During the spring Forrester Marketing Summit, attendees were urged to be “post-digital” marketers who use digital media as the starting point of their marketing strategies, not as an add-on. Most of the discussions about the CMO role involved top-down strategy and hiring data scientists and web developers to execute plans.
But perhaps CMOs could benefit from sinking their teeth into the technology and tools they’re increasingly buying at the ground level.
CMOs who came up from the technology disciplines or work for tech companies said they benefit from knowing the code that drives websites and apps. That includes Emily Culp, CMO of Keds, who began her marketing career doing web design. The experience has helped her to understand what’s required to build digital capabilities into traditional marketing functions, she said at the Summit.
“You have to understand what that capability looks like,” added Jon Potter, managing director of Chandon California and former CMO of Moet Hennessy USA.
Like Potter, most industry executives agree that marketers must be versed in the digital skills driving today’s omnichannel communications to keep up with the consumer. But some argue that coding may be going too deep under the hood.
“Can I do HTML? Yeah, but if I’m honest it’s not because I’m going to code a website,” said Phil Bienert, former CMO and executive VP of digital commerce at GoDaddy. “I don’t know that a CMO needs to code, but what they definitely need is to have a curiosity about technology and what people do with technology.”
Back To Basics
Indeed, the definition of a digitally literate CMO is a work in progress, with some executives even attending coding courses and boot camps to gain a better tactical view.
A number of surveys, including a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group, have shown marketing chiefs are concerned about a digital skills gap in their organization and are taking steps to address it, including offering training to their staffs—and taking some themselves in order to keep up.
“It’s an acknowledgement that this is critical and they want to invest time in this,” said Elizabeth Lukas, CEO North America of Decoded, in an interview with CMO.com. Decoded is one of several organizations that offer intensive training in HMTL, data management, and other digital disciplines to time-strapped executives.
For example, on a recent weekday morning, a group of communications professionals gathered at Decoded’s New York office for a “Code in a Day” course. Participants included top staff from nonprofits, marketing agencies, and consultancies, who went through classroom instruction in the basics of web development—from hosting to coding languages to the existence of API libraries—before spending the afternoon building a mobile app using geolocation.
The idea is not to turn out web developers in one day, but to give participants a foundation to start thinking about digital in a more creative way, Lukas said.
To her point, participants said they did not leave expecting to replace their development teams, but to work more closely with them. One executive said the newfound knowledge would help to gauge whether web developers’ schedules were realistic, while another said it would help her “complain more effectively” about her organization’s antiquated digital infrastructure.
Gemma Greaves, global managing director of The Marketing Society, a CMO network, acknowledged she was skeptical going into a Decoded course, thinking it would be “too granular,” but the experience took away some of the barriers that can hinder marketers in their ability to lead digital change.
“Knowledge is power and that will always help you,” she told CMO.com.
Most CMOs, in fact, noted the ability to better communicate as the main draw to learn how to code. They can more easily talk to techies in their own language, set realistic goals, and manage digital strategies more effectively, they said.
Digital literacy is more than knowing how to use the tools, according to David Roman, CMO of Lenovo. Roman, who began his career in technology before moving to marketing, already knew code when he became a CMO, but he said it’s more important that marketing chiefs understand the use of data and social media.
“You can be a great cab driver without understanding how the engine works. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the first thing. And you can understand how the engine works and be an awful driver,” he told CMO.com. “I would focus more on understanding what your users are doing.”