Wall Breakers: Building a CIO–CMO partnership

The CMO–CIO relationship is one of the most important ones in companies today. One CIO describes how he makes it work.

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Highlights from the interview:

The nerd, the geek, and the suit

We can't do what we need to do with customer information and analytics without a very, very tight partnership. Even though I focus more on data and technology and my CMO focuses more on the customer and how we're going to deploy those capabilities to help in sales and service, it fits together so tightly that we jointly oversee and manage it. We participate in monthly steering committees, and we meet outside of that as needed and bring our teams together.

My CMO and I sometimes joke about building a cross-functional team by bringing together the nerd, the geek, and the suit—the statisticians and modelers, the people who have the expertise in data and systems, and the people who really understand the business dimensions.

It didn’t start out this way. But we reached a point where the project team would brag about the fact that you could no longer tell who was in IT and who was in marketing. That's where you need to get in order to be successful.

Building joint success on trust

If we’re implementing a new marketing campaign or doing things that we think are unique in the marketplace and will give us an advantage, there's obviously a need to keep those things under wraps. Historically, some of the marketing team would not want to bring IT under the tent, for fear of letting go of that confidentiality. We've developed a level of trust so they understand that, in order to make sure that we have a successful and secure rollout, we need to plan together and be more open and transparent, even if we need to contain it to a small group.

Two important things helped us bring the marketing and IT teams together. First of all, we needed to be clear about the outcomes we wanted. The teams were aligned around those goals and had to learn to measure their success as a team rather than independently. Secondly, we had to build relationships and trust. We were able to do team building through joint dinners and staff meetings, because most of the people who worked in these areas were located at our headquarters.

You need to get to the point where the success is a joint success and you don't try to point at what marketing did or what IT did. You look at what the customer information and analytics team accomplished together.

Turning customer insights into business value

One example that illustrates how to leverage customer analytics to create business value is what we call premium change notification. Marketing and IT worked very closely together to figure out which customers we should reach out to when their price or premium changes. In the past, agents would decide based on their intuition whether or not to reach out when a customer had a price change. Since we can't afford to contact everybody, we wanted to leverage analytical insights to help agents understand whom to contact. We created a sophisticated scoring model that was pretty counter-intuitive. We determined that we could actually hurt retention by contacting some people, but could increase retention by contacting others, and there were some in the middle.

It took a while to get people to actually trust the data, and we even used commissions to try to incentivize them. We heard, “I know my customers . . .  I've been in the sales game forever . . .  How could you know more about this than me?" But early on, we were able to get a few agents to try it. They saw the results and bought into it.

Essential traits of a successful CIO-CMO relationship

You have to have a shared agenda. You have to work together, trying to do what's best for the company, and you have to get beyond organizational boundaries and focus on shared outcomes and results.

Learning to bridge the language and culture gaps between IT and marketing has been interesting. Even within the marketing organization, there’s almost a culture divide these days. There are the historically creative types who grew up doing television and print advertising and the like, and a lot of that creative talent is still needed as you go through digital channels.

We still have challenges, because sometimes there are overlaps in accountabilities and turf battles—though not  with the creative types, because we come from different cultures. The best way we found to work through that is to actually get the teams to work together, to do joint planning, to get to know each other, and to build relationships. 

The recruiting challenge of a changing environment 

We're moving from a traditional web-based development environment to a mobile-first development environment. There’s a lot more demand for data and analytical work, for example, than for development of transaction-processing systems.

Getting people with the right skills who understand these technologies and know how to deploy them successfully is a big change for us. A lot of these trends reach beyond marketing. We're doing a lot more analytical work in finance and risk management and pricing, among other areas.

I recently hired a chief data officer from our marketing team. And our CMO recently put in place a marketing technologist who is the focal point for all the technology-based projects on his team. He understands enough about both marketing and IT that when the teams interface to work on how to deliver the large portfolio of projects we have together, he understands both teams.

Building a partnership with technology: advice for a CMO 

A new CMO should take the time to understand what drives the technology organization. Most IT organizations are held accountable for the quality and efficiencies of systems, and there is increasingly a huge focus on the data security or cyber security of those systems.

A lot of CMOs who didn't grow up in IT don't understand that they can innocently and unintentionally do things that put the technology and the company's data at risk. Marketing needs to work in partnership with IT, so that there aren’t data breaches or other serious problems. We’ve had some cases where well-intentioned marketing people have not known how to do the right things to protect the data, and we've done a great job of education and team building to bridge those gaps. The bottom line is that both the CIO and the CMO need to understand and be respectful of each other's agenda and drivers.

Balancing the need for speed with the demands of security

Marketing is frequently trying to move very, very quickly in response to changing customer or market dynamics. We have to try to get the speed at which we can deliver and the speed at which they need things to converge.

We’ve looked at alternate delivery models, for example using external partners where that makes more sense and is faster. We’ve also moved almost exclusively to agile development techniques for developing working systems much more quickly in tight collaboration with marketing.

I'm not saying it's always easy to close that speed gap. But if people understand what the drivers are and why it's important to move fast, hopefully the IT people get more flexible. And if the marketing people understand the real implications of things like cyber security and that their desire to move fast could come at the expense of the company by making some mistakes that could be very, very costly to our reputation, which they care a lot about, through mutual education and careful planning, you can deal with the speed issue.

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