Rise of the marketing leader

Between navigating remote working and having to pivot marketing plans to be entirely digital, B2B marketers have had a lot of adapting to do. But is this also an opportunity to strengthen marketing's role within B2B businesses? We speak with Iris Meijer, CMO of Vodafone Business.


Benedict Buckland Hello and welcome to The CMO Show. This is the fifth episode of The CMO Show where we put the biggest questions facing the industry to the leading names in marketing. Today, I'm joined by Iris Meyer, who is the CMO at Vodafone Business. Iris, welcome to the CMO Show. It's great to have you.

Iris Meijer Thank you, Benedict. Happy to be here.

Benedict Buckland Excellent. So Iris has been with Vodafone, I believe, for two and a half years, and before that I had an extensive career within the telco industry working for Nokia for around a decade. And so, Iris, before we jump into what we can be talking about from a marketing perspective, I'm just interested how of the past six months been for you? I can imagine working for a company like Vodafone. It must have been pretty frenetic, but a lot of innovation and excitement along the way now.

Iris Meijer Absolutely. I guess from a personal perspective, I never, ever imagined that I would miss my commute to work. But even that has happened by now, and I never imagined that I would miss travelling so much as I do, and travelling for work. I haven't been able to to meet my team who is outside of U.K., even my team here in the U.K. But we have been indeed very, very busy. Considering the nature of Vodafone and really supporting even national critical infrastructure, it's kept us very busy starting for really ensuring that our own people are safe and we support them. We've had a great focus on our customers and I think one of the reasons I'm here today is that we're actually really seeing the difference marketing can make during the times that we've had this year.

Benedict Buckland Fantastic. Well, before we talk a little bit further out that I just want to do a very quick bit of housekeeping. Now for everybody that's joining us remotely. We want this session to be as active as possible. So any questions that popped into your mind throughout the course of the next half now that you either want to just put to the floor or you want to ask Iris directly, please use the question box, which I think should be fairly intuitively located somewhere on the screen, and then we will pick those up as we go through. Now, as I just mentioned, the focus of today is how the role of marketing is changing within the organisation and how it's potentially becoming the real linchpin within the wider organisation and affecting that change.

As we all know what Covid has done is fundamentally changed the way that we live, the way that we work. We are all within a working environment, adapting to new ways of working, but also we're adapting to a rapidly changing customer landscape. These changes have the potential for a profound impact on the way the organisations are structured and the way that organisations operate. Because what we're seeing is that a whole new raft of new skills and new pieces of information are becoming essential to the way that businesses operate, which are causing these changes.

So I guess what I'm interested to know, if we could have put marketing activity to one side, because clearly the way that you have been marketing would have been different during this time. Put that to one side. I'm interested in your role as CMO. How is that changed over the past sort of six or seven months with the situation that we've been in?

Iris Meijer Yeah, no, well, I would say that, as you refer to as well, but no one could have ever predicted the upheaval we've experienced due to these global pandemic. And I would say a Covid-19 has, of course, resulted in some shifts in my role as a CMO as well. I would even argue that the role of CMO has become even more important than before. I was already last year talking about how this is actually the time for CMOs, but never, ever did I expect it to be really shown this clearly throughout everything that has happened this year. Because now if you think about it, you refer to it as well, "Oh, customers, they have shifted their buying behaviour to different channels".

Some have accelerated the digital transformation. Some customers are suffering. Some have needed actually to up their game and some have changed their business models and so on. So what we have in marketing, we have insight and the insight has really allowed us to better understand how these customer needs have shifted in different industry verticals and how best to target our messaging and our offers. So obviously our original goals and strategies that were drawn up at the beginning of the year have had to be completely rewritten. But these challenges have really brought about the opportunity for CMOs to make a real difference in the boardroom.

Because if you think about it, effective marketing really requires us to be so close to our customers and our peers on the board look to us marketers already early on in the pandemic to really draw upon our customer knowledge and get our commercial response as a company right in time of this kind of crisis.

Benedict Buckland Excellent. I think that it's a really nice way of looking at it, how marketing is almost uniquely placed to not only speak to to the customer, but also to understand the customer and understand the marketplace itself. Now, did you find that you had to, I suppose, renegotiate your position within the sort of the the senior team within Vodafone to get them to understand that value that you are able to bring? Or was that quite seamless? Do they already understand that?

Iris Meijer So I always thought marketing as guardians of the customer. But I would say that this year there's really been a true truly kind of like a recognition and realisation of that one in the company. That marketers are truly the guardians of the customer, and we have the knowledge and we have the understanding of customer's needs. For us, for example, it's meant that we must create a focus, for example, on propositions which are a direct response to customer need. Now, the best propositions can't really be created just within the business from the inside-out perspective. I know this sounds obvious, but unfortunately it's not the case always and certainly not in the business to business environment, but not even in business to consumer.

So I think we we really see a shift here and the understanding within the wider organisation what marketing can really bring to the table. Like, let me give you an example. The smaller customers that we are serving, they are absolutely the lifeblood of economies around Europe. If you think about it, they created 85 per cent of the new jobs within the last five years. That's really significant. But they are also the segment that's hardest hit by Covid-19. So we needed to think how to best support this customer segment. What can we do? And as marketers, we have the insight of the needs they need during this pandemic and they need behaviour changes as well.

So what we did is we launched we have our digital advisory service and we because we really wanted to help these customers to get into this new area of working and really be more resilient. And marketing was driving this transformation. Marketing was driving the launch of the service, which we would not have been able to do last year.

Benedict Buckland Amazing. And just to make it a little bit real. I'm just fascinated. We're looking back to the early stages of the pandemic. What did those conversations look like? Did you sort of proactively lead with with that insight and say, look, we need to do something, we need to act upon this information? Or did they come to you just talk me through what that conversation looked like and what the case you made almost feel for that involvement.

Iris Meijer Now, that's a really good question, Benedict. I have been always such an advocate of customer insight for years, and I'm a big believer in that. Having that view to the customer data and really analysing that data, it's always informed my role in making strategically informed decisions. However, before the pandemic, it wasn't always that obvious quite often, and I'm sure many of my peers can see in similar situations, marketers are faced with product coming to marketing and say, "I have this great product is super exciting. I'm sure the customers want it." And then marketers are left like, "Well, OK, with my insight, I don't think the customers actually need it."

So we left in trying to figure out how to promote this product that the guys are so excited about. Or then think about salespeople, especially in business to business environment. A lot of the salespeople have very good relationship with customers. So traditionally they don't always understand that actually marketing can help with demand generation. Now, we've been lucky at Vodafone business. We've had really good relationship with sales and we work together with them very closely.

But what has really shifted this year is that we've actually changed the way, for example, product and marketing work. So today what we do is marketing comes with insight. This is what the customer needs and that drives the product development rather than the other way around. And that is a major shift.

Benedict Buckland Yeah, and it's absolutely fundamental. Certainly in the work that we do as an agency, we have to take that audience first approach and then you work backwards from that because that that needs to be fundamental. Now, with Vodafone, that's quite an upheaval, that sort of transformation going from being product-led to customer-led on that front.

Iris Meijer I don't think so. As I said, I think I've been lucky at Vodafone. I've always had a very supportive CEO. Vodafone, as a company is very customer driven and customer focused. So I would say it's probably been easier. It hasn't been a major upheaval. However, it's it's really meant for my team and myself to just be persistent and really have the perseverance, because you always have these individuals, but then you have major brands like this actually happened even just before Covid, one of the product leads. He came to me and he said to me, "Iris, I see 30 per cent, three zero revenue increase quarter by quarter. I have the same product. I have the same salespeople. What is different?" It's the marketing tactics and messaging, and that's what we bring, it's the marketing insight. It's the understanding of the customer and the tactics we use. That's really powerful.

Benedict Buckland Yeah, absolutely. Again, really interested to understand in real terms what those insights look like. Now, some of them, I'm sure, that you developed through traditional qualitative methodology, but I would imagine that with a company such as Vodafone, that a lot of emphasis on the data and the technology to bring you closer to the customer as well. And what are those things that you've done over the past six months? It can be a longer period of time, but done to bring Vodafone closer to the customer.

Iris Meijer Well, it brings me back to two and a half years ago when I joined Vodafone, actually. I heard several times from people that we don't really have any data. One of the early realisations I had myself, that we actually have a lot of data. We had a lot of first party data. We had a lot of third party data, but it was all very fragmented and disparate. So it wasn't linked to business or business decisions, and this, of course, made data driven decision making sometimes even impossible, but definitely very slow and very time consuming. So what we've been doing is we've been working together, bringing all this data together through changes in the processes, but also changes in the systems and integrating different technology. Well, we also had when I joined is the best in class technology, like I used to say, that we have like this Ferraris and Porsche in the garage, but then people will take them spin to the grocery store that's around the corner. And that's not really what they're meant for.

So we've really changed the approach here. We've combined our first party data with third party to really give us a deeper insight and clearer actions. Now, I can't say we are there yet, but we're definitely closer to having a core set of data to have one view to our customers to really drive actions and understanding the impact. But what is really key here is that transformation kind of like this is a digital transformation. It can be, as a word, really off-putting, right? It's like, oh, my God, is this big monster. On the other side, you can have a data paralysis. You're like, oh, you're overwhelmed by the data you have. What do you do? And one peer of mine several years ago told me, "Iris baby steps. Just take step by step approach and you will get there." I think the important thing, what I've learnt is, that that the technology is not in control of us marketers instead of we are in control of it. There is a sense, and I think it's too prevalent today that technology is in control. It's so easy for us marketers to get distracted by the latest hot technology product or service here and there. But what we really must remember is to always look at the output that it delivers us and provides us and how we can use that in a purposeful and really thoughtful way. Benedict Buckland Amazing. So what you spoke about, the digital transformation is ultimately just a single thing that that happens. I think that you still have behemoth that you already mentioned there. It's something that you slowly work on. In many respects, it's also a constant and continual journey. Now I think that it's really, really important what you've said there about integrating data, because that's just a lot of untapped data there and it's about processing that data. Also, you talked about the importance of making sure that you're not purely led by data. You've also got that overlay. For you at Vodafone. What do you think is that next stage of the digital transformation within marketing? What if we were to sort of fast forward 12, 18 months? Where do you feel that Vodafone need to be? Where do you want to be as leading Vodafone business?

Iris Meijer Now, as I mentioned, and use it as well, like this is a continued. So so we've been continuously transforming and and and it will take time. What I think is really, really important is to stay agile. So I wouldn't say that there's a certain point in time that I want something big to happen. For example, I think it's really gradually doing these incremental steps. So, yes, we are getting better in predictive analysis and all that. But I think what is my ambition is really ensuring that all this data and insight we get all the predictive analysis, all the big data, everything that we can actually link it to actionable insights. So we're doing it today and going forward as well. That is my aim, is really to ensure that whatever we do is linked to our business so that there's always a meaning for it. Traditionally, we did a lot of research, for example. This is not directly about digital marketing, but we did a lot of research, but a valuable research but was never used by the business. So it was never unique to think about all this data coming by the day that we have. What does it mean in product development? What does this actually mean in pricing? What does it mean in the company's strategy? And that is actually a change. And it's actually not your question. But what I'm really passionate about, what we have already managed to do today. So marketing today at Vodafone is actually driving one of the three key pillars of our company strategy. I am very happy to take that on board.

Benedict Buckland I think it is it's an aspiration, I think, of a lot of marketers to get to that point where marketing is involved in shaping business strategy. Now, it sounds as though within Vodafone, you you you're achieving that and actually marketing really is integral to the sort of the future direction. And that would have been a journey I'd assume. I'm interested - having gone through that, how did becoming involved in shaping business strategy change your approach and perspective on marketing? Because I think that just to give you a little bit more context to that question, we've just done a piece of research which was finding out how B2B marketers have responded to Covid. And it's part of the research we categorised respondents into those that were integral to shaping business strategy all the way down to those that were in departments, which were really just viewed as "cost centres" by their business. There are some really surprising results that came up from there.

Amongst those marketers that were actually involved in shaping business strategy, whilst they had seen the lowest budget cuts when it came to the biggest headcount loss and indeed the greatest amount of pressure that was coming from the business to prove ROI do more with less... it was actually those that were integral to business strategy that were most impacted by that. So I'm really interested as a marketer, when you get to that sort of very bird's eye view, you're looking for a business strategy perspective. Does it change the way that you view the way that marketing should operate as well? Is that is there a bit of a shift in perspective? Iris Meijer I think days and I think I think we're coming down to is really to have this commercial mindset. And when you have the commercial mindset and what I mentioned to you is is really connecting all that insight and data you have to the business is also shifts the focus you have in marketing. Like it's not that we haven't gotten insight before. As I said, like all market is in one way or another. You have the insight, you have the data. But when you really start thinking strategically from the company, kind of like how the company can be successful in the future, you start, of course, thinking about the data and the insight you have in a very different way. But also then the actions behind that as well. And actually it gives you more say in the boardroom as well, because then you understand better where the company is heading and how you can influence then the product, how you can work together with the sales.

You don't see yourself anymore as a support function. I see marketing as an enabling function. So I think that also shifts kind of like the way you think you are, not just supporting like traditionally, at least in my team, marketers want to please their stakeholders. That's not always the right way to do. And if you are not a support function, you are enabling function, you actually have to say no. But you need to explain why you are saying no. You have the data behind you and you can explain that that is not the right thing to do. You believe something else needs to be done. You are not just taking orders.

Benedict Buckland Yeah, I think it's I mean, ultimately it is about becoming a much more strategic from a business perspective rather than just purely a marketing perspective that is so important. Do you feel and you mentioned actually around that sort of idea of commercial acumen in many respects, do you think enough marketers have that commercial acumen and that understanding of the business in a more general sense, or do you think that's a still a little bit of a gap within the industry?

Iris Meijer Well, I think in general, actually, just as marketers, I think it's important for everyone in the organisation to seek more... develop their commercial acumen. Yeah, I do think that it is something that is not that common yet in marketing. I think actually traditionally probably it's more common in business to consumer marketers. Any business to consumer marketer's own P&L as well. But I think it is the only way for us in the future to have the strategic position and actually be successful in our roles.

Benedict Buckland Yeah that's very interesting.

Iris Meijer We have everything we need for that, it's not that we need to go and get new skills or something like that necessarily.

Benedict Buckland I think in light of what you're saying there about sort of the need to develop that sort of strategic understanding, but actually having all of those tools available to you already, because as we spoke about at the beginning of this conversation, marketers are really the eyes and ears of the business when it comes to the customers, when it comes to to the market. This actually leads very, very nicely to a question that's just come through from Daniella Thomas. So I think she's probably listened to everything we just said there and the question is, given all of that are CMOs the CEOs of the future? Does the experience of being a CMO and being at the front line of understanding the marketplace to the customer make you the ideal leader of an overall organisation? What's your perspective on that?

Iris Meijer Let me start by actually, I will come back to the future. The situation today, and that's why I just want to say this today, because today only five per cent of marketers actually have the confidence that they can influence the direction of the business. So that's a long way to become a CEO, a future CEO. This is actually 55 per cent of the CEOs who believe that they have the influence to direct the company future. Now, the interesting thing is that actually the peers in the board rate marketers higher than marketers themselves. I strongly believe that we can easily be the CEOs of the future with the right commercial acumen, but we really need to start believing ourselves and growing confidence to be able to do that.

Benedict Buckland So why do you think there is such a lack of confidence?

Iris Meijer I wish I would I wish I'd know because as we've discussed, like we have everything, we have the research, we have the insight, we are more digital. This year has really shown our customers are moving more digital. Marketing moved digital years ago already in various forms. Now we are guiding the whole rest of the organisation. So we have everything. Also, by the way, what is really important, we should not forget we talk about data here, but what marketers are really good at is mastering the balance between the science, the data and then the art, the creative talent that goes hand in hand with our profession. And you need that. You cannot forget that. And can you imagine how powerful that is? So I really don't know why we don't believe in ourselves, because we do have all the ingredients.

Benedict Buckland Well, it's I mean, I don't think we're necessarily going to solve why there is a sort of a crisis of confidence. But I think that what is really encouraging in terms of what we've just discussed there is that marketers have the different elements there and perhaps Covid can be in many respects, a catalyst. I don't think ever before had businesses had to go through such a fundamental change in such a short period of time and had to relearn everything about their customer and about their marketplace. So hopefully that is giving the platform for the marketers to to come forward on that front and absolutely shine. And so from if you were to give a prediction and we were to sort of move forward five years, do you feel that there will be that change and we are going to see more sort of CMOs sitting in the CEO hot-seat?

Iris Meijer I do hope so, I think, at least for me next five years, I want to see confidence in those who really try the strategy of the business and definitely the next five, 10 years. I would love to see more CEOs whose background is a CMO. We do have some already today, so I'm sure that that number will grow in the future.

Benedict Buckland Excellent. And we were just coming up to time now, and I think that we've probably covered a lot of this. But if you were to give three, two or three bits of advice to aspiring CMOs or senior marketers that want to make that difference, they want to have that impact on their business. What do you feel that they should just keep front of mind and really focus on in the next 12 months to cement that position?

Iris Meijer I think, first of all, in general, the guidance I've always given to my team members as well, just remember to be the CEO of your own career. Start with that one, be the CEO of your own career. And the second is really make sure that you believe in yourself and you really rally your teams behind you, gather your tools and live up to the promise that the modern marketer can deliver. No one else on the board can take this on. You can do that.

Benedict Buckland Wonderful. I think that that's absolutely fantastic way to end there and thank you very much for your time. It's been a really fascinating conversation ranging from of the immediate impacts of Covid, talking about the digital transformation in marketing. But I think most importantly, and I think most inspiringly ending on that sort of potential that CMOs and the marketing community have where they sit in the business and how they can use data and insights to have a profound effect on their company. And as you put it, you know, bring together the art and science that is required for leadership is a really, really exciting future that you've spelled out there.

So, Iris, thank you very, very much for your time. It's been a pleasure. And I think that this will be available for download for those that haven't been able to catch it first time around. But thank you very much and thank you for everybody that is tuned in today.

Iris Meijer Thank you so much. Thanks, Benedict. Thank you. Bye bye.

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