To give everyone the benefit of her vast knowledge of all things digital and often irreverent points of view on the topic, we conducted an interview with her earlier this month on brand leadership, agency relationships, ROI, and even how marketers can advance in their careers.

Econsultancy: What does it mean for marketers to provide brand leadership?

Jennifer Villalobos: The definition of brand as we know it, as an embodiment of product, services, and one-way channels is completely lost.

The path-to-purchase is no longer linear because of mobile; consumers are more loyal to their own need in the moments that matter than they are to brands. These moments are known as micro-moments.

In order to provide brand leadership in this way, marketers need to take a step back and understand what the consumer wants and what matters to them. Pre-empt a need, but at the same time be careful of not overstepping with micro-targeting.

As an example, a lot of FMCG brands are moving into omnichannel. They think a lot about the in-store experience but are not looking at their data holistically (CRM, digital marketing, audience signals, etc) which would allow them to help consumers in a meaningful way.

If I go into Sephora right now, with my NFC-enabled phone, I will get a number of useless push notifications. They will be offering a makeup session with no acknowledgment that:

  • I only ever buy foundation there
  • I’m a busy working mother, and so
  • I don’t have time to sit in the store

Instead, if they’d analyzed the data, they might say: ‘for your next purchase, we will deliver it to your home for free as we know you’re busy’. At that point, I wouldn’t even care if your brand was the best. I would care more about the fact that it fulfilled my need in an unexpected way. I think that is what is missing from brand leadership.

And I know it’s not easy. When you’re at a brand and trying to do this with a complex product like, say, insurance, preempting needs on the basis of behavior is very difficult. But now, more than ever, marketers need to listen to more of the consumer ‘signals’ before engaging.

So, what has not been tried is how brands should be tracking the data, building the ‘data story’ and then turning it into insights and those insights into meaning; which can then help the company become the brand leader.

Econsultancy: How does this translate into marketing strategy?

Jennifer Villalobos: In order for brand leadership to become strategy, marketers need to be able to bake more time into reflecting and following up on learnings before deciding how they are going to solve a problem. Currently, a great majority of CMOs have the entire C-suite pushing them to do everything ‘digital’ in the organization; yet they are given very little leeway for reflection and testing.

So, my motto is that everyone needs to ‘CTFD’ (calm the f*** down), take a breather and understand that a company cannot rely on one function, marketing, for digital execution.

Instead, what organizations need to do is align digital across the business. So, as an example, let’s assume I’m a business line owner, I have a target to hit and want the marketing to help with digital.  I then need to make sure that I give marketing the incentive to innovate, say with a KPI number, along with the freedom to test out different avenues to go after a new audience.

Now, another approach I’ve seen is that digital innovation is moved out of the business entirely and becomes part of a new innovation arm, typically without strategic KPIs. This can be good as it provides the freedom to test and iterate but it can also be bad as agility tends to be tied to accountability and impact. So when you have no KPIs, the time to get to MVP (minimum viable product) stage is languorously long.

Econsultancy: What do you feel are the current trends in brand/agency relationships?

Jennifer Villalobos: I have worked with agencies throughout my whole career starting with Google in 2006. At Google, I was brought in when they removed agency commissions (which was huge) as a solutions panacea. So, while they were losing commissions, they got me and my team to help optimize search campaigns, make them profitable, and make the agency look good – all while educating them on digital and how to develop strategic content marketing.

At the time, agencies reacted in one of two ways:

  1. They reacted in fear, said big brands didn’t understand digital and that it was a fad and would go away
  2. They had the foresight and embraced the opportunity to learn

The ones which were proactive evolved their business models and went from media, to digital, to services and then on to data and analytics. So much so, that they ended up knowing more than what Google did as their digital ecosystem included Facebook, Baidu, and Twitter.  And I think it was the ones which had this positive attitude to learning and iterating which evolved successfully.

So the trend now is that there are a lot of good intentions from agencies to evolve, but very few with the new business models to enact change.

First off, many agencies are still pricing commercial deals using full-time employees on a cost basis. That model is done.

Also, agencies have to stop hiring impressive people to pitch and then outsourcing the capability. The reason is that they end up selling the person but missing out on the learning that comes from actually doing the work. Automation is only going to enhance this reality: You need to know your stuff.

Finally, brand marketers are smarter now and understand how to drive and measure digital. So, as long as agencies can keep up with brands and don’t lie to clients about capabilities, they should be fine.

Econsultancy: So do you feel that brand marketing teams are moving away from just needing an extension of their team and instead are looking for someone to lead and help them learn about digital platforms?

Jennifer Villalobos: Yes. When digital was new, brand marketers didn’t know what they didn’t know. In some ways, brands screwed up because they thought ‘this is cool’ and thought digital marketing data helped them really understand their customers. But they failed to go one level deeper to understand the signals which drive individual user’s actions

So, for a while, agencies could deliver better performance than brand marketers and, consequently, were able to charge a markup on the technology platform media.

Brands are now getting smarter, though, and asking why agencies are charging markup for ads on their own network, realizing that they can get the same inventory cheaper somewhere else. When those conversations happen, things start changing

Some big brands are now even building their own programmatic teams. They own the data, are eager to learn, and have worked closely with providers like Facebook to set up their own trading desk to plug into all the DSPs.

This, however, is a radical change and it does have its downsides. The automation from building programmatic in house means that suddenly a big digital marketing team which has been managing things like search get the boot.

On the other hand, the efficiencies have grown like crazy. The team has stopped looking at search as a fixed part of the marketing budget and think of it as one channel which helps them drive better impact and more loyalty from consumers.

And this move toward in-housing marketing operations sometimes has to be a long-term goal. The marketing team may not get the immediate numbers the sales team wants, but they will get a higher lifetime value from customers.  And that, to me, is more important than brand. Loyalty translates into equity which, over the long term, translates into value.

Econsultancy: What should marketing leaders be doing to ‘prove’ marketing ROI?

Jennifer Villalobos: To prove ROI, marketing leaders need to

  1. Ask the CEO if they will own digital profit and loss (P&L). CMOs sign up to ROI, but if they don’t own the bottom line then the revenue and profit targets stay with the business. For this to work, marketing needs to make sure that they are not just a cost, but that they are part of the company’s distribution stream
  2. If they are comfortable owning accountability for digital P&L, then they need to ask themselves if they are strong enough to orchestrate a team which can speak the language of every different business unit.
  3. Finally, can they handle being in charge of open innovation, which is the messy relationships between startups and the corporates?

So, to really drive ROI, marketers need to step ahead and avoid waiting to build core competencies. They need to look at the innovation ecosystem and see if they can evaluate it without being distracted by all of the noise. They will need to play a role of a consultant between the business owners and open innovation problems and see which, if any, can solve their problems.

Econsultancy: So proving ROI is more complicated than delivering numbers to the CFO. Marketers need to be more involved in the firm’s P&L and innovation process.

Jennifer Villalobos: Yes – and it’s hard.  A lot of people think about ROI as a metric but it is more about how to achieve business impact. It’s always easier to push accountability to the business – and we have been operating like this for years – but if we really want to drive performance and business impact we need to have skin in the game.

So marketers need to change the conversation from ROI to business impact, own digital P&L and have a mandate for buying into the startup ecosystem. There is no way to do it otherwise.

Econsultancy: What should senior marketers be doing to progress in their careers?

Jennifer Villalobos: The first thing marketers looking for career progression need to do is stop. Stop what you’re doing regularly and make time for reflection.

In a marketing role, you focus on day-to-day execution or GSD (‘getting s*** done’). Now, GSD with high quality and acumen requires a tremendous amount of energy. So by the time you’re finished with a campaign or launch, many marketers say ‘let’s go party!’ But you are not managing the energy of your output in a way that is strategic.

So, instead, at the end of the week, marketers need to think about the one thing that you set out to achieve at the beginning of the week and, if you didn’t, why not? What could you have done differently?

Doing so will allow you to ‘reprioritize’ what is important. That can mean that some things that you promised to do are not going to get done. You will drop balls and people will call you out on it, but you have to confident that what you do, you do well.

Another thing I’ve noticed that (particularly the women I coach) don’t do well is to say no to a project because they want to be constantly proving their value. Again, with confidence, they can say that a delivery that I promised won’t be done before launch, but instead, we will have an exceptional content strategy.

So, in short:

  • Reflect and reimagine what your role could be like
  • Keep abreast of industry changes. Do not leave your personal learning and development for last. And that doesn’t mean ‘get an MBA’, just read a lot.
  • Be OK when you log off. It’s OK, good enough is good enough. We get all of these messages that we have to be excellent, drive for 10x, and be everything to anyone.

When you set boundaries, people respect you more for setting them. And, guess what? you will get bigger projects with more impact because you will be passionate about them.

Join us in Singapore, August 17th, for ‘Digital Divas‘ with Jennifer Villalobos and others. Request your seat here.

Read the other interviews in this series.