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Jane is a retail and small business writer with a special interest in emerging companies and entrepreneurs. She covered the financial services industry before moving into general business journalism and has written for The Age and The Australian Financial Review.

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IBM CMO Mark Willson a chameleon suited to a changing role

Published 21 March 2013 10:14, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32

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IBM CMO Mark Willson a chameleon suited to a changing role

Mark Wilson says social media makes it very difficult to manage your brand. But being authentic is critical. Working how to do that is hard. Photo: Louise Kennerley

When IBM Australia and New Zealand chief marketing officer Mark Willson worked in sales and marketing in the mid-1990s, the job was more about egos and reputation than it was about the customer.

“The focus was on advertising and creativity and the look and feel things,” he says. “Looking back on it I think we spent as much time making ourselves feel good as we did convincing the market that we had a good product.”

Today, after almost 30 years at IBM, Willson says he has first hand knowledge about how the role of the CMO has changed.

Not only do CMOs need to be great leaders with a strong knowledge of new technology, finance, business management and data analytics, he says, they need to be creative enough to turn the numbers and data into meaningful information for customers and the business.

“Consumers have become more and more powerful. They can destroy a brand through social media,” the veteran marketer tells BRW.

“We look at how you can bring a brand to life in an authentic way that actually represents the true culture and character of your brand. You can’t advertise and promote yourself as one thing and operate at a different level. You will get caught out very quickly.”

As companies have changed, it has been crucial for marketers to keep up, especially when it comes to new technology, Willson says. IBM Australia and New Zealand’s approach to marketing, led by Willson for the past decade, shows it to be an early adapter of these changes.

In the late 1990s IBM focused on what it calls its “demand generation capabilities”, or marketing to create new business and product opportunities.

It invested in developing new database marketing teams and telephone sales teams with a direct marketing focus. The old-fashioned approach focused on communicating directly with customers and convincing them to buy IBM products, but it involved using segmented teams where marketers worked separately within individual business units, rather than together as part of a broader strategy.

As new technology flooded the market and the expectations of company boards and customers changed, old-fashioned direct marketing strategies became redundant and inefficient. Willson recognised the trend early and by 2005 began simplifying IBM’s marketing structure, integrating its marketing and communications department. By 2007 the process was complete, he says.

“That’s really when you can say that my role became a CMO role. I believe for many organisations [including IBM], that before the mid-2000s the role of the CMO never really existed,” Willson says.

A key part of IBM’s new marketing strategy was to redefine its mission. Willson identified three core responsibilities of marketing, a doctrine his team is constantly urged to refer to.

These include: make new markets [products and services], capture markets,and capture corporate character. “When I talk to my peers about that, they often give me a thoughtful look of: ‘that’s a little bit different’,” he says.

However for IBM, as a 100 year-old company, it is crucial to be a leader in its field and to “be a bit different” in its approach to new products and services, Willson argues.

One such initiative is the IBM-sponsored blog, Building a Smarter Planet, which encourages readers to engage in thought-provoking, educated discussions that are not necessarily tied to the company’s strategy or opinions. The blog, which has numerous unpaid author contributors, has almost 250,000 Facebook followers, and is updated regularly by contributors across the globe.

Another IBM marketing initiative involved co-ordinating a CMO and CIO leadership symposium of 100 of the country’s “A-list” executives in February – in a bid to encourage a discussion about the importance of CMOs and CIOs working together.

The three topics of conversation during the event were: marketing to customers as individuals; creating systems of engagement to maximise value at every touch and the interception of brand and culture as one.

“It was a great conversation and it’s things like that, when we [IBM]can be a leader and bring people together to drive a conversation that people feel is interesting and compelling, that make me proud.”

In 2011 Willson’s marketing team initiated IBM’s study, A Snapshot of Australia’s Digital Future to 2050, which identified growth opportunities relating to the roll-out of the national broadband network and a digitally connected society. The report’s findings have been used throughout the IBM business to “create impetus for action and change” and Willson says it is an ongoing project that continues to be central to the company’s marketing and communications campaign.

Having a depth of knowledge about the fundamentals of business and how they work is becoming an increasing critical skill for CMOs. For Willson, that knowledge has come from experience and working his way up the corporate ladder over almost 30 years with IBM.

Willson started with the company in 1984 in a technical sales role after spending a year in business with his friend selling early-model computers . “Computers were a hot growth area at that stage . . . but we decided after a year that we didn’t know enough about what we were doing and after a year of it we had better get out there and get real jobs,” he says.

Over the past three decades Willson has had three different careers within IBM. Working in the technical sales division gave him experience working one-on-one with businesses, demonstrating early accounting and business management systems. He later worked in sales and sales management roles, then spent time managing the company’s Asia Pacific marketing, systems and product group in Shanghai, China, before moving into marketing and advertising and pure marketing in the past decade.

“That experience of working with clients directly has been really helpful to me in my role as CMO now. Leaders’ breadth and depth of experience not just depth – that breadth of understanding is really critical.

“The technical understanding – in terms of understanding the depth of the business – helps internally with our staff and also externally in regards to the sales challenge of dealing with clients,” Willson says.

A recent IBM study of 100 of the world’s most influential CMOs backs Willson’s theory that the marketing landscape had changed substantially in the past five years. The changes and challenges for bricks and mortar retailers are not dissimilar to those of CMOs, Willson says.

“Ten or 15 years ago if you walked into a store, looked at a few items and walked out, the retailer had no data on that interaction or individual. Today if someone jumps on your website, you can track what they look at, how long they stay ... all of the data is available to you. The same is true for marketers ... and the reality is that [their] marketplace is changing dramatically,” he says.

Of CMOs today, 74 per cent say they are challenged by decreasing brand loyalty, while 73 per cent say emerging market opportunities are difficult to manage. Collaboration and influence is a trend that keeps 72 per cent up at night and 75 per cent believe that marketing’s return on investment is the most important measure of their success.

Those challenges – along with data security and privacy concerns, finding the right people with the right skills and managing brand reputation – will continue to confront CMOs over the next five years, Willson says.

“Coming to grips with that you can’t control your brand, [and that] you have to be authentic and working out how to do that is challenging. For us, we believe the most important influencers of the IBM reputation are the 400,000 worldwide IBM-ers [employees]. The way they interact with each other and clients is what defines the IBM brand.”

Willson says managing the reputation risk of a company with 400,000 global employees is difficult, particularly given the rise of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

To encourage discussion and debate among staff and management, IBM has just held a four-day global online “jam”, where all staff were encouraged to talk about improving the customer experience. Everyone from call centre staff to IBM’s chief executive Ginni Rometty commented on different conversations, Willson says.

“The employees know this is a way that they can connect with other employees and have a voice in terms of shaping ... the way we create the behaviours and culture within the company. The response has been phenomenal ... from pretty blunt comments to very positive ones – it drives people to look at things from other peoples’ perspective. As a company, that’s what you want.”

To visit Mark Willson’s blog, Aussie CMO, go to www.aussiecmo.com.au

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