How marketers can help to make a success of digital transformations

Many firms are seeking to appoint non-executive directors with a deep understanding of the behavioural side of digital transformations. Such roles seem to be made for senior marketing professionals

A company board discusses ideas in a meeting room

A successful digital transformation is not just about the smooth implementation of powerful new systems and processes. It’s also about whether such a change will truly benefit the humans – chiefly, the customers – it will affect. With this in mind, firms are seeking non-executive directors (NEDs) with very specific ‘human skills’ to advise them as they go through their transformation projects. In many cases, senior marketing professionals possess such skills. 

The skills for the task at hand

Mark Evans stepped down as MD of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group last October, having spent a decade with the insurer in directorial roles. Now pursuing a portfolio career as a NED, he believes that there are two compelling reasons why experienced marketers are well equipped to help steer digital transformations at board level. 

The first is that nearly all corporate marketing departments have had to deal with the impact of the digital revolution since the late noughties, whether they’ve wanted to or not. 

Digital transformation is a matter of culture and mindset. If you default to a technology play, you can fairly and squarely miss the point

“The digital media landscape has transformed over the past 15 years or so – and we marketers have lived through every step of that. We’ve had to move from a traditional analogue world into a modern digital one,” Evans notes. 

Successful marketing teams equipped themselves diligently to rise to the challenge, acquiring new skills and knowledge, he adds. 

“Through good fortune, marketing just happens to have got ahead by necessity,” Evans says. “The experience simply hasn’t been as revolutionary for many other parts of the business as it has been for marketing. Our discipline has got miles on the clock.”

The second reason is that one of the fundamental tasks of the marketer is to engage with customers and gain a full understanding of their needs and preferences – and knowing your customer should be at the heart of any digital transformation. To avert a ‘computer says no’ outcome, companies must therefore adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach to change and apply some human sensitivity to the tech they’re adopting.

“Digital transformation is often perceived as a technological matter – changing the plumbing and installing new platforms. But it genuinely isn’t about that,” Evans stresses. As much as anything, it is a matter of culture and mindset. If you default to a technology play, you can fairly and squarely miss the point.”

Developing flexibility and ‘buy-in’

Another factor that’s prompting companies to hire marketers to oversee their transformations is that the profession is focused on monitoring the latest consumer trends and responding quickly to them. As a career, it appeals to people who are curious by nature and enjoy change, rather than those who are more set in their ways.

The impact of the pandemic has highlighted the value of such flexibility, according to Evans. In 2020, the Covid crisis gave many companies the impetus they needed to reach their customers via new channels.

“The pandemic has had something of a slingshot effect, making firms realise the importance of accelerating their digital growth,” he says. “They need to improve their customer orientation in doing so, so they must elevate their marketing functions and bring that profession’s competence on to their boards.”

All of these factors – particularly marketing’s need to keep on top of consumer trends in the digital world – are familiar to Sam Bunis, director of brand and marketing at the Football Foundation charity and a NED at two other organisations. She reckons that her social media skills are good enough to keep pace with those of the average 12- to 16-year-old – because they have to be.

The digital media landscape has transformed over the past 15 years or so – and we marketers have lived through every step of that

Like most other senior operators in her profession, Bunis also has experience of internal marketing. This is the process of ‘selling in’ marketing plans to other departments, winning their support to enact positive changes. Many marketing chiefs have had to rise to the challenge of convincing a conservative, change-averse enterprise of the need to do things differently. In doing so, they have developed persuasive skills that are very much applicable to digital transformation projects.

“One of my NED roles has been about how we get everyone in the organisation to understand the value of what we’re doing in digital. That was also a big part of my remit when I joined the Football Foundation back in April 2019. They’d never before had a function to do what I was going to be doing – and they didn’t ‘get it’,” says Bunis, who adds that, once your fellow directors eventually do ‘get it’, change becomes far easier to achieve.

The challenge of getting a boardroom seat

But it’s not all plain sailing for seasoned marketers seeking to pursue a portfolio career as a NED. While many companies place a high value on the marketing profession and what it can bring to the boardroom table, a significant proportion still don’t. Stories abound from marketers about firms that haven’t taken their contributions seriously. This is often because their function’s effectiveness isn’t the easiest thing to quantify. 

Evans points to the eye-opening findings of a survey published by Fournaise Marketing Group in 2015. The poll of nearly 1,200 CEOs in the US, Europe and Asia revealed that 80% of respondents had little confidence in the work of their marketing chiefs. 

Could some businesses be spurning the chance to gain valuable board-level expertise simply because they still don’t ‘get’ marketing? Daryl Fielding, CEO of the Marketing Academy Foundation, observes that marketers are too often patronised and pigeonholed by other departments as the creative ones with the crayons. 

Fielding, who has worked as an executive director for prominent brands including Vodafone, Kraft Foods and The Independent, also holds numerous NED and trustee roles. She says that the perceived value of a senior marketer to a digital transformation project might hinge on the structure of the company concerned. 

“On all the boards where I sit, there are digital transformation projects under way. A lot of this is about seeking the one view of the customer,” Fielding explains.

In most enterprises, the person who ‘owns’ the customer would be best placed to guide such projects. “That person would normally be regarded as the marketing director,” she adds. “But, in many cases, it isn’t true that they do own the customer,” because most of the relevant data is collected and held by another department – sales, for instance. 

This might explain why some boards still shy away from appointing marketers as NEDs, preferring to hire lawyers and accountants instead. Non-execs play an important role in ensuring proper corporate governance, so some boards might seek to hire such professionals to reassure themselves that they have this responsibility covered. But Evans believes that the conspicuous success of firms that have appointed more creative NEDs could prompt them to rethink their approach.“This comes back to an interesting point about what the role of boards and NEDs actually is,” he says. “Many aspects of being a non-exec are conformance-related, but you can find any number of people with experience in that area. Marketers who understand governance issues can offer a good combination of conformance and performance. And boards that are better balanced in this way are, in a digital world filled with more discerning customers, more able to help their companies grow.”