We actually just did our employee survey and I was looking at the results today. And that was one of the top things that our employees say about the culture: it’s brave and innovative and takes risks. And I think that comes from the CEO and moves down in any organization.

If you think of SickKids hospital, it’s founded on principles of innovation. We began 3D printing organs when one of the doctors built one in his basement. That actually goes back to one of the first incubators, which was built in the basement of a SickKids doctor in, you know, 1900.

MiC_Jan11_2018-9Strategy: Lori, when you look at your talent pipeline, what type of people are standing out?

Davison: Because things are so complex now, and there are so many disparate channels and activities and technology that you can take advantage of, it seems to me that in the leadership role, you have to be a generalist.

Because I just don’t know how you can move things forward if you’re not able to conceptualize across a lot of different areas.

The people who are in manager roles, I tend to look more at their generalized knowledge and skillsets. But then, you need specialists as well, because there’s so much to know about so many things that you need people who have that focus. So it’s kind of an ecosystem, really. You need a bit of it all in order to complete an organism that functions well.

Eriksson: I often think about how and when to hire agencies to do certain things. Who’s going to be hiring people that are at the cutting edge or have depth of experience within a certain area? And then, what should we have our internal teams do? That’s also something that we’re constantly looking at, too. We’ve got some experts internally, but we’ve mostly decided to work with agencies that bring expertise.

Strategy: Are there enough of those generalists?

Eriksson: Where we hire, where we tend to grow, most people want to be generalists. But maybe we haven’t completely nailed a career path for the people who want to be more specialist. Our organization is not quite designed for that. So that’s something that we’re going to actually have to work on more. You get to a point where those people get stuck and can’t see where they’ll go next.

Strategy: Speaking of the cutting edge, what technologies are you prioritizing right now?

Davison: For us, as a fundraising organization, it’s a lot of thinking about how technology can help us make the ‘ask’ in new ways and in new places. How do we adapt to the way technology is influencing retail? For example, historically, we would have someone at the till asking you if you want to make a donation, write your name on a leaf and put it on the tree, or whatever. We now have self-checkout. There’s no longer someone there to make that ask, so how do we adapt to that new scenario? We’re looking at partnering with retailers to see if there can be an ask on the screen to round up a purchase.

There are other changes in the way people make donations. It’s exponentially becoming an online experience, where there isn’t a conversation. How do we dimensionalize that? How do we bring emotion to the experience of donating on your phone? And how do we make the actual transaction as seamless and quick as possible, so that the user doesn’t get frustrated and give up?

MiC_Jan11_2018-5Strategy: Jason, you moved from an agency to a tech-focused startup. Has your perception on technology changed as a result?

Chaney: As a relatively new entrant in fintech in Canada, Koho is obviously developing a blockchain and AI as central to our business and product development. But we actually have to find ways to humanize the experience. It can be very easy to become a full-on technology company and completely disconnect yourself from your audience. We strive every day to actually infuse a real strong sense of humanity into our experiences and our brand as well. So, it almost creates a whiplash where we’re going to over-emphasize the humanity of the experience.

Strategy: It feels strange having a conversation about technology without mentioning voice these days. Is everyone here exploring Alexa?

Davison: We currently use Twitter for customer service, to respond to inquiries. I can see ultimately transitioning over to some kind of voice scenario there, and in a promotional way, I’m sure, if we get creative. As soon as it’s got enough critical mass, every agency will be pitching ideas for it. And we’ll buy them… My community manager is constantly getting asked whether the person that knocked on [someone’s] door saying they’re from SickKids is legitimate. So, I could see something like “Alexa, are SickKids currently canvassing in X area?”

Chaney: Think about any kind of customer support mechanism, and Alexa would be the natural place, right? FAQs and support systems would be amazing for Alexa.

Strategy: Jason, as our resident fintech expert, how do you think blockchain will make its mark on brands?

Chaney: Supply chain verification or authentication. It’ll put pressure on brands to ensure they’re sourcing their products from where they say they’re sourcing their products from. It will actually verify, right down to the grains within certain products, where ingredients been sourced, where they’ve been produced and processed. You won’t see that process as a consumer, but you’ll be able to ask that question of Alexa and all those things will be 100% verified with blockchain.