The marketing recipe for growth: Creativity, data, and relationships

Research into the effects of marketing on growth is revealing some positive surprises about the benefits of creativity and the level of CEO support for the marketing function.

Does marketing really work? We each have our favorite ads or campaigns, but for all the magic a skillfully crafted initiative produces, does it help a company grow?

That question helped kick off a multiyear partnership with the Cannes Lions Festival, leading to more questions and plenty of interesting findings. Now that the 65th Cannes has wrapped up, it’s a good time to take a look back and see what we’ve learned and how it all fits together.

Creativity’s business impact is real

Our research began in 2017 with a basic question about the business value of creativity. Every marketing organization wants more of this elusive and ineffable quality—and the buzz it creates—but little data exists on whether creativity really matters to business performance. To fill this void, we developed a proxy for creativity based on 16 years of data on Cannes Lion awards: the Award Creativity Score (ACS). Our results showed that companies with high ACS scores, i.e., a pattern of frequent and diverse Cannes Lion awards, also demonstrated above-average financial results. Some 76 percent of companies with top-quartile ACS scores had above-average organic revenue growth and 70 percent had above-average total return to shareholders. While there isn’t a straight-line path between climbing the podium at Cannes and out-innovating one’s competitors, there’s an undeniable link between highly creative marketing, the cultural and organizational practices that support it, and business performance.

Companies that perform well on the Award Creativity Score tend to outperform on financial metrics.
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Why is this? One explanation involves the erosion of brand loyalty. In almost 90 percent of categories, consumers are not loyal to their usual brands, and almost 60 percent will switch when considering a new purchase. Consumers, in other words, are increasingly making quick, impulsive buying decisions rather than sticking to past habits or tried-and-true brands. In this context, alluring campaigns can be a key to influencing consumers in the important moments of initial consideration.

The most-creative companies (based on ACS) do several things differently than their peers:

  1. They “hardwire” creativity and innovation into their culture and daily habits. This can include above-average spending on marketing (as a percentage of sales), giving employees a clear vision and accompanying narrative about what the company believes in, and regularly incorporating topics around creativity and innovation in C-suite and/or board meetings.
  2. They are customer fanatics, going beyond standard research methods such as surveys and focus groups and relying on multiple sources— advanced analytics, ethnographic research, behavioral analysis—to understand customers intimately.
  3. They have a need for speed. They know translating insights into quick action affords a clear competitive advantage. Some 11 percent of top-quartile companies say “risk taking is encouraged” internally, which might seem low, until you consider that none of their peers say this.
  4. They understand it’s adapt or die. Top-performing companies see a launch as just the beginning of a process of using customer feedback for continuous improvement. Nearly two-thirds of the people working at companies in the ACS top quartile agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations were able to learn from early market signals, as opposed to fewer than half at other firms.

Data doesn’t dampen the soul of creativity; it sets it on fire

“Data and creativity” have always formed an uneasy alliance in marketing. Even in the age of data analytics, some marketers continue to worry that too much emphasis on cold, hard data risks killing the art of innovation. This fear, though understandable, is unfounded. In our second study, in 2018, we showed that the best marketing organizations don’t just embrace data; they intertwine it with creativity in an equal and holistic partnership, using analytics to help direct creative output, for example, by identifying customer opportunities, delivering personalized communications, and testing outcomes. These “integrators,” as we call them, are more creative, not less. They are also more successful at driving growth, increasing their revenues at twice the average rate of their peers.

Marketers who integrate creativity and data drive more growth.
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Instead of siloing analytics in a separate, adjacent process, integrators merge data and creativity through an agile marketing operating model. In this scenario, customer experience (CX) experts and content and creative leads, for instance, might work side-by-side with data scientists, jointly mining data for insights about customers’ brand perception and engagement. This unlikely pairing is a win-win: by immersing themselves in the data, designers find inspiration about how to connect more effectively with consumers, while analytics experts move beyond the numbers to understand the motivations of actual customers, often leading to new ideas and better solutions. Over a 12-month period, the integrators in our study were twice as successful as the companies we call “isolators” (those with similar data-driven marketing maturity but no integration) at increasing their speed to market for campaigns or marketing experiments. Integrators weave this data/creativity power combo into all functions across the marketing value chain, from brand strategy and consumer insights to customer experience, from product and pricing to content, creative development, media—even measurement.

Data-driven creativity scores
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To be successful, marketing can’t be an island

Most of the elements of successful marketing happen within the marketing department: advertising, brand building, segmentation, personalization, CRM, etc. But a CMO can’t deliver marketing-led growth to the company on her own. Without the support and resources of the CEO and the rest of the C-suite, even the most-elegant data-backed personalized marketing strategy can struggle to make it off the ground. To really unlock growth, companies have to think in terms of “marketing with a capital M,” going beyond traditional marketing to a model in which diverse areas of the organization—from sales and product innovation to finance, technology, and HR—participate in marketing’s success and see themselves as co-owners of its mission.

Our 2019 research found that a marketing organization’s ability to drive growth depends heavily on whether conditions are in place for the CMO to have collaborative relationships with other members of the C-suite. Not all CMOs are created equally. High growth companies are seven times more likely to have what’s called a Unifier CMO—someone who unites different functions of the business and fosters strong, productive partnerships with her C-suite peers—than the more secluded archetype, Loners.

Today’s CMOs break into three different archetypes.
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Unifier CMOs spread marketing’s agenda in several ways. They purposely create symbiotic relationships by adopting the language and mind-set of other executives and by articulating marketing’s business case in a way that inspires confidence. Instead of staying narrowly in their lane and defining marketing as a communications function, they sit down with other executives to establish a shared vision and mutual accountability for broad challenges and initiatives. Unifier CMOs succeed at this either because they are exceptional change agents or because they’ve had organizational and cultural encouragement to practice cross-functional collaboration. Often it’s both.

Key Unifier CMO relationship-building traits
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In exchange, Unifiers get wide runways— often more expansive than they realize—for implementing new creative initiatives and achieving bold objectives. From CEOs, they get help and support for near-term efforts and long-term brand building; from CFOs, the confidence in marketing’s investment case; from CTOs, the resources and expertise to build world-class data and marketing platforms; and from CHROs, a partner in recruiting a new generation of whole-brained talent to fuel marketing’s success.

Among the more surprising takeaways from this study is the level of support CEOs already provide to marketing, even at companies with Loners and Friends (CMOs in between Loners and Unifers). Some 77 percent of CEOs say marketing is not just the brand or advertising arm of the business but a major driver of growth for the company (although, since nearly a quarter of CEOs believe marketing isn’t delivering on growth, there’s still room for improvement).

With this kind of enthusiasm, there’s arguably never been a better time to be a CMO or part of a marketing organization. Marketers now have to give themselves permission to aim high. “Anecdotally, we always knew CEOs were believers in marketing, but we never realized just how much support was being left on the table,” said Jason Heller, McKinsey partner and global lead for Digital Marketing Operations & Technology. “If CMOs are willing to take the growth mantle and run with it, unifying the C-suite while driving creativity and building world-class execution capabilities, the sky is really the limit.”

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