Australian unicorn SiteMinder plots global surge as travel rebounds, but ex-Leo Burnett digital chief turned CMO says brands, agencies have B2B marketing and in-housing all wrong
SiteMinder is likely the biggest Australian tech company you’ve never heard of. But the $1.1bn hotel booking system unicorn is headed for an IPO – and that will soon change. CMO Mark Renshaw says another attitude adjustment is required when it comes to B2B marketing. He thinks it can teach FMCG old dogs the tricks they need to crack direct-to-consumer. The former Leo Burnett Chief Digital Officer says in-housing is where it’s at – and that media and marketing guns get a far “deeper” business education brand-side. He's bucking the holdco consolidation trend and working with specialists where needed. Meanwhile, Renshaw thinks ANZ’s top talent need no longer head oversees to pick up experience with global giants; the local tech scene provides greater opportunity than taking orders from distant ExCos.
What you need to know:
- Australian tech unicorn SiteMinder is eyeing global growth and an IPO as travel and hotel bookings rebound.
- The platform powers booking systems across all channels for hotels – and CMO Mark Renshaw says more than half the market remains offline, creating huge growth potential as firms try to reclaim customer connections and data from aggregators.
- The former Leo Burnett Chief Digital Officer is bucking the holdco trend to consolidate all services with one group and going in-house and specialist agencies all the way.
- He thinks in-house staff get a much deeper understanding of business and product than at agencies – and won’t get bored or stale.
- Renshaw also reckons B2C marketer snobbery over B2B is all wrong – because the latter are now coveted as direct-to-consumer savants.
- But he says B2B has to lift B2C marketing’s emotional playbook. Because robots don’t make business purchase decisions – yet.
When I was agency-side and considering switching to the client-side, you always thought ‘would I get access to that inspiration [of working across multiple brands with different teams], would I be challenged?’ What I have found is you go really deep into the business, far greater than on the agency side.
SiteMinder is the back-end engine that pulls together multiple booking channels for hotels around the world. With an IPO in the offing, it’s already an Australian tech unicorn.
But CMO Mark Renshaw reckons there’s tonnes of growth to come – and backers including Fidelity International, AustralianSuper, BlackRock, Ellerston Capital and Pendal Group agree.
That’s probably because fewer than half of bookings globally currently come from online channels: It’s an analogue market with smaller businesses and chains ripe for conversion – and which are pushing to regain customer connections and data hived off by booking aggregators.
Renshaw is backing a less rational, more creative B2B strategy to convert more of that demand.
“We're all about helping hotels to sell, market and manage their business. There is still a large number of hotels in the world that are still operating very manually, it is quite a legacy industry," says Renshaw, hinting at other adjacent sectors ripe for disruption.
“If you look at a lot of the other parts of the travel industry, the airlines, a lot of them are using very legacy technology. It's a very old fashioned infrastructure … They just haven’t embraced technology.”
Which is why he’s convinced there’s still massive upside for the likes of SiteMinder.
“Having an online infrastructure where hotels can more directly connect and indirectly connect with their potential guests is a huge area for growth. There are still hundreds of thousands of hotels out there that have not embraced the technology that can help grow their business and make running their business easier,” says Renshaw.
Australia: More short, direct bookings ahead?
When Australia re-opens its borders, he suspects international travel will return strongly.
“We don’t have a crystal ball but … people are keen to travel and we have seen demand really pick up as soon as any restrictions are eased all around the world,” says Renshaw.
Domestic travel will also likely remain buoyant – with people increasingly opting for shorter, last minute breaks around more flexible working arrangements. Which may well mean more booking volume.
“Last minute travel has continued. It's definitely been a trend that has been growing. We're also seeing with a lot of people working from home, that they can go and work somewhere for a few days and then have a few days off and stay the weekend,” he says. “So we are seeing some changes in those dynamics.”
Renshaw also sees a continuation of direct booking trends playing out globally.
“Booking directly with the hotel website or booking via Facebook to the hotel, we've definitely seen that grow around the world in many markets. It is not the number one channel, but it is rapidly moving up, and in many countries it's in the top three or four channels,” says Renshaw.
“We are definitely seeing people wanting a direct connection with the hotel. A lot of people will still find hotels through those large or online travel agencies … that will remain a major way for hotels to generate business. But that direct channel is changing.”
As we keep hearing, the [CMO’s] role is to be across the entire customer experience and the entire customer journey. But when your headquarters is overseas – and I've seen this – you don't get that ability to impact the product, road map, or the customer experience. It comes given to you from overseas.
Tech upstarts flip B2B-B2C pecking order?
Renshaw spent the best part of two decades offshore in leadership roles with Leo Burnett and then Edelman. But he thinks Australia’s marketing and media talent need no longer tread that path, such is the strength of the local tech sector.
Meanwhile, he thinks tech firms are reinventing B2B marketing – and can teach the B2C FMCG old guard some new tricks, especially when it comes to direct-to-consumer models. Renshaw says B2B is anything but lower funnel demand generation drudge – and thinks any residual marketing snobbery should be inverted.
But he accepts that adjusting attitudes may take some time. More examples of emotionally-imbued B2B campaigns are required to move the needle – alongside a louder collective trumpeting of the results.
“B2B generally has a bit of a bad rap, people think that it's full of constraints and conventions about how it needs to be. But I actually think it's a really big creative opportunity for marketers and the advertising industry to embrace,” says Renshaw.
“In the past I think people thought that brands were built by the packaged goods companies, and that's where you learn your craft about how to build a brand and how to be a marketer.
“But I really think the tech brands, in particular the B2B tech brands, are playing bigger roles in people's lives and the entire marketing spectrum is right there. I think [B2B marketing] is misunderstood to be honest – and there's a massive opportunity that's going un-seized at the moment.”
So much of the traffic we get is from a really big content engine… so that is the first step for B2B brands – to say, what's [driving] your content engine, and can you make it more emotional?
Sell to people, not robots, with emotion
More ‘emotion’ is the first step, Renshaw suggests. As things stand, enterprise business leaders are not yet robots – and for humans emotional pulls are more powerful than rational messaging.
Renshaw’s not alone. Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy UK and a founder of its behavioural science practice, has long argued that marketers are overlooking massive growth by assuming that businesses make rational decisions.
“If business people really are that rational,” says Sutherland, “why do they play so much golf?”
It’s a winning argument, and Renshaw urges B2B marketers to thrust away from the black hole of “immediately driving demand” and focus on growing the brand and the category.
“To do that, you are going to need to use more creativity, more emotion and more storytelling,” he says – which means reconfiguring the content engines that power B2B marketing output.
“So much of the traffic we get is from a really big content engine… so that is the first step for brands – to say, what's [driving] your content engine, and can you make it more emotional?”
When was the last time you saw a great tagline or a great campaign from a B2B marketer? When was the last time you heard someone at a party or event talking about a great piece of advertising and it came from the world of B2B? I think that is the opportunity.
Take risks, break rules
More fundamentally, Renshaw urges B2B marketers not to fear breaking rules – and to separate risk-averse corporate mindsets from marketing strategy.
“You're a critical function within that corporate environment. You are helping to both present the corporate brand as well as the brand to customers; it's probably quite easy to get pulled into that world where you're merging those two together,” says Renshaw. “It’s very easy, particularly within enterprise, to get pulled into that space about how conventional you are and how you follow all the rules. But I'd like to see more B2B marketers breaking more of the rules.”
While SiteMinder is “far from perfect,” in that regard – “we have aspects where we need to drive more emotion as well” – Renshaw says the proof is in the pudding. Or lack thereof.
“When was the last time you saw a great tagline or a great campaign from a B2B marketer? When was the last time you heard someone at a party or event talking about a great piece of advertising and it came from the world of B2B? I think that is the opportunity.”
What if? And avoiding the data trap
Part of the problem is that all marketers – but particularly B2B – have fallen into the trap of using data as an end in itself, says Renshaw, with SiteMinder consciously trying to steer clear of that sinkhole.
“Being a global tech company, you're generally going to gravitate towards anywhere you have data and a feedback loop in real-time around what is working and what is not … But at the same time breaking out of the box and trying new things, doing things more creatively is so important for building that emotion.”
Hence Renshaw’s mantra is ‘what if?’
“It's easy for most marketers and particularly B2B to follow the path of being very digital; there are lots of very smart things to do [within that realm]. But you've got to take a chance. If there's one thing that I've learned, it's you've got to try something new.”
But there is one caveat: “Why test something if you're not going to be able to scale it? So for me, it's always about ‘let's try that, but if it works, then how are we going to put our foot down and make it a bigger part of our marketing?’ Only try that thing if you can scale it.”
The world of B2B has always been direct. You build direct connections from the start of growing a category and engaging with customers all the way through that lifecycle, making sure they're a very successful customer of yours. With a lot of [B2C] brands, you still don't get that entire journey.
B2B marketing: A better school for DTC?
While Renshaw accepts that B2C marketers traditionally develop stronger brand skills than B2B counterparts, he thinks B2C could learn something when it comes to direct-to-consumer (DTC) approaches.
“The world of B2B has always been direct. You build direct connections from the start of growing a category and engaging with customers all the way through that lifecycle, making sure they're a very successful customer of yours. With a lot of [B2C] brands, you still don't get that entire journey,” he suggests.
While it may seem like a thinly-veiled recruitment drive, Renshaw urges marketers to look more closely at Australia’s B2B sector. He thinks there is a growing opportunity to gain a broader skillset – and the ability to genuinely influence strategy versus execute global instructions… especially should they chose an Australian tech company.
“I would love it for people considering changing roles to really look at B2B, particularly in the tech space. It just has this wide canvas – you're going to get the chance to work with the product development team on evolving not just the product offering, but also the customer experience – because it is all driven through technology,” says Renshaw. “That's a goldmine in terms of being a brand builder.”
Equally, he thinks marketers need no longer head offshore in search of full spectrum global brand experience.
“As we keep hearing, the [CMO’s] role is to be across the entire customer experience and the entire customer journey. But when your headquarters is overseas – and I've seen this – you don't get that ability to impact the product, road map, or the customer experience. It comes given to you from overseas. I think that's another opportunity for global companies based out of Australia, where you can really be a part of crafting that customer experience, which ultimately is a massive part of building brand.”
Renshaw thinks B2B marketers now have the licence to become more rounded than their B2C counterparts.
“We literally need to flip the ground of where do marketers get trained and developed, and where do they learn their skills? And I think at a B2B tech company that is operating globally out of Australia, you are going to get the best of all those worlds: the chance to build a brand, the chance to really be connected in with the business, the chance to change the customer experience and the ability to launch into global markets quite easily,” says Renshaw.
“So I really think we need to flip the model. I grew up in that world where brands were built – and brand marketers were built – by the CPG and FMCG brands. But I really think the world has changed.”
In the SaaS industry you've got so much more information; keeping your agency partners in tune with that information is obviously very difficult if they're not on the inside. For us fundamentally, having that core team inside the company allows a closer access to information and planning.
In-housing ‘beats consolidated holdco models’
While Renshaw spent a couple of decades at large, networked agencies, he’s not using the consolidated big agency model. Instead, SiteMinder has a substantial in-house team supported by specialist niche agencies.
“In my past we saw a lot of big holding company models made where it was all very integrated. We've gone the opposite way with an integrated internal agency that does most of our strategic planning and creative development work,” says Renshaw.
“Then we have very specialised external agencies who really are very good at one thing, and we work directly with them. Our business integrates them as if they're just part of our overall marketing team.
“So I think we've almost gone counter to the trend of bringing it into one holding company… And I think that's because our business is very dynamic and there's a lot of data … In the SaaS industry you've got so much more information; keeping your agency partners in tune with that information is obviously very difficult if they're not on the inside,” he adds. “For us fundamentally, having that core team inside the company allows a closer access to information and planning.”
Renshaw says having an internal team also delivers greater agility.
“It’s that feedback loop, where we're able to acquire new customers and get them into our products faster and sooner … Getting that feedback loop and getting everyone to have the same information to action; you really do need that to be an internal capability versus relying on something external.”
Hence SiteMinder “doing most of our core functions in-house in terms of strategic development around our brands,” says Renshaw.
“We relaunched one of our brands earlier this year, and that work was all done in house. Our media planning is basically done all in house. We have some partners who help us with some executional things, but it’s mostly done in house.”
In-house teams ‘won’t go stale’
While agencies suggest agency talent will become bored and ideas stagnate within in-house environments – and the best talent will not wish to sacrifice variety – Renshaw suggests that is binary, potentially wishful, thinking.
In-house staff get far closer to real business challenges, he says, and a different range of stimuli.
“When I was agency-side and considering switching to the client-side, you always thought ‘would I get access to that inspiration [of working across multiple brands with different teams], would I be challenged?’ What I have found is you go really deep into the business, far greater than on the agency side. Being integrated with the product team, helping to develop product roadmaps and visions, you're really deep on it and that gives you that variety and inspiration, because you're working on very different things,” says Renshaw.
“So it's a different type of variety. You are going very deep into a certain area, and I think you can find that balance between those two things that creative people need … in a different way.”
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