Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Anna Hickey: Stop transforming. Start learning.

Anna Hickey is Wavemaker Global Client President and Global Consultancy Lead and NDA’s new monthly columnist. Anna has teamed up with Wavemaker’s Global Head of Applied Innovation Sarah Salter, who will be writing the column on alternate months.

Anna and Sarah are part of NDA’s new columnist roster and we are excited and humbled to have them join us.

As well as leading some of Wavemaker’s most dynamic client accounts within entertainment, luxury, CPG and others, Anna heads up the agency’s Global Consultancy to help clients unlock transformative growth through new marketing channels, data, tech and organisational design.

Most CEOs have thought about transformation in the last five years. In 2023, PWC’s Annual Global CEO survey pointed out the challenge of maintaining existing business operations while reinventing them to protect future economic sustainability. But, as the survey also finds, most CEOs admit to not spending much time on transformation. Why?

Plunge to your death or spin out of control?

Most game show fans will recall the Squid Game challenge where contestants step their way across a glass-tiled bridge, at each step finding that only one tile is safe while the adjacent tiles shatter and take them dangerously close to plunging to their peril in the depths below.

I wonder whether transformation can feel a bit like that. We know there’s a pathway to something better, but the passage is riddled with risk, and so we think it might be safer to stay put.

The other common fear is that once you start transforming, the momentum, velocity and direction of the change will escalate beyond your control. Like leaping out of a plane, onto a rollercoaster and hoping to land in a seat with your safety harness secured.

Neither scenario needs to be true when it comes to Marketing Transformation.

It’s not hard to see why CMOs feel a resistance to transform. They are increasingly facing shorter tenures and are under enormous pressure to deliver tangible in-year returns. Signing up to a transformation programme that is unlikely to yield significant growth in the short-term and requires new investment or reallocation of budgets from known into unknown growth levers, feels far from compelling.

But just like in the Squid Game challenge, a systematic learning-based approach is the key to unlocking the right pathway. Mapping the steps and the connections between them manages the risk, balances the investments and ensures growth returns can be tracked perpetually rather than finally.

A six-step guide to successful transformation

A popular transformation goal in marketing over the past three-five years has been to become more ‘data-driven’. This may mean moving from linear communications, that build reach and engagement during defined campaign periods, to initiatives that create ongoing connected brand experiences and where a consumer’s attention is valued and rewarded with enriched content, bespoke brand immersions and ongoing better brand value.

That makes sense – but how does one go about moving, in a managed way, to the data-driven future state?

Transforming to become data driven requires a multi-stage roadmap of growth programmes. You will need a technical infrastructure mapped to ensure collected data can be stored and processed efficiently and compliantly; a strategic data partnership and acquisition approach across first, second and third party data and, critically, a means of valuing that data and the revenues needed to make the investment worthwhile.

You’ll need enriched audience profiling and mapping, a platform-led media strategy, content strategy, audience decision trees and a content management platform. As well as a clear test and learn matrix and a measurement ecosystem where learning can be captured, codified and reapplied. It’s quite likely that you’ll also need a capabilities audit across your own marketing team and a change management programme to ensure their buy-in, accountable personal goals and an ongoing upskilling agenda to scale transformation over time.

After all this: Are you ready to leap in? I completely understand if you are not. The only way to start is to start systematically. Here’s a useful checklist of steps to get you going:

  1. Define the growth goal. No business can pivot from legacy ways to a transformed future state in one big leap. The critical thing is to start with a clear articulation of the transformational growth goal, quantified, so that the size of the opportunity will make good sense to stakeholders, and you can secure investment and support.
  2. What are the gaps? You need to know what is missing in your current state – are you set up for transformation as a business, where are you ahead and where are you behind, are there gaps in capability, process, infrastructure or culture? The size of the gaps you identify, will decide how far and fast you can move.
  3. What are your key growth territories? Identify the big buckets of opportunity, or growth territories, which resolving the gaps will unlock. If you want to become more data-driven, your growth territories may include building a future-fit tech and data infrastructure; personalising the consumer brand experience; and building ecosystems that will turn brand experience into conversion.
  4. Map and prioritise. Create a list of actions for each growth territory. Then map all the actions on a matrix using ‘effort’ and ‘reward’ as the axes. Prioritise actions that give high reward for the least effort.
  5. Define the learning agenda. Define what you need to learn at each step within the programme before you can move on. What are the KPIs and outcomes that will determine success? Do you have the measurement approach and data sources needed to deliver the learning and, if not, how will you build or source them?
  6. Identify stakeholders. Who are the key internal and external stakeholders for the programme? Build your business case to address each of them. Clarify how they contribute to successful execution and at what stage you need their input. Make your commitment clear: to them, to the learning-based approach and to the measurable outcomes of the programme. This makes ongoing investment easier.

Planning the journey step by step, with each step connected to a learning opportunity, will turn stagnation into meaningful progress. You might not see every stage clearly at first, but committing to a specific result each time you move forward, will give confidence, help prioritise and keep budget-holders engaged. Before you know it, you’ll be transforming.