Lessons from a media leader turned tech consultant

In an exclusive column for strategy, Alex Panousis shares decades of observations around what makes a digital leader.

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By Alex Panousis

Change. It has almost become a cliché. But the fact is, we are living in the middle of mass reinvention. And it is probably one of the most exciting times to be in business.

I have been privileged to work in the advertising, marketing and media industries for several decades and embracing change has been a marker in my life. Not all of it was perfect, but it has opened many rewarding chapters – and I am ready for another.

While it is anything but simple, the opportunities for leaders – brand or otherwise – to lean into tech is critical. It’s essential for your business success, but also for your career. As I transition from media to technology, I speak from personal experience.

Like in most industries, the early adopters of digital and tech created a language, culture and exclusivity that wasn’t collaborative. It was filled with acronyms, unnecessary jargon, and it was siloed. This made it hard for the CMO, the CFO and the CTO to align. There were early lines in the sand between what was creative and what was media. Too much data and not enough emphasis on the “so what.” Experiments versus strategies. No wonder most digital transformation failed (with an estimated 70% failure rate). Luckily, this is changing.

Sometimes, the insights from failure can be your greatest source of competitive advantage. And over the last few years we have learned a lot (a masterclass of learning during the height of COVID). Now we have the experience that formed during cultural, economic and business turbulence, recognizing that scalable digital solutions enable better customer experiences. This was not just beneficial for growth; it was critical for survival.

The consulting firm BCG recently did a review (following the peak of the pandemic) and found that digital leaders gained five percentage points more market share and over five percent more market capitalization than their peers. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” has widened. In a world where brands matter less, how one shows up in a modern omnichannel customer journey is the opportunity. Be a digital leader or die. Technology creates experiences that will help you pave the way.

Working with digital leaders, digital laggards and learning from my own failure, I have a few observations:

1. There is too much Ivory Tower strategy and not enough emphasis on delivery. We need to rebalance this. The what is important but the how gets you there.

2. There are too many pilots and not enough focus on scalable solutions. Start with the end goal in mind. A pilot can only be successful if you can scale. If not, it is a project not a business solution.

3. There is not enough upfront investment and alignment. Like with media, we are commoditizing tech. Not all solutions can cost $25 dollars offshore. Cheaper is not a strategy. Value creation has to be the starting point.

4. There are good intentions but bad advice. The industry has grown up. You need best-in-breed leaders to guide you.

5. Harness the power of your data. We need to do better here. There are massive areas of opportunity. Take control of this now. Generate real business insights from data.

6. Tech is an enabler and doesn’t replace some of the core marketing fundamentals. Science + discipline + art is required. Dream what is possible then build it. Don’t let legacy (or politics) hold you back.

7. Sometimes you have to tear everything down to build it back up. Short-term thinking and Band-Aid solutions will limit your potential (“It is harder to build electric cars in a plant that was built for analog”). Use this to build capabilities.

8. Being a digital leader starts at the top – in your organization and with your partners.

And, finally, tech enablement is also important to career growth and indeed career resilience. If you work in business today, then make your personal learning agenda a priority. We tend to get wrapped up in the day-to-day, missing the opportunity to focus on the future.

Learn to do what is important, versus just focusing on the urgent. Take that course, hire a tech whisperer, find someone who can coach you. Remember that all of this is ultimately about humans. Tech enablement is about how humans connect, share, shop, learn and be entertained. Don’t let it scare you.

The digital and physical worlds have collided. Technology enables our ability to reimagine what is possible and helps to reset value. Action it well. Change creates the future.

Alex-Panousis-CEOCaratCanada-e1581619618113Alex Panousis is SVP, global clients at Valtech, a business transformation company. She previously held exec leadership roles at the CBC, Publicis, Havas and, most recently, Dentsu.