He’s got a marketing track record that spans more than 25 years at the helm of some of the world’s largest and most successful brands and yet, for Alexander von Schirmeister, successful marketing comes down to one simple thing: good gut instinct.
“I think people sometimes forget some of the old cliché basics of the 80/20 rule,” he says. “If there’s 7,000 tools, that’s great, but if you have two or three that work for you, just stick to those two and three. That’s where the notion of good instinct comes in.”
Von Schirmeister, who served as CMO and General Manager at eBay Europe for over a decade, explains: “In this day and age, marketers need the courage to sometimes say, ‘Yes, I know I could be in 200 channels, but I’m only selecting to be in these 40, which is where the majority of my customer base is going to be’.”
Equally critical, according to von Schirmeister, is the role martech can play in streamlining operations to help marketers reach the right customers. “A lot of martech is extremely useful and leads to not only higher productivity but also an ability to reach finer segments of your customers via more complicated technologies, or more complicated channels,” he says.
It’s these customers, he contends, that hold the key to long-term business success — inside the marketing department, as well as across all areas of any organisation.
“You need to understand your customer. Even if you are in finance. Even if you are in HR. If you are a business or organisation that is serving a customer, you want to understand who that customer is and what you are ultimately serving.”
Tune in to this episode of Get Simple to hear from a truly global marketer about what it takes to build a dynamic marketing team, how to strike a balance between data and creativity in the marketing department, and why it’s critical — perhaps now more than ever — for marketers to trust their gut instinct.Read the full transcript
AVS Alexander von Schirmeister
MC Mark Choueke
This episode of Get Simple is brought to you by Simple – the intelligent marketing platform.
Hello and welcome to Get Simple, a podcast that aims to help marketers claw back the cost of complexity.
Each episode we hear stories from the marketing and tech leaders reshaping the way we do marketing – as the battle for time, money and resources increases.
I’m your host, Mark Choueke, founder of Rebeltech and former editor of Marketing Week.
Today’s guest has a marketing track record spanning more than 25 years at the helm of some of the world’s largest and most successful brands.
Alexander von Schirmeister began his career as Brand Manager for Procter and Gamble in Mexico; a role that he admits sparked a life-long romance as much with business operations and accountability as it did with marketing creativity.
Since then he’s held roles at Telefonica in Spain, Facebook and eBay – where he held roles as General Manager and CMO for over a decade….
AVS I remember when I started my career, over twenty years ago, on my very first day on the job, two things happened. My manager at the time sat me in front of a TV screen, and said… You are going to look at the last 40 years of the copy reels of the brand you are now managing, to really imbibe yourself in the equity of the brand and how we should be selling in to customers.
And in the afternoon, he took me to home visits, and said you will now watch people doing the laundry for the next several hours. And it was that closeness to the brand equity and to the end customer, which I think risks being lost today. Because so many of our touch points with those customers are now interpretations of them and are happening by data points.
Don’t get me wrong, those data points are critical. I’m a big fan of data and what data has brought to the marketing discipline. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of, or in replacement of some of the fundamental contact with the customers, and the ultimate understanding of the value proposition of the service or product you are trying to give to the customer.
MC You came into the world of marketing, through Procter and Gamble. It doesn’t necessarily define your career, because your career has got some highlights, which we will go into later, but one thing about Procter and Gamble and those big consumer packaged goods companies, is, by definition, because of the way they train, being a marketer there, means being a manager. You were a brand manager for many years in Mexico.
AVS That’s right.
MC And, being a brand manager at Procter and Gamble, makes you somewhat of a general manager, is that correct?
AVS Yes. I would say my Procter and Gamble beginnings coloured my career in several ways. The first one you just mentioned. I had ultimate accountability for the P&L of the brand. I couldn’t pass the buck to someone. If there was a problem at the plant, manufacturing the product, I would dive right in and fix it.
MC What age were you when you had a P&L responsibility?
AVS I started my career at the age of 21, 22.
MC So, at 21 years old, you owned the P&L and that is in stark contrast to the way we train marketers in most companies, but generally today? That’s right, yes?
AVS Yes. I would say that’s right. Certainly, some of the marketers I’ve hired more recently, I tend to hire for a very special technicality, within the wider field of marketing, whereas I was fortunate enough when I started, to be in charge of everything to drive the P&L of the brand. And if that was a sampling program, or demonstration program, in a store whether that was new product evolvement or whether that was a sales effort, I just had to do a little bit of everything.
MC Alex, I understand you had that expectation when you took that job, but there must have been some convincing yourself at times that you were capable of that. Some winging it, some learning on the job, some making mistakes. When somebody says, as a marketer you are responsible for the P&L, you try and get a grasp of what that means, and you’re thinking numbers, you’re thinking spreadsheets, you’re thinking forecasts.
You are thinking revenue and profit. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that comes into owning products, if you own that brand manager, that brand manager role. So, everything from team to packaging, to promotions. The whole… To put it in a way, the 4 Ps and more.
AVS Yes. The 4Ps and more, but I was very fortunate. That’s where the element of culture is very important. I was very fortunate to be in a culture where, on the one hand, young professionals were thrown in at the deep end and were just trusted to live up to the task. They were trusted to learn the ropes quickly. They were often given more responsibility than they may have been ready for on paper, but at the same time the company had unbelievable support systems around there.
As a young assistant brand manager, for example, you would go to several copy meetings with the agency and watch more senior assistant brand managers, or brand manager marketing directors, handle an agency relationship to develop copy. So, by the time it came to develop your own copy, you’d already been through six or seven production cycles. When you went to visit your first wholesaler, to do a sales deal, you were there with a senior sales person. A lot of the learning on the job, happened quite naturally. I certainly never thought at the time, whether I was up for the task or not. I just… I was in the momentum and the inertia, if you will, of a larger company training me to become a P&L owner.
MC Do you find, that as a marketer, that rose to CMO at some of our biggest global companies… Do you ever feel disappointed when you are hiring now, because they are such specialists? Or do you give them the forgiveness and the knowledge that there are so many more channels, and complexity at a consumer society that requires 24hr, always-on, relationships and engagement? What’s your take on where you hire? Wishing you could get these guys to think more like managers? Or do you just understand that you are trying to do marketing in a different world right now?
AVS Yes, it’s a good question, Mark. I would say I am not disappointed. On the contrary, I think the choices that marketers, and young marketers have nowadays are just much vaster and more complex. My approach, especially with young people coming to an organisation, is to try and coach them to the fact that they have choices. They have the choice to become an expert at a particular field of marketing.
And a lot of the marketing techniques, or marketing disciplines today, are so technologically complex, it takes a long time to become a real expert in them. But mastering SEO or mastering retargeting is not the same as it may have been 10 or 15, it actually didn’t even exist 10 or 15 years ago. I do tell them, you have a choice to become an expert and that may lead your career down a particular path. But, if you want to become a future CMO, which is another choice, you need to make sure that you rotate through different disciplines. You need to basically take a risk and get yourself out of the comfort zone every year, year and a half, otherwise you will get stuck in an expertise field without knowing it.
MC When we’ve talked before, you’ve described how you built such a framework as both CMO and general manager at eBay, Europe. You actually put down almost a grad recruitment-scheme type, internship cycle, where marketers were invited, not forced, to move every six months and learn something new. So, tell me the difference, in your eyes, between those that chose… Do you know what, Alex, I’m comfortable where I am. I want to be an expert, I want to be a deep-down silo expert, and those that were curious or willing to try and figure out what a spread of channels might look like.
AVS When I did these different programs at eBay, I concentrated on two areas. One was more of a graduate scheme rotation program, where people would spend six months in various marketing assignments. And the other one was more academic. I actually set up a marketing academy and had people cycle through content, of the different disciplines.
And I saw some people embrace it, and embrace the rotation and evolve into marketing fields and I saw other people, yes, they took in the education, but ultimately went back to what they were very good at and what they wanted to specialise in. And when I watch some of those people’s careers now, five, ten, fifteen years later, they have all developed well, but they have all developed exactly along those lines.
Some of them are either chief marketing officers, in larger organisations, or even CEOs in larger organisations. Some of them have stayed in growth marketing roles, or internet marketing roles, or SEO roles. Probably with larger budgets and more responsibility and more complex problems and bigger brands. So, their career has certainly developed, and on paper gone on and upwards, but in a much more narrow specialty rather than a generalist marketing or generalist manager role.
MC There’s several times more channels to deal with in marketing now, than there ever was when you first started. Scott Brinker’s Chiefmartech landscape is growing at a rate of around 30% year-on-year.
Those apps and tools are all there supposedly to help, to support to speed up, to make more efficient, to automate. My worry, I don’t know about you, is that it kind of detracts from marketer’s instincts, so gut feel becomes something we rely less and less on, as well as true marketing capability. Is that something you’ve noticed. Is that something you’d be worried about?
AVS I’ll start by saying a lot of the martech, or adtech is actually extremely useful and leads to not only higher productivity but also an ability to reach finer segments of your customers via more complicated technologies, or more complicated channels. If you are say, a travel company selling hotel rooms and you have hotel rooms in 200 cities, at 1000 price points, and you multiply that and suddenly you have tens of thousands of combinations.
How do you templatise the ad banner you are going to show on Facebook, based on Facebook targeting technology? You cannot do that. You need adtech technology to allow you to do that automatically. In that sense, a lot of the marketing in adtech is actually very useful. But, I would say, first of all, you don’t have to be in every single channel. I think people sometimes forget some of the old cliché basics of the 80/20 rule. Or, the basics of… If there’s 7,000 tools, great, but if you have two or three that work for you, just stick to those two and three. So, that’s where this notion of good instinct comes in.
And I do agree with the fact that people, even in today’s day and age need the courage to sometimes say… Yes, I know I could be in 200 channels, but I’m only selecting to be in these 40, which is where the majority of my customer base is going to be. And, yes, I know that there are 20 other tools which would give me an additional 1% edge on this and that.
But the reality is, the complexity of that additional technology may actually bring more disadvantages than it brings advantages, so I’m going to pass on them. And, ultimately, continuum managing with, certainly a continued iota of just practising judgment and being pragmatic and learning how to say no and focusing your efforts on things that will really move the needle.
MC And, how does gut instinct and courage go down in the boardroom? How is it valued in the boardroom from the CFO’s perspective for example, who is looking for numbers and proof?
AVS You are absolutely right, I think we are living in a world where, because data is so available, people are getting over-obsessed with having everything data proven, and everything justified and that applies to boardroom, CEOs and even CMOs.
MC Is this a marketing problem or is it a business problem?
AVS No, I think it is a business problem. I think as a society we are wanting to over analyse everything. We now have wearable devices on our wrists and fingers, and what have you, to track our sleep, our steps, our heart and how often we go to the bathroom.
MC It’s amazing how we got through many thousands of years without knowing our exact heart rate.
AVS Exactly. And the reality is… Listen, I’m a big fan of some of those technologies and in full disclosure I’m a seed investor in some of them, because I am fascinated by how some of those technologies are being invested into our lives. But I also think every now and then, we need to be able to just shed everything and just go for a run because we just want to go for a run. Not because we are measuring how many steps we are going to do.
MC But, the conversation that needs to be had from Simple’s point of view is about complexity. About the damage of complexity, the risks of complexity. And, we read one article in The Drum recently that said successful marketing doesn’t really need to be all that creative, to still work pretty well. That is the pinpoint of the thing you are saying right now, which is if we lose too much of the instinct, the strategy, the creativity, we risk doing ourselves a disservice as marketing.
AVS When you think back to the fundamentals of why you love the brand. Not why you buy from the brand but why you love the brand, it will typically ultimately come down to two things. One, and the most important, your actual experience with the service or the product is phenomenal. That you have an outstanding customer experience. And so, the focus of, again, we can talk about whether that is the focus of marketing, or someone else in the organisation.
The focus on delivering a superior value proposition, a superior product, a superior service is absolutely critical. And the second one is… Is there an emotional connection to the brand? Whether that emotional connection was created by a very personal experience in a physical retail moment, whether it was created by a handwritten note in the package receipt. There are probably a hundred different avenues to that. If we remember that the love of the brand comes from those…
And then you look at all the brand transactions you have, which may be mechanical. Or clinical. But you would drop that brand in a heartbeat if someone else came along. And I think too many brands are just focused on scaling their size through the efficiency mechanisms and the machinery of that scale. Making sure the right keyword is at the right place? And are you getting targeted? And it may work, some big brands are growing that way. But I also believe those brands are very fragile, because the moment something goes wrong, they will lose the customer in a heartbeat.
MC So in the age of technology, do you still believe that the CMO should be strategic storyteller, instinctive marketer, or do you agree with others out there, that the new CMO is going to be a technologist, a computer scientist?
AVS I am a romantic. I think the CMO needs to continue having an oversight over creativity and the value of the brand, and the value of the brand proposition. However, I also think new CMOs need to be technology savvy. They may not be technologists, they may have technologists working for them. But they need to be savvy enough to understand technology because the reality is, the way we now reach our customers, more and more often comes through technology.
MC Let’s talk a little bit about your experience. You’ve worked with P&G, as we’ve talked about. You’ve worked with Facebook, you’ve worked with Telefonica. You spent ten years with eBay Europe, in senior positions. When you got there…
You said that there was a lot of truly great digital marketing available to you. There was a lot of brilliant performance and analytical skills there. But, you needed to bring in those storytellers. You went back to various places you’d worked before, to find people you knew. How did you find the challenge of getting them to work together?
AVS It wasn’t easy, Mark. When I took on the marketing organisation for eBay in Europe, and as you said, there were many outstanding internet marketers, direct marketers, online merchandisers. eBay had relied very heavily on consumer PR, to be frank, for its growth. A lot of eBay’s early success was because it was all over the media, for funny items on sale, what have you.
But what it had done little of, was just tell the story in a more traditional, strategic marketing storytelling type. When I brought in some more traditional marketers, who had been trained in… How do you write good copy, how do you brief an agency to come up with a dramatic and endearing story, and then turn that story into a media plan? I basically saw two reactions.
Some of those people adapted to the eBay world very well, and they very quickly learned the distribution of new media and new technology, and how to adapt storytelling to it. But how do you turn that storytelling into an email format? Or into a merchandising banner in a website, or into keyword buying for example. Whereas certain others, would stay and ultimately end up becoming more of a brand and communication manager, honing-in on their storytelling discipline, but not really embracing the fact that that discipline had to work with new media. It was very interesting to me to observe the people who graduated into digital marketers and the people who ended up staying more brand and communication marketers.
MC What would be the best, instant off the cuff, Alexander von Schirmeister framework, you could come up with that advises or helps us understand this going forward. What would be your best take on how to solve some of these big problems?
I think anyone who wants to become not only a marketer, but anyone who wants to develop a career in enterprise, should start by understanding and focusing on the customer side of things first.
MC Even if they are not customer-facing, you think?
AVS Even if they are not customer-facing. I think you need to understand your customer. Even if you are in finance. Even if you are in HR. If you are a business or organisation who is serving a customer, you want to understand who that customer is and what you are ultimately serving. We haven’t even talked about culture and purpose as much, but I think a lot of employees will always be engaged with a company that has a greater purpose. The best way to understand that purpose is by being in touch with the customer.
MC I would say, to add, that some marketers, if you are that digital and that focused on anything from SEO to digital advertising banners, you also need to be in touch with customers not numbers.
AVS Absolutely, because the customers will tell you the story of why they clicked on what they clicked, and you will often be very surprised by some of the insights you get just by understanding how their mind is working, rather than how their finger on a mouse is working.
MC We are coming to the end of our podcast with the three simple questions that we are asking everybody that joins us. Number one… What is your frustration with marketing right now?
AVS My number one frustration is that it is becoming overly biased in numbers, data and analytics and by doing that, it’s losing or forgetting the fact that storytelling and value proposition are just as critical if not more critical.
MC Number two. If you weren’t a marketer, you would be a…?
AVS General Manager.
AVS You probably wanted me to say footballer. If I wasn’t a marketer, I’d probably be a nature activist or something like that.
MC And number three. Your most despised marketing buzzword, and why? And there’s plenty to go around.
AVS Data science.
MC That’s interesting. Tell me why?
AVS Mostly because people are overusing data science, just as they were overusing the Millennium bug in the year 2000. I see a lot of good analysts doing an excel spreadsheet analysis and saying… Look at my data science. It’s not data science, it’s just an analysis. Or people segmenting a customer base and saying, here is my customer base and the data science I applied to it. No, you just segmented your customers. I do think there is a place for data science and I think data science is going to continue being an evolving discipline in marketing. I just think it is being overused in a lot of things that aren’t really data science.
MC Thank you for your time, Alex. It has been an absolute pleasure.
AVS My pleasure, Mark. Thank you.
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I’ve been your host Mark Choueke, thanks for joining me.