Why the recovery can’t be about “growth at all costs”

Greg Kelly has spent over three decades helping global consumer and retail companies raise their ambitions and accelerate growth transformations. This August, he became the global leader of our Marketing & Sales Practice. A married father of four who lives in Atlanta and grew up in Virginia and Kentucky, Greg has spent his career focusing on helping clients grow and outperform in the consumer sector.

We spoke with him to learn more about his background, how he thinks about growth now and in the future, and what McKinsey is doing to help clients get there in a sustainable and inclusive way.

Tell us a little about your background and how it has shaped you.

Education has always been a priority for my family. My grandfather was a student in a one-room schoolhouse in Appalachia. He saw firsthand the way that education could change lives, and he dedicated his life to that mission. He worked as a school superintendent in Virginia for 46 years. My father followed in his footsteps. He was a college professor, and he served as president of a women’s university.

I see education the same way they did. Good education empowers and mobilizes people. It gives people choices and opportunities to pursue their desired professions and, most importantly, it enables growth—both on an individual and macro level. Investments in education and training programs that teach and reinforce people’s skills increase workforce participation, decrease unemployment, and upskill workers.

Family is another passion of yours. What’s a lesson from them you bring to your client work?

Greg Kelly and family
Greg, top left, with his family.
Greg Kelly and family

Understand aspirations before you rush to advice and solutions. I have a son more passionate about tech company rivalries than sports rivalries, a daughter with a computer science degree who’s pursuing priesthood, a highly-creative daughter exploring a career in marketing, and a transgender son focused on animal welfare and human rights who’d like to be a veterinarian.

I have learned from them to search for what gives them real meaning and purpose and to help them prioritize their pursuits for getting there no matter how different they may be from my wife or me, or each other.

We often refer to a poem in our home that advises parents to give children “roots and wings.” For me, roots are what your values are, where you come from, and wings enable you to go off and achieve your dreams. Similarly, with clients, my focus is on listening to them, understanding their context, helping them set their aspirations, and then getting specific on how they can achieve them.

How does McKinsey think about helping clients grow?

Being an impact partner for our clients today means helping them fuel their recoveries, which will restart our economies and in turn speed the world’s recovery. But this isn’t about growth at all costs; sustainable and inclusive growth requires understanding how the future of communities and the environment are deeply intertwined and understanding how driving social equity and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive.

In today’s transparent world, consumers understand just how much of an impact companies have on the environment and society. And so, companies with a relatable purpose that is authentic to their heritage are the ones that resonate most for consumers.

We’re thinking hard about how we can help our clients grow and make an impact that transcends the bottom line and improves communities and the environment. How can they help their people develop and reskill where necessary? How can they not just cut emissions but restore, renew, and replenish the environment? These questions are top-of-mind for the CEOs I serve now.

What’s the most exciting trend in marketing and sales right now?

Selling direct-to-consumer (DTC). Consumer decision journeys—what, how, where and when they buy, and how they interact with a brand post-purchase—have been completely upended throughout the pandemic. Seventy-five percent of consumers have tried new digital behaviors. E-commerce sales penetration in the United States more than doubled to about 35 percent in 2020 from around 16 percent the previous year, the equivalent of roughly ten years of growth in a few months.

All this accelerated growth has driven our clients to move. Consumer-facing brands are looking to connect with consumers in a more personalized way at scale. Business-to-business (B2B) digital commerce is also undergoing a major transformation as buyers have flexed to remote and digital ways of engaging. Eight in ten B2B leaders say that omnichannel is just as or more effective than traditional methods.

To connect directly with its customers, B2B leaders are completely changing their go-to-market approach by building new DTC models at record speeds. For example, one company we worked with stood up a new DTC model in a matter of months, which would typically have taken years. And more companies are innovating their sales approaches and allocating resources at speeds not experienced before using a hybrid sales model.

The growth triple play: Creativity, analytics, and purpose

The growth triple play: Creativity, analytics, and purpose

Lastly, where and how do you see CEOs driving transformative growth in 2022?

Uncertainty is the new certainty. While there is no playbook for this kind of disruption, there are courses of actions leaders should be considering and planning.

From a marketing and sales perspective, with inflation rising, the most important immediate action is to strengthen value propositions and plan for 2022 price increases. Our assessments show that inflation will abate but not evenly across commodities and companies. Companies need to have 2022 aspirations that address the increase and go beyond relying on discounts and promotions by putting the customer front and center.

Second, leaders need plans to accelerate ahead of the digital and e-commerce shift. Too many companies are still trailing, waiting for it to become more significant. Consumers increasingly expect the same type of digital engagement and fulfillment as they experience in their personal lives, and most suppliers are not delivering it.

Finally, leaders are strengthening what we call full-funnel marketing—an approach that combines brand building and performance marketing. While virtually every company has opportunities to continue to improve their performance marketing, which relies on granular data and predictive analytics, our work shows that it has to be complemented with a focus on building awareness and brand love.

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