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Deep Dive 25 Apr 2022 - 7 min read

Australia's marketers flatlining on data and digital capability and losing CX remit: Coles Sam McLeod, ex-Woolies X exec Willem Paling on why and what next

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Teresa Sperti, Samantha McLeod, Willem Paling

Teresa Sperti, Samantha McLeod, Willem Paling: Australia facing a data and digital skills crunch – and it won't fix itself.

Skills and capabilities across digital marketing, CX, data and analytics have flatlined in Australia over the last three years according to a study of more than 200 marketers. If the data is right, brand owners are a touch delusional about the skills they have versus what they need, while fully half the market has either been stripped of CX responsibility, or never had it to start with. Fresh from a decade in the UK, Coles GM of Brand, Digital and Design Sam McLeod thinks Australia is way behind the data-to-insight curve. Willem Paling has just left Woolies X and Cartology and says marketing must present itself as greater than the promotional function if it is to regain the CX remit. Teresa Sperti, whose firm Arktic Fox is behind the Marketing State of Play study, thinks ANZ’s marketing team and Kate Young have set the standard when it comes to equipping teams with the skills now sorely required. But there’s a big chunk of the market that still needs a plan.

What you need to know:

  • Report surveying 220 marketers for second year finds digital and data skills stagnating. Despite an economy-wide digital transformation drive, digital and data literacy hasn’t improved year-on-year.
  • Nearly four in 10 leaders don’t believe digital literacy is strong within their department
  • Two-thirds of leaders suggest data literacy isn’t strong, per the Marketing State of Play report.
  • Disparate sources of data are becoming more problematic for brands: 61 per cent of marketers cited disparate data sources as a key challenge up from 35 per cent in 2021.
  • Less than half (44 per cent) of all marketing and digital functions are primarily accountable for leading CX.
  • Only 12 per cent have a clear plan for deprecation of third party cookies. Some 45 per cent have not started post-cookie planning at all.
  • Freshly returned from a decade in the UK, Coles Sam McLeod thinks Australia remains too siloed and has lost its early digital lead. Ex-Cartology segmentation chief Willem Paling says digital-data skills gap a concern, but solutions and resource must come in tandem with broader marketing skills.
  • Arktic Fox's Teresa Sperti thinks marketing needs to "rebrand and reprogramme" what it does in order to reclaim CX, while emulating ANZ bank's departmental-wide approach to upskilling.

If the experience is the brand, you have to ask yourself why marketers are not being seen as the logical leaders of the CX agenda.

Teresa Sperti, Founder & Director, Arktic Fox

Losing our grip on strategy and CX?

Across 220 marketers from SME to enterprise level, “the big finding” per report co-author Teresa Sperti, is that marketing teams lack the digital and data skills required to drive growth. This is the second consecutive year her consultancy Arktic Fox and recruiter Michael Page have published the report – and the data suggests skills are being left to stagnate, just as data-driven change is accelerating harder than ever.

“We're being challenged to drive digital transformation, lead on customer experience, drive the growth agenda; these are key strategic initiatives,” says Sperti. “What leaders are telling us is that the skills gap is significantly hampering their progress and ability to influence that strategic agenda. Unfortunately, we haven't seen significant improvements year on year.”

Sperti, a former CMO at World Vision, Head of CRM and Digital Marketing at Officeworks and a digital, ecom and loyalty manager at Coles Liquor business, thinks there are some standouts in the data:

“The first is that 66 per cent of leaders cited that data literacy within their teams is not strong, and data analytics for the second year has topped the list as the number one skills gap facing marketing and digital teams. Four in ten leaders also believed that digital literacy is not strong within their functions,” she says. “I would argue that the digital age has been around for the best part of two decades, we've been working on building [digital literacy] capability for the best part of two decades, we're probably not where we need to be.”

Meanwhile, Sperti thinks the fact that “less than one in two marketing teams lead the CX mandate today” is cause for concern. “If the experience is the brand, you have to ask yourself why marketers are not being seen as the logical leaders of the CX agenda.”

When I left Australia, I had high hopes that we were leading the way. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think what we embraced was digital advertising over digital experience. Coming back from the UK, it’s starkly different that digital and data is still very siloed in team setups here.

Sam McLeod, GM Brand, Digital and Design, Coles

Coles brand chief: Australia’s silos blunt edge

Fresh from a decade in the UK, Sam McLeod, Coles GM of Brand, Digital and Design, thinks Australia has lost its digital edge – in part due to focusing too narrowly, and in part because it escaped the GFC disruption that forced categories such as banking to reinvent in other markets, with knock-on effects that ultimately powered digital transformation across sectors.

“When I left Australia, I had high hopes that we were leading the way … At the time it felt like we were really embracing it. But with the benefit of hindsight, I think what we embraced was digital advertising over digital experience,” says McLeod.

“Coming back, it’s starkly different that digital and data is still very siloed in team setups here. Whereas the UK might have been a little slower off the mark to embrace the digital world, but when they did, they went full force.”

As well as “forcing themselves to bring digital into the core of their team make-up, the core difference I see coming back is around insight. The UK is the home of strategy … I think they quickly understood that data is not necessarily just transactional information, or profiles or records … But that what it gives you is insight to make better marketing decisions and better deliver your brand experience,” suggests McLeod.

“I think they understood that even though digital could give you quick reads, it wasn't those quick reads that you wanted to go for … That's why they diversified their teams and skill sets to include people like data scientists, behavioural scientists, where you were getting the logical, rational people who aren't scared by numbers,” she adds.

“You were getting those people working alongside people who understood human curiosity … So it’s in humanising the data that I think they are much further ahead.”

Found in translation

McLeod thinks continued challenges in fully separating signal from noise is a key takeaway from the report: “It seems this is a shared problem that we are all facing. We need to start to demystify data as being numbers and statistics and make sure that people see it for insight, because that is what it ultimately gives us.”

McLeod admits she is “no digital and data expert by any stretch of the imagination” but that starting out in direct marketing probably helped.

“I think what I’m quite good at is leaning on people who are ‘hardcore’ [data people], translating [their insight] into what the business or executive board needs to hear and how we translate that into actionable marketing insight,” she says.

“That's probably a transferable skill set from coming working creative agency side, because you have to translate lots of different things. But by no means do I ever claim to be an expert in this area.”

Bringing together the data and the digital is really important. But it's not that important without understanding people. I think they're the things that need to come together.

William Paling, Director of Product, CX & Personalisation, Luxury Escapes

Bridging the digital-data-insight divide

The son of a programmer, Willem Paling “grew up writing code”. But then he aimed to master “the things that didn’t come naturally, so I studied design and got a PhD in cultural research and generally avoided getting full time work,” he says.

“All of that has been about understanding people and how they interact with the world. For me, that is what you're doing in marketing. You're trying to understand a population of people in aggregate and what you can do to influence and change it. Bringing together the data and the digital is really important in that. But it's not that important without understanding people,” says Paling. “I think they're the things that need to come together.”

Professor Mark Ritson has carved out a decent sideline by robustly restating that digital and data people are too narrowly focused at the expense of the bigger picture. If firms go all out to hire digital and data people, is there a risk of exacerbating that perceived problem? Coles’ Sam McLeod thinks not, if leadership can foster a genuinely collaborative environment.

“If you have a shared vision with your team, regardless of your skill set, your role or level of seniority, it means that you will feel like a shared sense of responsibility,” she says, pointing out that diversity of thought is precisely what is required across most organisations to stop repeating the same mistakes.

Plus, says McLeod, “just because you're in data analytics doesn't mean you're not interested in people. Just because you're highly creative doesn't mean you're more fluent in talking to people communications than anyone else”.

Some of what Mark Ritson talks about is really valid. A number of digital marketers have grown up understanding channels, they haven't grown up understanding customers ... Yet I would equally argue that digital is strategic. It’s not just about tactics, particularly if you're taking the organisation on a journey to transform digitally.

Teresa Sperti, Founder & Director, Arktic Fox

Why Ritson is only half right about digital marketers

Arktic Fox’s Teresa Sperti agrees – at least partially. “I studied finance and marketing. I was actually going to be an accountant,” she admits, before beginning life as a marketer in CRM, and then “starting to leverage digital way back in 2006 … so data, CX and digital is probably my core sweet spot … in terms of [understanding] skill sets and the types of talent you want to hire”, says Sperti.

“Some of what Mark Ritson talks about is really valid. A number of digital marketers have grown up understanding channels, they haven't grown up understanding customers, they haven't grown up with some of the core traditional strategic discipline of marketing – and I think that's still really important,” she adds.

“I often hear from people that the four Ps [marketing’s traditional rules of product, price, place and promotion] aren't relevant anymore. I would say the four Ps are more relevant today than ever, given the competitive marketplaces that we operate within.”

Yet Sperti also thinks Ritson is wrong to lump the entire digital marketing supply chain into a lightweight tactical bucket.

“I would equally argue that digital is strategic. It’s not just about tactics, particularly if you're taking the organisation on a journey to transform digitally.”

That means soft skills are required alongside the data and digital skills, adds Sperti.

“Can they take people on a journey within the organisation? Can they translate technical concepts into business concepts and business outcomes and connect the two? Often you can hire some really smart data scientists but they can't translate all of the great data smarts into how that delivers value for the business.

“So it's really important that those soft skills are there as well when you're thinking about hiring talent in market and building capability within your teams, because often you're having to take people on a journey. You can't sit behind your desk and just do the technical piece day-to-day.”

Willem Paling, who has just left Woolies X and Cartology to join his brother at Luxury Escapes as Director of Product, CX & Personalisation, thinks the people that can truly blend soft and hard data skills are few and far between. Can brands expect technical people to be the kinds of ‘business bridge builders’ that Sperti suggests are required?

“You can sometimes and to a degree, but you’ve got to expect it to go both ways. If the perception on either side is that it’s the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ [geeks] and the ‘Colouring in Department’, I don’t think you’re coming together. You’ve got to come with that ambition of seeing these people not as somehow flawed and unable to communicate, but to recognise they are communicating differently, they are operating differently, how do we get a bit closer together?"

Every interaction reflects your brand. So for marketing to be able to control that brand narrative and deliver on it, CX is vital – and it is broader than digital… So where CX doesn’t sit within marketing, you need to have an extraordinarily close relationship with shared vision.

Sam McLeod, GM Brand, Digital and Design, Coles

Can marketing regain the CX-factor?

According to the State of the Market report, only 44 per cent of marketing teams fully own the customer experience function. Earlier this month outgoing Telstra CMO Jeremy Nicholas told Mi3 one of the key reasons he is moving sideways to head the telco’s digital channels is because “brands are increasingly defined by their customer experience and increasingly that’s a digital experience. It’s an important way to keep building equity in the Telstra brand and the business delivering. Eighty per cent of all our sales and service starts online and a lot of it is increasingly finishing online”.

Sam McLeod says Coles takes a similar view.

“CX sits within marketing – some proportion sits with ecom, but it’s a shared function that sits under my boss Lisa Ronson [Coles CMO], so it definitely does live within marketing. I think that is because we realise – and I totally echo Jeremy Nicholas’ view – that brand and customer experience are one and the same, they are not separate.”

Where CX sits outside of marketing, “that potentially may be a hangover from previous structures or ways of thinking,” says McLeod. In other words, legacy thinking and the silos that McLeod says Australia is yet to fully dismantle.

“Every interaction reflects your brand. So for marketing to be able to control that brand narrative and deliver on it, CX is vital,” she says, “and it is broader than digital… So where CX doesn’t sit within marketing, you need to have an extraordinarily close relationship with shared vision.”

Willem Paling says CX sits under marketing at Woolworths, “and they do an incredible job”. But he thinks that within many corporates, because external representation of the brand is handled by external parties, i.e. agencies, it feels misaligned to also hand them customer experience.

“This significantly external domain of advertising doesn't necessarily feel like a natural partner for this internal domain of CX. I think that's often why it's outside the marketing function, and yet it's critical to doing marketing,” says Paling. “It's just that marketing is often primarily [seen as] the ads function, and I think that's what we need to change.”

Rebrand marketing to win CX, create proper skills plan to grow

Teresa Sperti thinks the situation is further clouded by “every second agency calling themselves a CX agency” and that some marketing teams "are still being led by agencies to think of the lens of CX through a campaign mindset.”

That needs to change, she says. “The conversation marketing leaders need to be having at that board table is not about the latest ad campaign, but how does our brand strategy link with our CX strategy and manifest itself in everything that we do to bring this true experience to life for customers?”

Fundamentally, says Sperti, too many marketers are “probably not acting like the custodian of the customer” and have focused too much on promotion rather than playing a strategic role. Hence they are now being overlooked when it comes to owning CX. “So we need to rebrand and reprogramme what it is marketing does in this market," she suggests.

In tandem, says Sperti, marketing leaders need to come up with a proper, overarching “departmental plan” to address flatlining capability levels rather than focusing on individuals or specific disciplines.

She cites ANZ and Kate Young’s work – the bank has created ‘Marketing Masters’ and ‘Brand Academy’ programmes in a bid to upskill its 300-strong team – as the benchmark others must try to reach.

“Retooling the team holistically is important, otherwise it signals to the team that ‘it’s that person’s job to do data, that person’s job to manage digital, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing’. You have to create that departmental plan and involve everyone along that journey.”

**

The Marketing State of Play report also includes data on readiness – or otherwise – of Australian brands for the deprecation of cookies and incoming privacy changes; the biggest challenges they face around data and digital; where they plan to focus marketing resource over the next 12 months; and which aspects they plan to in-house over the year ahead. Download it here.

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