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How IT leaders can build great relationships with marketing leaders

Experts dish out their advice on how to work better together with their marketing peers to deliver a high-quality customer experience

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How IT leaders should work with marketing

In a digital age, a close relationship between the executives who run the technology and marketing functions can have a profound impact on business success. Research from recruiter Harvey Nash and consultancy KPMG shows that customer-centric organisations are 38% more likely to report greater profitability than those that are not.

CIOs, with their knowledge of technology, and chief marketing officers (CMOs), with their awareness of customer requirements, must work closely together to ensure their organisations create a business strategy that delivers high-quality customer experiences. Five experts give their best-practice tips on how can CIOs build great partnerships with their marketing peers. 

Define strategic common goals 

Experienced digital leader Sarah Flannigan has run both marketing and digital departments in major organisations. She was CIO of EDF Energy until late 2018, and was formerly CIO at the National Trust and marketing chief at David Salisbury Joinery Limited. Flannigan’s knowledge leads her to suggest that jointly agreed targets are essential to success. 

“If you get two individuals to focus collectively on what they want to achieve, and then they work with joint goals, objectives and teams, the rest will follow,” she says. “If you allow decision-making to become a turf war – where the fight is usually over innovation and things like data, analytics and insight – then there will be problems.” 

“You want to ensure that other executives don’t see technology as an ever-hungry beast that’s difficult and complicated”

Sarah Flannigan, experienced digital leader

Ground rules are crucial to success. Flannigan says a smart boss will ensure close collaboration between both departments. “The chief executive has to create the conditions that says they’ll be holding the CIO and the CMO jointly accountable for delivering strategic goals,” she says. “Those executives should then be charged with coming back and defining how they will make those goals a reality.” 

Flannigan says the end result should be that all senior managers can see the benefits of technology. While it has traditionally been the preserve of the IT department, technology is now a tool that can be wielded to great effect by all lines of business. CIOs must work with C-suite peers, like the CMO, to ensure confidence in technology is high. 

“You want to ensure that other executives don’t see technology as an ever-hungry beast that’s difficult and complicated. Instead, you want them to feel that technology is their business and something they can feel confident about,” she says. 

Recognise and move beyond your domain expertise 

Ian Cohen, CIO at transport specialist Addison Lee, says it’s important to recognise that digital leadership is a two-way street. Executives in all departments need to converse about the power of emerging technology. And as this expertise rises, high-quality leaders will move into new business domains. 

“There’ll be other executives transitioning into digital leadership, too – including marketing people moving into technology,” says Cohen. However, he also recognises that the movement of non-IT leaders into digital leadership doesn’t mean a death knell is sounding for the position of CIO.

“This belief that everything technology-related will go through the marketing executive because they will outspend the CIO is complete nonsense”

Ian Cohen, Addison Lee

“This belief that everything technology-related will go through the marketing executive because they will outspend the CIO is complete nonsense,” he says. “There’s always a finite amount of money to spend – you don’t magically get two or three times the amount just because you badge it as a marketing project. It’s just the same cake cut different ways.” 

In the end, what matters most is great leadership – and Cohen says the best executives ensure business colleagues work closely together to exploit technology and information. “Too many CIOs still talk about being misunderstood, misrepresented and not being taken seriously – people are still using the term ‘alignment’,” he says. 

“When you talk about alignment, you are – by definition – reinforcing separation. The phrase is nonsense. I’ve also started saying ‘colleague’ a lot – we’re working to take Addison Lee to the next level in its journey. I get to do it with an awesome CEO and board colleagues who respect each other’s value in directing the business. We recognise our domain expertise, but that’s not the only thing we talk about.” 

Care deeply about the customer 

Alex von Schirmeister, chief digital, technology and innovation officer at RS Components, is another digital leader who believes the strength of the bond between the CIO and CMO is crucial to the success of modern businesses. “It’s a fundamental relationship,” he says. 

Before joining RS Components, Von Schirmeister worked for online auction giant eBay in a range of executive positions, including the role of European CMO. His experience leaves him in a strong position to understand the value that close collaboration between the two departments can bring to the rest of the business. 

“The reality is having been a CMO before makes me a better CIO now,” says von Schirmeister. “If I were to become a CMO again tomorrow, I’d be a better one because of being a CIO.” 

“The reality is having been a CMO before makes me a better CIO now. If I were to become a CMO again tomorrow, I’d be a better one because of being a CIO”

Alex von Schirmeister, RS Components

He believes the common denominator between marketing and technology functions is their focus on the customer. Marketing teams must care deeply about the customer – and that’s also true of the role of the modern CIO, says Von Schirmeister. “When you’re thinking of building a new feature or functionality to help improve customer experience, the CMO and CIO should work hand in hand to do that,” he says.

The responsibility to build relationships and identify digital opportunities isn’t just the responsibility of the CIO. Cross-business collaboration is a two-way street. Having sat in an executive seat in both departments, Von Schirmeister says marketing chiefs must work with technology peers to build brands that matter to customers. 

“Good CMOs shouldn’t forget that there’s still the art of storytelling. How do you come up with customer benefits and then turn that into a communication platform that can be executed with a great story? Not everything can be just about form and function,” says Von Schirmeister. 

“Many CMOs are focused on performance marketing, but they sometimes forget the art of storytelling. Buying keywords might be great in terms of driving traffic to your website, but it doesn’t tell me why I should love your product or company.”

Share great ideas with your clients 

Chris Ashworth, CIO at parcel delivery specialist Hermes, is one IT leader who already understands the importance of customer experience and marketing. Hermes’ development efforts are focused on its Digital Futures programme, which aims to create great parcel diversion and tracking processes for the firm’s retail clients and their customers. 

Hermes has a network of 4,500 parcel shops, which are usually supplied through existing outlets, such as newsagents or garages. These outlets include print and pay in-store, which allow customers to show a QR code and receive a return label from the shop assistant. The Digital Futures programme also stretches to work in the contact centre. 

“We’re looking at the future, sharing ideas with our clients and, if there’s any appetite for new services, we can take it further”

Chris Ashworth, Hermes

“Once we’ve got all this customer experience-focused technology, we then have the opportunity to tune those systems and offer them to our clients,” he says. “It might, for example, cost them more for us to handle a parcel, but we’ll handle the journey, including the contact centre.” 

Ashworth says Hermes is planning to launch a service that allow customers to use their car boots as a safe drop-off point. Several vehicle manufacturers are involved in creating the secure service. It will mean customers can receive parcels safely from Hermes to their car boot, regardless of their own personal location. 

“We don’t know how popular that service will be, but I have to accommodate it,” says Ashworth. “Moving to the cloud and application programming interfaces allows us to plug services in as we believe they’re appropriate. We’re looking at the future, sharing ideas with our clients and, if there’s any appetite for new services, we can take it further.”

Start with the business issue first

KPMG director Peter Ironside says modern CIOs must maintain a careful balancing act. His firm’s research, alongside recruiter Harvey Nash, says technology chiefs should focus their attention on three priority areas: developing innovative products; running stable IT; and improving customer experience. 

“IT leaders can deal with this balancing act in different ways,” says Ironside. “To be an effective digital leader, there’s still a licence to operate – you need to show you can maintain operational performance. You need to put the controls in place, to keep costs down, and you need effective security. But you also need to embrace a non-traditional mindset to enable a digital transformation, which is around the business being customer-led.” 

“The term shadow IT has fallen out of favour, and that’s because it’s almost seen as normal now”

Peter Ironside, KPMG

Ironside recognises that ever-increasing decentralisation of IT creates issues in terms of the traditional remit of the CIO. Rather than being solely responsible for technology implementation, his firm’s research highlights year-on-year rises in the amount of spending taking place beyond the bounds of the IT department, including marketing teams. 

“To be an effective digital leader, you need to come to terms with that and to work effectively with the rest of the business. That trend is not going to go away – technology is the lifeblood of all organisations now,” says Ironside, who suggests that – while the relationship with the CMO is central to success – it is not the only C-suite partnership that matters when it comes to decentralised technology spending.

“It’s not just marketing now, it’s all functions. The term shadow IT has fallen out of favour, and that’s because it’s almost seen as normal now. CIOs need to come to terms with that transition. They need to change the way they behave and account for that shift accordingly,” he says.

“If you do something with technology to a process that’s bad today, it will still be bad tomorrow. As well as bringing the right technical solution, you need to consider the business issues as well – and that’s a different mind-set for CIOs. I think IT leaders have traditionally come from a technical solution first approach – and in the modern organisation, you must start with the business issue instead.”

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