The Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be one of the “greatest marketing tests of all time”, which should invigorate marketers to use every tool at their disposal as a force for good, says Bozoma Saint John.

CMO of US marketing and entertainment business Endeavor, Saint John feels challenged by what she can do to “create new ways of being” and tap into high speed innovation, which means being prepared to scrap carefully conceived five-year plans.

“We used to make strat [strategy] plans that were five years out. You had 18 months, maybe 36 months and five years. Now those strat plans don’t exist, our metrics and KPIs have changed,” she said, speaking today (23 June) at Cannes Lions Live.

“If you are thinking that the plan you’ve been creating for a month from now could still stand, you might want to look at that. The trend I’m seeing is speed and marketers who are trying to find solutions at a much faster rate, who are going on gut instinct versus relying so much on data and analytics that could take some time to get to you.”

Saint John, who was previously chief brand officer at Uber and head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes, explained that data is not moving fast enough to cope with the context of Covid-19, meaning that the old methods marketers used to point themselves in the right direction are “null”.

My hope is that it continues, that companies are feeling the pressure of their morals to rectify and correct a system that has not been equitable.

Bozoma Saint John, Endeavor

Rather than relying on data, marketers must understand what’s happening in culture, gain a deeper understanding of what their team is feeling from a creative standpoint and relate to consumers’ emotions.

When asked how the metrics for success have changed since the onset of the pandemic, Saint John laughed.

“KPIs? It makes me laugh, which is probably what my boss does not want me to do. When we talk about the measures for success, I’m like ‘In this day and age, success is staying alive. Success is having a business at the end of this thing’,” she stated.

“Success is making sure that the brands we represent, the people we work with, the platforms we create are still in existence when we come ‘out’ of this pandemic. It is truly a moving target. At this point what success looks like constantly changes.”

Saint John does not believe that businesses will ever fully return to the way things were pre-coronavirus. But she does accept there will be a rebalancing because the high-speed nature of the current working environment is not sustainable.

“Obviously there are many more mistakes that are made when you’re moving fast and so my hope is that we are able to find a middle ground. I certainly don’t want to go back to the days of waiting to understand what the data tells us before we move based on our feeling and our gut,” she stated.

“At the same time, the speed at which we’re moving really doesn’t help us to sit and understand culture, really look at trends that are coming and understand them before we make movements, so I do hope there is a bit of a slowdown in the way we react. Although, this is really conditioning us to move faster, to be smarter and really drive from our human emotion first.”

Systemic change needed

When asked about where brands should look at over the next six months, Saint John urged marketers to turn their marketing investment to the present and finding the right strategy to react to what is happening in society today.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had strategies like that before, we’ve always forecasted to where we want to be, but we haven’t really paid attention to the present moment in its fullness. At this moment our entire strategy has to be in reacting to what is happening right now,” she advised.

“Covid-19, concerns people have around that, their comfort, their safety, their anxiety. Speaking to those messages and finding solutions for those issues within our businesses and now we have racial and social unrest, so how does that also impact our businesses?”

Saint John admitted she has been shocked by the reaction of the business community to the recent anti-racism protests, as it is not the first time police brutality against African American citizens has been in the news, nor did the Black Lives Matter movement “start yesterday”.

If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

However, she is surprised by the “depth and breadth” at which companies are making statements, looking at their own organisations and donating to the right causes, as she had not witnessed that level of broad action before.

“My hope is that it continues, that companies are feeling the pressure of their morals to rectify and correct a system that has not been equitable. We talk about it all the time. We’ve had whitepapers on diversity and inclusion forever,” she said.

“Those are not new papers, those are not new reasons to make sure that your workforce is diverse in order to see the benefits in business, but now the whole world is screaming for this change, to do it now and to do it fast.”

Saint John says her mission is to make every company understand what is happening and to react. While she is pleased to see companies donating to external organisations, she called for brands to invest internally to help rectify “systemic problems” with diversity and inclusion.

It is also important, Saint John argued, for marketers not to separate their personal responsibilities from their corporate responsibilities.

“There is no separation between who I am as a person and what I feel as I react to these inequities, and how I behave in the corporate space. That responsibility has unfortunately fallen on the shoulders of people of colour for a long time. To bear the responsibility both of what is happening in the world and also bring it to the workplace and try to make changes yourself,” she noted.

“I want business leaders to also react as humans. To take that personal feeling, that heaviness you feel, that helplessness that says, ‘What can I do?’ and answer that call, both personally and in the workplace.”

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