CMO Opinion: The importance of strategic levers for digital success

Written by David Somerville - 15 Nov 2021

Digital Strategy | 9 MIN READ

There is no doubt that a marketing operation needs to have a robust strategy to be successful. Organisations require a clear plan of getting from the current 'as is' situation to the 'to be' to achieve its objectives, which feeds into the wider organisation. However, having a strategy in place is not enough – it needs to be supported by a set of 'strategic levers'.

We asked three leading marketers from high profile brands (The Open University, RSA and Ultimate Finance) about what it takes to ensure continued success and their approach to driving digital marketing strategies using key strategic levers.

What are 'strategic levers'?

We think of a marketing strategy as being the specific plan of what you need to achieve, how you are going to do this and when, then 'strategic levers' are the things that are necessary to ensure that the plan works. They could also be called 'enablers' – they are crucial ingredients combined with the strategy that helps deliver the success you need.

We can say that if you have these strategic levers in place and working effectively, then it shouldn't matter what the plan is or even if the plan suddenly must change overnight (as it did for many businesses over the past few years).

Our digital strategic consultancy work made it apparent that these levers were becoming more and more crucial to marketing leaders. Therefore it seemed like a good time to discuss them in more detail with some of our clients.

Organisations use several different strategic levers; however, there were four that stood out as being critical for success:

Why are they important?

As discussed, these levers are essential because they make the plan work. We have probably all been witness to a slick-looking marketing strategy before. It's full of the right buzzwords and is wonderfully designed. However, when you've finished reading it, you realise that it doesn't consider the fact you need to ensure the right people are available to execute the strategy, or in an extreme case, that the current business culture will need to change dramatically first.

Focusing on getting these strategic levers in place and working well will help the strategy succeed. As a result, this will give you the results you need AND, importantly, a happy, motivated team who know what they are doing and trust that they have the right technology in place.

Views from the CMOs

Our interviewees

We were lucky enough to find the time in the busy diaries of three exceptional senior marketing leaders, who we interviewed about their strategic planning in general (more on that to come in a future article). We put a series of specific questions to understand their opinions on the topic of strategic levers.

Here's more about our three interviewees:

Ceri Rose, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Open University

Headshot of Ceri Rose, The Open University

Ceri joined The Open University in 2020 as Director of Marketing and Communications. She leads various teams within this area, including Strategy & Insight, Product Marketing, Acquisition, Digital & Customer Experience, External Communications, Data & Analytics and Internal Communications.

Before joining The Open University, Ceri worked in senior marketing roles within the NHS and Tesco.com.

James Loder, Chief Marketing Officer at RSA

Headshot of James Loder, RSA

James originally joined RSA as part of a graduate programme in 1995, then left to work in several different insurance companies, including Zurich Insurance and The Ardonagh Group, before returning to the company in 2019.

At the time of publishing, James has just moved into the role of Personal Lines - Commercial Director for RSA.

Yvonne Balfour, Chief Marketing Officer at Ultimate Finance

Headshot of Yvonne Balfour, Ultimate Finance

In addition to being CMO, Yvonne also leads on business strategy and change as part of the Exec and Leadership teams.

Before joining Ultimate Finance three years ago, Yvonne held various leadership positions within the Senior Management team at Sainsbury's Bank.

The interview

What do you see as being the most important 'levers' to ensure that your marketing strategy is successful?

Ceri: Without doubt, people and culture. These are the base of the house. Technology, yes, but data has almost overtaken tech as more important.

It's hard to put good tech on bad data. You have to have a brilliant data strategy.

With regards to areas like process, I see this as our operating model. You need to make sure that people understand the operating model and that the accountability process is good.

Therefore, my key levers are a people plan, our culture and operating model; equality and inclusion; and training and development.

James: The reality is all the levers are hugely important in delivering your strategy and plans. Whether it's people and culture, process and governance or technology and data, they all have to come together to achieve the right outcome. You might have a great strategy, but you have to have the capabilities to execute.

And it's your people that are the 'glue' to bring things together.

Yvonne: Some of our levers are specific to the business, but we summarise broadly as audience, the team (development and training or upskilling), amplification, retention and sales support.

We also have strategic 'pillars' that help the enablers. These are: People Promise; Solution Led; Tech-Enabled; and Partnerships Approach.

For me, the people lever is the most important, especially around the training and development of our staff. Tech is there to help with the strategy, but people are the most important element.

Ceri, Open University

Do you feel these are of equal importance, or are there some that you want to focus on more in the next 12 months?

Ceri: For me, the people lever is the most important, especially around the training and development of our staff. Tech is there to help with the strategy, but people are the most important element.

James: I would say people and culture are the most important levers. How you balance the right blend of 'specialists' and 'generalists' and get the right mix of internal and external experts is key.

Yvonne: A key focus, for now, especially considering everything that has happened recently, is related to the lever of culture, specifically our ways of working.

Which of these are the biggest challenge for you organisation (or in general)?

Ceri: Diversity is one of the biggest challenges for the industry, and the OU - 70% of our workforce are white females. The whole industry has a challenge. We need to make bold decisions, and we should be the power for change.

James: It’s about making sure you 'join the dots' across the whole of the organisation. Ensuring everyone is aware of the strategy and is clear on what their responsibilities are in delivering that strategy.

Yvonne: Being tech-enabled is a journey that we are on. We need to streamline data and processes where the people are adding value, not just spreadsheets. No one system works - it's the need to use a patchwork of systems.

What are your other thoughts around each of the strategic levers?

People

Ceri: Diversity is a big focus currently, building teams that reflect the audiences we need to reach. So that means recruiting and attracting then building an inclusive culture, supporting hybrid and flexible working, once they are employed.

Regarding building skills, I'm a fan of insourcing (where efficient and effective), for example, content production, channel specialists for PPC, social media, video production. The challenge can be finding the right people - many are working agency side – so it takes a little longer to recruit. Sometimes we will bring people in at an apprentice level. You need to be imaginative.

James: As we move to a hybrid way of working, we really need to think differently about how we come together to collaborate, be creative, and create new solutions, including the creation of working environments that enable teams to maximise their contribution to delivering the strategy, whether virtual or in person.

Yvonne: We have a 'People Promise' in place. This initiative involves us carrying out an employee engagement survey twice a year, plus we talk to them regularly in between. Our retention rate, as a result, is reasonably good.

Recruitment can be tricky, mainly finding the right salespeople with the right skills.

Career pathways development is the challenge, so we are investing in training and development.

Inclusivity is important and being talked about lots. There needs to be education around this, including tackling unconscious bias.

In terms of new ways of working, people will need to be self-reliant and self-motivated with a hybrid model.

We have a 'People Promise' in place. This initiative involves us carrying out an employee engagement survey twice a year, plus we talk to them regularly in between. Our retention rate, as a result, is reasonably good.

Yvonne Balfour, Ultimate Finance

Culture

Ceri: To help maintain our culture, we look to find the positives and leverage these.

Some of the cultural elements that are most important for us are innovation and creativity, purpose and community. It means something to people if they are doing something that matters. If you don't have a purpose, it's challenging. The Open University has over 50 years of experience in delivering the best quality supported distance learning and widening access for all – that means something for our people.

Supporting psychological safety is also vital. Sometimes, you have to have difficult conversations, which is problematic with remote working as you are in people's 'safe space', in their own homes.

Our internal communications team is at the forefront of increasing engagement across The Open University, which helps. We have been using stand-ups, virtual open doors, and buzz sessions to keep people connected in our team.

James: Culture is the 'DNA of the business'. You need to have a fantastic team in place. A group of people who can achieve brilliant things! And you need to keep evolving, looking at ways to work smarter and deliver more. An example of this is the new 'ways of working' that we are putting in place.

Yvonne: We have several practical things that help maintain our culture, including a social committee, mental health first aiders, wellness sessions, Lunch & Learns and frequent 'all hands' calls.

The past year has been strange, so we found that regular touchpoints, including online team get-togethers and morning stand-ups, have helped keep the cultural aspects front and centre.

I think it's essential to keep everyone connected – our internal comms is well embedded and established. We work hard on employee engagement and have a high survey score of 84% currently.

Process and governance

Ceri: I think it's key to understand who does what and who decides what messages we give out. All of this should be guided by our strategy.

It's a constant battle in a large organisation to make sure people feel empowered to make decisions, taking away bureaucracy and delegating responsibilities. For me, it's about a small number of good processes, delegating decisions, being productive and being smart.

Yvonne: We work hard to make the process and governance-related elements very clear to everyone. We set objectives across the executive team, and then everything is filtered down.

There's good, delegated authority, we make sure the business is aware of everything, but there is also a certain amount of autonomy. One example is our Sales and Marketing bubbles – each salesperson has a marketing person working with them (for example, generating case studies).

Culture is the 'DNA of the business'. You need to have a fantastic team in place. A group of people who can achieve brilliant things! And you need to keep evolving, looking at ways to work smarter and deliver more.

James Loder, RSA

Technology

Ceri: The most important thing here is that you need good data, so the tech can do what it needs to do. We are lucky at the OU to have a great Chief Data Officer. We have moved everything to one data platform, but still, there is Martech that would add value, so we pick out the most important and release value to the team and customer. Marketing automation is our current priority.

Yvonne: We are tech-enabled right now, but the challenge is to get the best tech in place that is adaptable for all of our products. A key lever is seeing the pipeline from new business to determine when to spend more in this area.

Some final words of advice

What advice can you share around ensuring that you have everything in place to implement your strategy?

Ceri: Your people are critical. They need to be fully bought in and onboard with the strategy, plus they are working together as a team.

James: Peel back the onion and understand where you are. The strategy must be grounded in realism and context.

I would also recommend:

  • Be honest with yourself and where you are as an organisation
  • Keep true to the strategy – align and correct its path as you need to
  • Make sure you have the right people in place
  • Make sure your input is informing the business.

Yvonne: For me, the involvement in creating the business strategy makes it so much easier to create the marketing strategy.

Thank you

A big thank you to Ceri, James and Yvonne once again for giving us their time to provide these precious and interesting insights.

Please get in touch with us here to learn more about our approach to supporting your digital marketing strategy requirements. Do take a look at our two case studies highlighting our strategic consultancy for the RSPCA and Christians Against Poverty to understand the work we do.

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