A CMO-CEO partnership to transform a company

Dorkas Koenen, the CMO for Dutch energy company Essent (an RWE business) explains how he and his CEO worked together to develop an organization focused on the customer.

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Highlights from the interview:

How my CEO helped me succeed

The first thing my CEO did when we began our transformation was to say, “Marketing has a cross-functional ambition, and it also has a cross-functional task, and the CMO is manager of the marketing skill pool.”  In other words, everyone whose job description has the word “marketing” in it will be managed by the CMO. That immediately gave me a strong base for acting in the organization.  

Working so closely with my CEO helped set the context for the success of the marketing transformation, in large part because he was so familiar with the company’s internal organization. He could read the company like a book. He warned me at the right time and place, “Hey Dorkas, look out. That will probably happen if you don't do that.”  

Trust is also fundamental. Not all the things that you do will immediately pay off. If you start repositioning a brand, the payoff will only come in six or even twelve months, but you have to make the investment decisions. 

Focusing on the customer

In an undifferentiated market, where there is so much pressure on the commoditization of the market, I believe it’s only when you are really customer focused that you can ensure your position in the market and build upon your market footprint. As a company, you have to believe in the fact that you can create additional value by putting more effort and more focus on the customer. I believe that nobody cuts himself to glory.

You can always improve how you service customers. Even when you think that you have reached a certain limit, there’s still room for improvement. For example, our process for onboarding new customers was previously quite complex. New customers would receive seven or eight letters from us with all kinds of conditional agreements and messages that were not really clear. So we cut down the process from seven steps to two, one of which was a letter and the other an email. 

We ended up saving on costs and eliminating an enormous amount of complexity, and succeeded in bringing in more customers. We increased our acquisition numbers between 30 and 35 percent.

Building trust based on speed and quick wins

A new CMO has to define the areas you’re going to transform on short notice and get them agreed upon with your CEO and the broader stakeholders in the company.  When we began a marketing transformation, I discussed with my CEO the areas I was planning to emphasize and what it was going to look like. We decided on the final program together. That ensured ownership on multiple sides of the table—not just my professional ownership, but also ownership at the top level of the company over how we should proceed. That gave my CEO and the leadership team confidence and more trust in what was happening.

You also have to ensure that you have space to maneuver, and that there’s a context agreed upon by everybody in which you can act as a CMO quickly. If you get speed on short notice, nobody will be able to block you further down the road. In addition, it’s important to prove your credibility through one or two activities that you can make the CEO proud of.  He will start advocating your story instead of your having to do it yourself, which will be much more powerful.  

Becoming the “glue” of the organization

If you start a marketing transformation, it’s important to convince others in the company that they have a role. You need trust in marketing from a very high level, so it’s important to share with the CEO, CCO (Chief Commercial Officer), or CFO what you are planning to do. Marketing is too often a little bit of a black box. You should bring people in across the organization and make them owner of the total program.  I think probably that was the most important thing that we did.

The CMO is often the glue in the organization, because you have to bring several initiatives, but also several perspectives together.  One example of how I helped to transform the business was related to our customer-centric initiative. Previously, the basic paradigm within Essent was that we decided what was good for the customer. Not that we made the decision for the customer, but there was a strong belief that we probably had to enable the customer to help make the right decision. 

Marketing helped ignite a paradigm shift that changed this thinking. This had to be translated across the entire organization, in terms of how we design processes.  What we changed is that we don’t decide for the customer, but we enabled the customer and we helped the customer decide, which makes the customer happy. We changed how we scripted our agents on the phone, how we managed our online footprint, and how we approached people when they entered our sales channel. 

This change really demonstrated the effect of marketing as the organizational glue. The CMO had to be the glue in the company, because we didn't own that paradigm shift.

A joint focus on new data talent

My CEO really pushed me to bring in new talent, both from inside the company and outside. He helped to assess all these people who came in. We ended up refreshing about 50 to 60 percent of the marketing staff during this transformation. 

Our greatest need in terms of talent was for data-driven marketers. We had a lot of traditional communications guys and product managers and people who were busy with trade marketing. We made a fundamental shift, and 30 percent to 35 percent of the marketing department now are data-driven marketers. They don't come from traditional marketing-oriented studies or job descriptions. They’re scientists or economists and come from the quantitative side.

We need researchers, people who are really able to dive into the details and look at data, because data are the source for differentiation in a commoditized market. In most marketing departments, their data-driven guys are more or less pushed away to the boundaries of the department, and they only get consulted if somebody needs to know something. My data-driven marketers are in the center of the steering model. They steer and guide the product-management department, the communications department, and our segment-oriented department. 

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