What a difference a year makes

What a difference a year makes

What a difference a year makes. Whilst the venue of the 2014 Marketing Society Annual Conference may have been the same as a year ago, and many of the participants’ faces were the same, the marketing leadership agenda has most definitely moved on.

The theme of this year’s conference was #pressreset – a clear call-to-action that businesses must be ready, willing and able to transform themselves continuously if they are to maintain a rapid growth trajectory.  It’s far too easy to replicate a formula that brought you success in the past and miss the fact that the market has moved on.  As one speaker so succinctly put it: “We are often too busy looking for the expected, that we forget to look for the unexpected.”

We heard from several organisations who have taken the leap of faith that’s required to radically shake up your business model - and indeed your whole industry.  Sarah Sands from the London Evening Standard described the story behind the monumental decision to stop charging for the newspaper, and how this was supported by a fundamental change in editorial policy to adopt a more positive and inspirational tone.

Carolyn McCall from easyJet outlined the business change that has most dramatically shifted her customers’ attitudes to her service – the provision of allocated seating. It seems such a simple thing to us punters but required her to drive massive operational reform within her business. Fashion retailer Johnnie Boden fondly remembered the time when he finally realised that internet shopping was going to catch on, and Richard King from Ingenie described the way in which he is totally revolutionising the car insurance industry for the young drivers’ market.

All of these cases had one very clear thing in common – a relentless pursuit of what’s best for the customer ! Every one of these game-changing transformations was backed up by deep consumer understanding and a passion to make customers’ lives better. I was also struck by how well each one of these leaders had deeply ingrained their new vision into their corporate cultures. Companies are, after all, made up of an eco-system of human talent which has to be nurtured and brought along on the transformation journey.

Beyond the business case studies, there was an even richer source of inspiration running through the conference. Orit Wolf, the celebrated concert pianist, captivated the audience with stories and demonstrations of how she has to adapt her playing approach in real-time throughout every single performance. She described her task quite simply: “By following the rules (the music manuscript) but applying my own interpretation to everything I do, it’s the passion I put into the job which makes the difference to how well I perform.” This sounds to me like a great approach to transformational leadership.

It’s very clear that if you wish to RESET your business, you also have to be willing to RESET yourself. Several speakers explored the inner workings of the human mind. Psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who has worked with many sporting world champions, presented his model of human decision making – the Inner Chimp. In a rapid-fire delivery he made a very compelling case that we have to train ourselves hard to avoid making impulsive decisions that can easily derail our transformation agendas.

Rory Sutherland, from Ogilvy, also made an impassioned plea that we take a more sophisticated approach to understanding the complexity of human decision-making – applying this to become smarter in the way we map and measure our customers’ buying behaviours and the real impact that marketing has on business performance.

This conference did a brilliant job to reinforce something I firmly believe in - that a serious RESET needs a skilled and passionate change agent to drive it. Without bold leadership the necessary cultural shift will never happen.

There was no better example than the “RESET-meister” himself, Ben Ainslie, who brought the conference to a close. He almost single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the US sailing team in the last Americas Cup and delivered one of the greatest sporting come-backs of all time.  Now he’s turning his energies to bringing the cup back to the UK for the first time in over 100 years. If that doesn’t require inspirational leadership, I don’t know what does!

Read more from Steve in our Clubhouse.