Top 6 takeaways from the 2017 ADMA Global Forum

For two days in late August, Sydney’s Hilton Hotel became the finest locale in the southern hemisphere for anyone wanting insights into how marketers can use data to hold a steady path into the future and blaze new trails. The Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising’s (ADMA) was the mastermind and host behind the event – bringing together an international crew of executives and directors from some of the world’s most powerful brands for the 2017 Global Forum.

We’re all feeling it: the brave new world of marketing is a perilous, slippery thing. For all the sophisticated information technology dancing at our fingertips, it can sometimes seem as though our audiences are more elusive than ever before. How can organisations remain relevant? How might we use data to complement human intelligence and not hinder it? How are brands able to embrace change without estranging themselves from the values and principles that define them the most?

Helping answer these questions (and more) were a host of individuals hailing from a gamut of different industries – from the BBC’s Amanda Farnsworth, to RedBalloon’s Naomi Simson, to NASA’s Jason Crusan, to Mahlab’s own Bobbi Mahlab, appearing alongside Ciara Meyler from HBF Health. By sundown on Friday, audiences were replete with fresh insights, case studies and thought points on how to serve their audiences best in this thrilling, sometimes terrifying, fast-moving age.

Here are our top six.

1. Build your strategy around what won’t change

“I always hear the question, ‘What’s going to change in 10 years time?’,” mused Commonwealth Bank Australia’s Group Executive of Marketing and Strategy, Vittoria Short. “Rarely do I hear what won’t change.”

For her, this question is far more salient for brands and businesses that want to not only endure but thrive in a future marked by instability and flux.

Digital disruption is threatening to undermine the established orders. Consumers are finding new ways to both engage in media and evade advertising reach. Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation present their own exciting possibilities and worrisome risks.

Midway through this decade of ‘turbulent teens’, it is incredibly easy to get distracted by the competition. And it is easier still to mistake strategy for a concussive series of tactical responses, which – forum speakers agreed – can never deliver you value at scale.

“To build a business and brand for the long-term future,” argued Short, “you have to focus on things that are stable in time.” What does this come down to? Essentially: being absolutely clear about your organisation’s unique selling points, understanding your customer’s underlying and consistent expectations, and always keeping their best interests at heart.

2. Adapt at the speed of the customer

Never losing sight of your company’s North Star doesn’t mean being a stick-in-the-mud though. As customer expectations rise, loyalty fragments and consumer habits evolve at accelerating speeds, marketers must consider what tools they can deploy to serve audiences best at the right time, at the right place and with the right message.

The array of new options to do so is exhilarating. The voice-powered Alexa by Amazon and Google Home were given special mention. So were ‘living services’ bringing success and points of difference to brands like Nike and Uber – those real-time, contextual, on-demand technologies like mobile apps and chatbots, which can solve consumer problems the moment they arise. Through the use of Big Data, brands are also better equipped to personalise communications so as to offer relevance across channels, targeting individuals at home, on the bus, or at work.

We have come a long way forward from Microsoft Office’s Clippy.

Not all of these options will be useful additions to a brand’s marketing toolbox though. Many, speakers cautioned, may be a detriment to bottom lines if used simply because they’re the ‘shiniest new gizmo’. For some, the solution is to develop products and services in concert with audiences – releasing them iteratively, testing and refining in a progressive sequence of rollout events. And if these tools still aren’t working: they’re dropped. Very often, simplicity is the smartest approach.

3. Data and technology are enablers – not solutions

Through the information they collect, and the functions they make possible, machines are the allies of marketers. They can enrich and refine investment decisions through targeting. They can make the customer experience more seamless – mitigating pain points and smoothing out the bumps. For Shopback’s Chief Commercial Officer Candice Ong, they enable her e-commerce store to send up to 40 newsletters a week, in 15 automated campaigns to audiences in six countries – all executed by a two-person team.

But to frame machines as the solution to marketing problems is wishful thinking at best, and delusional at worst. Machines are, after all, only as ‘intelligent’ as the people who build them and the people that use them.

Chief Science Officer at AIG Murli Buluswar articulated this particularly well. “Data is data,” he said. “It’s not strategy, it’s not decisions. It’s a capability. If translated into insights and manifested into action – then that’s a benefit.”

Worship too much at the altar of data, and you can moreover be blinded to what the customer legitimately craves. Digiday’s President and Editor-in-Chief Brian Morrissey pointed out that the data will almost always tell you to send more emails – but should you? Unlikely. And just because Facebook is championing video on its increasingly powerful platform, this doesn’t necessarily mean your audience is hungry for it.

“Building brands around human outcomes: that’s what will give you sustainability,” said Global Marketing Brand and Communications Executive Allen Olivo. “Not Big Data, not AI.”

4. Listen to your audience

Marketing success hinges upon how well you understand your audience. Here, data helps. But the best way to do this is to listen – and to do so in an active, intention-driven way.

In a leadership panel on ‘The Customer of the Future’, Spotify’s Managing Director Jane Huxley defined listening as “the ability to sit still – to shut up and let the conversation happen”. RedBalloon Founder Naomi Simson concurred that listening is what keeps marketers honest, and keeps them going too. On the days she “wants to fire herself”, she does one thing: “get on the phone, and talk to customers”.

HBF’s Direct Advice for Dads (DAD) content hub also found success through the philosophy of listening first and acting second (full disclosure: HBF is a Mahlab client). HBF Health’s Digital Content Marketing Manager Ciara Meyler and our own Bobbi Mahlab shared the story of the health insurance company’s first-time entry into the eastern states. After researching search queries and holding a series of in-depth interviews, they discovered an untapped niche for the kind of parenting insights and stories that could uniquely connect with Australian dads. Publishing controversial, funny and affecting stories, the hub has become a ‘bloke-to-bloke’ destination for Aussie fathers who want to do the best for their bubs they possibly can. “I wish this’d been around ten years ago!” one audience member and not-too-recent dad lamented following the talk.

5. Tell bold, authentic brand stories

There was only one speaker at the forum whose presentation was shot through with several explosive rounds of audience applause. Appearing on stage sporting a uniformed cashier’s polo shirt in a session entitled ‘WTF R U GUYS DOING’, Head of Brand Marketing at Burger King Fernando Machado inspired attendees with a story of burgers and brands.

When he arrived at the franchise in 2014, Machado found his beloved Burger King to be stumbling about in a soulless and bizarre marketing wilderness. It was hanging off celebrities to tell its story and was cluttered with inconsistencies. Its food photography “looked like hospital food”, Machado said. Worst of all, it had forgotten why customers actually dug the brand – because it was raw, real and completely unpretentious.

Change was needed. One of the most important the team made was to quit playing too safe and start taking risks. Now, the brand “does campaigns where [they] almost lose control of the idea,” said Machado – citing the award-winning Pride Wrapper, Google Home hack and the McWhopper challenge as three of their latest viral campaigns which delighted customers the globe over. Deliberately audacious, their point wasn’t to try to change the world – it was to hijack a cultural moment, empower customer imagination, and kick-start conversations and brand interactions nobody could predict.

Creative doesn’t equate to complicated either. “The key briefs we have are one-liners,” Machado revealed.

6. Your people are your best assets

Robots may be set to become a more visible and active part of the customer experience. But a business is still powered by decisions made by people. Building teams that advance and espouse their organisation’s vision is as fundamental as it was a century ago. The team itself, however, looks different.

This takeaway rung out a clear chime across keynotes over both forum days. Silos were collectively primed for demolition in favour of agile, dynamic, autonomous and collaborative groups. Rather than operating separately, departments that share information and complement each other’s skill sets are also going to do wonders to company process and efficiencies.

When it comes to hiring individuals, humility, empathy, flexibility and the ability to learn fast were put forward as the most desirable traits of the ideal modern worker. In other words, these are employees capable of upskilling when required (even in areas of non-expertise), adopting unfamiliar perspectives, and being able to understand business strategy on both a micro and macro level.

For this structure to truly come into itself, however, a company needs to overhaul its own thinking. Rather than a traditional ‘knowing culture’ – which relies too much on presumption – they must institute a ‘learning culture’ – with the user at the core.

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About Kate Prendergast: Kate Prendergast is a Content Producer at Mahlab. She strategically smashes out insights and case studies for the company website, and does her insuperable best to make the most of free pens, coffee and calamari at marketing conferences. In her down time, she reads Nabakov, blogs about bees, fan girls over Mark Ritson and Werner Herzog, and creates mildly disturbing art under the alias name Tenderhooks. She has renounced all social media except – to her overwhelming horror – LinkedIn. Redemptively, her network remains small.

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