Today’s marketing teams have to be technologically literate, data savvy, and agile
Fast moving technology and changing business models have played a part in disrupting every industry from farming to pharma, but it’s easy to overlook their impact on marketing and communications. How has the profession evolved in the face of potential disruption?
We spoke to Barbara Bates, global CEO of international communications agency Hotwire, to find out.
After growing up in Silicon Valley, working as a television reporter, and then starting a technology PR agency from scratch, Bates is not your average marketer. For 25 years, she ran PR agency, Eastwick until it was acquired by Hotwire in 2016. Following the acquisition, Bates was asked to become the global CEO. Now, she runs the company’s operations across Australia, the US, Europe, and Asia.
“We used to talk about ourselves as a technology communications firm, working with tech companies, but now we work with all different types of companies… Every company wants to be a technology company, or leverage innovation to build value around their brand. That’s something we’re really good at.”
Technology is oiling the wheels of marketing, and according to Bates, most marketers now recognise that disruptive technology will help rather than replace them.
“We’re at a point where people are trying to be smart about leveraging technology that will either automate, or make more efficient, some of the more commoditised parts of our business around data like gathering research and coverage tracking,” she explains. “When it comes to AI, I think people assume that it means replacing humans. Most marketers with any experience realise it’s about augmenting what humans do. It’s a way of making communications more authentic, to automate and get data from AI.”
In many ways, digitalisation has aided in building trust. And, contrary to popular belief, the influx of technology has also catalysed a movement back to the human element.
“One of the observations I’ve made is that with digital transformation and technology, the pendulum swings very far in one direction. We sort of lost the human element, especially when it comes to marketing. I definitely see a big push back towards that. You see brands talking about being more human, and how better to engage. We’re seeing them do that by building an online and offline presence.”
As an example, Bates recalls a magazine pop up event in New York where, instead of handing out purely physical or digital copies, the brand asked authors to present their articles to live audiences. Connecting offline and online experiences in this way has become a valuable tool for building genuine relationships with clients.
Shifting the operating model
Marketing teams have also been affected by changing business models. One particularly important shift has been the abandonment of the agency of record (AOR) model, in which businesses rely on a single agency to handle all of their projects, PR, and marketing needs.
“Over the last five years, the big global AOR model has started to fall away,” says Bates. “Brands now purposefully want to work with a variety of agencies. Adobe, for example, works with three different communications firms that might bring different skill sets and creativity. It also means that companies are not locked into one agency and can offer project opportunities to different agencies to see different types of work.”
The willingness of big businesses to dish out project work is one of the reasons for Hotwire’s notable organic growth. Diverse competition helps smaller firms to make a bigger impact, which threatens the multinational agencies used to one-on-one contracts. Projects such as customer events, rebrands, or training programmes aren’t part of Hotwire’s regular work, but they do present an opportunity. Applying a flexible, nimble, mindset to projects enables Hotwire to work with renowned companies, and compete in a more varied market.
Bates explains, the complexity of the job today…
“To be a marketer today, you have to be really well versed in finance, data, technology, and a wide variety of disciplines. Just look at what percentage of global buying technology budget is now decided by the CMO verses the CIO or CTO. CMOs have bigger budgets than ever before. That’s one of the challenges, not just for marketers, but for agencies. You have to learn new skills as you move up in your career, and even if you’re staying at the same level, the disciplines and skill set required is expanding incredibly.”
On top of the difficult task of creating compelling, meaningful narratives, digitalisation has brought a host of new challenges. For Bates, a major problem for CMOs is the onslaught of cyber crime.
“It is the CMO’s job to protect their company’s image. If there’s a data breach, or phishing – which is a huge issue – you have to deal with that. If you’re a retail bank, let’s say, and all of a sudden your customers are getting false emails from someone who’s phishing, that has a direct impact on the bank’s brand even though they’ve done nothing wrong. That’s why marketers care a lot about cybersecurity because, more and more, it’s easy to steal a brand.”
Cybersecurity also requires marketers to invest in more training and security, which takes time and costs money. Just as CMOs have a responsibility to support cybersecurity initiatives, they have to encourage clean data culture. Suffering a cyber breach is damaging enough, but actively failing to protect client data is entirely the fault of the brand. Another challenge is hiring and retaining the right talent.
“One of the things that I spend a lot of time on is building Hotwire into the best agency you’ll ever work with, and that’s not just for clients, but for employees too. What they want is really challenging creative work, and flexibility. Everyone appreciates flexibility, not just the millennials. If you’re a working mum with an hour and a half commute, then I’d much rather you spend that hour and a half doing great client work.”
Success is simple
Agencies and their employees have to contend with more data, more project work, and more competition than ever before. In the face of these demands, Bates’ key piece of advice to the marketing and communications team within any organisation is to simplify.
“There is so much noise and complication in communication and in every consumer buying decision. When you look at the companies who have really done well with their brands, they have a very simple message. I think this is a huge challenge for technology companies who still talk about lots of features and benefits.”
The first example that comes to Bates’ mind is Apple. However, she explains that a lot of the companies that have quickly gone from being little known to well known – think Deliveroo, Slack, and Uber – came up with a simple message that they told consumers over and over again.
“I know a lot of amazing companies with amazing products that just couldn’t launch because they couldn’t create their story in a way that was simple enough to capture people,” she says. “Make it simple, and learn the power of story, because that’s the way people connect.”
This message is part of Hotwire’s own brand, building the capacity to work collaboratively instead of competitively, and with flexibility rather than rigid rules, is what makes small to medium agencies stand out from the crowd.
“We’re trying to set ourselves apart by doing the best thing for the client,” says Bates. “It’s about being fluid. We’ve come from organic growth, for the most part, and Eastwick worked with a lot of startups, so we have a bit of a scrappy persona. Companies are more likely to work with mid sized agencies who have that global reach but are nimble.”
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