CMOs have a golden opportunity for a braver, more influential 2021

“Danger is something to lean into,” said the effervescent Ed Smith, General Manager Integrated Marketing EU at Amazon, during The Marketing Society's Brave Get Together last week. A comment that really struck a chord with me as we once again leant into lockdown 2 in London.

We were talking about key moments from his career and how he learned to recognise when to grab hold of opportunities. His answer, in my humble opinion, having advised and placed many of our industry’s finest CEOs, is the sign of a true leader, someone who accepts the challenge that at times you need to be “first man/woman in.” When something scares you just enough -- that’s exactly the time to lean in.

“You know when life is calling on you to be brave...You know it’s a real opportunity when you feel danger,” he said. “Don’t always run away.”

There’s a difference, Smith noted, between something that is truly dangerous (like, say, a lion that is chasing you) and something that feels risky, but also potentially thrilling and rewarding. That’s when you know you’re onto something. For example, Smith recalled getting tapped to run DMB&B in Beijing. He was just 28 and was pretty sure he wasn’t ready for such a big role. He also knew he had to grab it.

So many marketing executives find themselves at a similar juncture at the moment

We all know how disruptive the pandemic has been for nearly every industry, and we’ve read umpteen stories about how COVID-19 has accelerated multiple trends. Now, as we head into 2021, companies find themselves in existential crisis mode, rethinking everything from the ground up. They are going to need lots of help. Indeed, the next year’s volatility provides CMOs with a golden opportunity. Simply put - marketers have always wanted more influence in their organisations.

Now they’ve got it - if they dare to take hold of it. Think about it: CEOs urgently need help in figuring out what consumers want, and they need data to help them prove out their fluctuating business models. Their advertising experiences are intertwined with their digital experiences - and their digital experiences are increasingly their core businesses.

Given their comfort with analytics, real time marketing, diving into what’s new and building digital products - they are best equipped to help. 

Time to lean into the danger

Historically of course, during times of uncertainty or economic crisis, many brands stick with what they know. They go with what works and don't take chances. But this is not the year to just ride things out, or to cautiously test and learn. Indeed, a pandemic is not your average recession. It’s tectonic. So, what worked in the past is not going to work now, and certainly not in the post-COVID future. 

Marketers need to take risks on new products, new media strategies and new pricing models. Annual plans don't need to be thrown out, but they need to be rewritten, and then rewritten again and again. The biggest risk is not to push forward. One only need look at brands that were bold before all this happened and have evolved even faster during the pandemic. 

For me, right now I’m taking some inspiration from big media, who are literally putting lucrative business models on the line because they know they have to lean into streaming and become true direct-to-consumer businesses. It’s nail biting, but it’s more precarious to simply hope things go back to the way they were. If not now, when?

Of course, while we embrace speed and data and new ways of working, we can’t forget the broader context of the moment. As much as the broader shifts toward mobile shopping and streaming and direct connections with consumers are exciting, we can’t forget that many people are struggling - with everything from lost income to anxiety to general uncertainty and pandemic fatigue.

Not every consumer is going to have the same level of disposable income, or the same appetite for risk as in the past. No one can be sure where 2021 will net out - and the only guarantee is constant change.

Smith said Amazon - like many brands this year - was forced to map out plans for a range of different scenarios: long lockdowns, sporadic pivots, etc. He expects most CMOs will have to operate this way for much of next year.

The same goes for our teams at the moment

Smith spoke about how he’s had to balance managing extroverts who are desperately missing being around colleagues and introverts who can't bear another Zoom chat. More importantly, he’s tried to recognise the strain people are under and how that colors a manager’s expectations.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t as good at motivating,”  he said. “We were so on task."

Now, rather than pushing or critiquing employees, Smith said he tries to “catch people doing something right.” I’ve tried to embrace this myself by continually reminding people how brilliant they are. That goes for my CMO friends, as well, who’ve wanted to show just how ready they are to help shape their company’s direction.

It might feel dangerous. And that’s a good sign.

“Things come along in life before you’re ready for them,” Smith said. The best moments in your career happen when you find yourself “taking off more than you can chew, and then chewing like hell.”

They say “fortune favours the brave” and as we face into the turn of this unbelievable year let us collectively scoop up all our courage and bravery and encourage each other to take an ambitiously brave bite of the opportunities awaiting us.



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