Cannes 2016–Five takeaways for CMOs

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: June 23, 2016

Until recently, top CMOs were a rare sight at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. That’s changing. This year’s festival brought the “who’s who” of marketing leadership to Cannes in a quest to celebrate creative excellence. I had the opportunity to talk with a number of leading CMOs and to follow the key debates—with a particular focus on what Cannes means for leaders (from my Forbes column).

The upshot? There’s lots of encouraging news coming out of Cannes. While marketing still faces tactical challenges—social media, big data, ROI, to name just a few—the prevailing belief is that CMOs are back in the driver’s seat. They’re cutting through the clutter and refocusing their attention on what really matters: great work that drives the business.

From a leadership perspective, five takeaways stood out:

1. Cut through the clutter and refocus on effective creativity

CMOs have a love/hate relationship with Cannes. Since it’s often perceived as a self-congratulating event for agency execs, coming to Cannes wasn’t thought to be helpful for CMOs trying to build their brands as serious business leaders. But there’s a growing realization that—despite all science—outstanding creativity still sits at the heart of marketing success. “We have to change the way we engage with consumers to actually produce stuff they want to see,” quipped PepsiCo’s Beverage Group President Brad Jakeman. Past CMOs’ focus on the ever-growing armory of new tools and channels has left creative quality trailing. Customers are now voting with their feet. “Ad blocking is something that we’ve all created,” Jakeman said. The CMOs who came to Cannes this year sent the strong message that marketers have to once again raise the creative bar. According to P&G’s Marc Pritchard, “we’ve got to cut the crap and elevate the craft.” Criticizing the clutter that marketers are creating, Pritchard argued that “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Data, both big and small, are helping: for a long time now, data and creativity have been seen as opposing ends of the marketing spectrum. That’s radically changing. Instead of hampering creativity, data-driven insights are now at the heart of the most effective creative work. At a private event, one CEO and former top marketer put it nicely: “CMOs need the guts again to stand up for creative excellence.”

2. Actualize the power of data

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Almost a century after merchant John Wanamaker’s memorable quote, marketers are still grappling with understanding marketing ROI. As someone coming from operations, AT&T’s CMO Lori Lee noted that she was “shocked at how behind marketing measurement is.” But that’s not the half of it. Asked about big data, CMOs roundly observed that marketers have gotten bogged down in too much complexity. With more customer data available, they are struggling—more, not less—to generate powerful customer insights. Reflecting many CMOs’ sentiments, MasterCard’s Raja Rajamannar pointed to the massive challenge of marketing skills. There are many people who know the classic marketing craft, but struggle with contemporary marketing—and vice versa. Building marketers with both skills remains high on the agenda. At the other end of the data spectrum, many agencies are still refusing to leverage customer data. “Crap data would probably not be the thing I’m most worried about—it’s no data that I’m worried about,” says Pritchard. CMOs are now raising the stakes on data insights, both inside their organizations and with external partners. The year 2016 could very well see a shift from complaining about data complexity to pushing harder, innovating measurements, and simply demanding more data insights. Today’s data leadership challenge for marketers isn’t perfection—it’s tangible progress.

3. Take more (measured) risks

“Don’t be afraid of risk!” Richard Branson’s recent advice to marketers sounds good on paper, but is pretty hard to put into practice for a Fortune 500 marketer, surrounded as she is by compliance departments and legal teams. In a session hosted by Mondelēz’s Dana Anderson, Wharton Professor Adam Grant noted that managers are encouraged to avoid failure rather than to take risks. Many CMOs agree that their bosses don’t tolerate marketing failures well. As a result, most brands are playing it safe—often missing huge market opportunities. “As the CMOs, we don’t take enough risks. We don’t want to have the tough conversations with our bosses,” observed Jorn Socquet, VP of marketing for Anheuser-Busch. He argued that marketers would rather protect their jobs than push the envelope. But “taking no risk is a risk itself” said Merk CMO Atilla Cansun. CMOs can’t realistically expect more risk-taking license from their bosses—so it’s up to every CMO to take (measured) risks, even if this puts his or her own job on the line. Why? Because taking risks is what senior leaders get paid to do.

4. Step up marketers’ role as uniters inside the company

Many marketers work in complex organizations. To make even a small customer experience improvement, it’s not uncommon for a CMO to have to align with up to 20 peers and superiors—many of whom have their own agendas. Ann Mukherjee, SC Johnson’s Global CMO, recounted how hard it can be to navigate that matrix. The best approach, she believes, is inspiration: “It’s about motivating people and giving them hope.” (From my experience working with leading CMOs, I couldn’t agree more.) The other common challenge is legacy thinking. Pepsico’s Jakeman cited the example of obviously outdated brand tracking and ROI measurement tools, and the strong organizational tide to continue in the same old way. To avoid path dependency and effect change, marketers need to step up and demonstrate how marketing is actually driving the business. Mastercard’s Rajamannar argued that marketing KPIs won’t do the job: CMOs build credibility by proving the connection between marketing and real business results. Marketers need to integrate how the company serves customers end to end. Mukherjee: “We are in the business of monetizing human behavior. We have to orchestrate the organization around that mission. Period.”

5. Reshape the agency-client relationship

While customer behavior has radically changed, most marketing agency models haven’t. That’s the chilling conclusion from several Cannes panels. Up until a few years ago, Pepsico’s Jakeman argued, a brand had perhaps five major content pieces per year, six months to create them, and a US$2 million budget. Today it’s 50,000 content pieces, each with a $20,000 budget, and six hours to roll them out. That’s why Pepsico now deploys in-house teams to serve its rapidly growing content needs. Why? Because the entire agency model isn’t geared to the new creativity cycle. CMOs have long been looking to their agencies to come up with a new framework for a faster-moving, data-driven marketing world—with limited success. The consensus at Cannes was that CMOs need to take the lead in developing these future-proof agency-client models. Doing so won’t just solve a burning marketing issue: it’s also an opportunity for CMOs to shape their own professional landscape. That in itself should motivate top marketers to step up and lead the industry’s transformation.

From a leadership perspective, Cannes 2016 felt like a turning point. In previous years, tactical marketing issues and buzzwords (e.g. “millennials”) dominated the debate. This year’s CMOs took more of a strategic industry perspective, and paired it with a renewed focus on what really matters: great analytic and creative work that actually drives the business.