The Digital Dilemma | Building Core Capability

The Digital Dilemma | Building Core Capability

Leverage a 10 point plan for 'build, buy and partner' to deliver world class digital competency

Nick Fawbert

Consumer transformation in a digital era makes marketing practitioners the unwitting victims of an urgent crisis: we need to reframe our activities and repurpose our talent to find a new path to business growth.

Recognising the Challenge

It’s a digital 'revolution', and marketing divisions feel under attack from all sides. We have got in the habit of using the language of warfare throughout our industry, from objectives and strategy through assets to campaigns.

And for many practitioners committed to digital transformation, there are strategic parallels. As Donald Rumsfeld famously put it when discussing conflict:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”

This kind of confusion makes a good point: in a fog of a war like this one, we are on uncertain terrain.

We don't even know what we don't know about the impact of digital ecosystems on consumer behaviour.

Historically, traditional broadcast media dragged us into drawn out wars of attrition based upon heavy financial resources committed to 'creative' munitions with huge impact. The biggest budget and a spectacular TV commercial often won the day.

But the fact that it was the only way we could do it, doesn't mean it is the only way we should do it.

The digital ecosystem is an altogether new theatre, and history tells us that the application of legacy strategies is likely to fail at enormous cost.

We need new attitudes, approaches and strategies, but we have no existing case studies to guide us.

Getting it right in digital marketing means moving away from language based on 'customer conquest', to focus instead on empowerment and facilitation.

Creating New Purpose

Whilst marketing may be bogged down in established practice, modern management theory moved on a long time ago.

As far ago as 1965, by redefining profit as a by-product of success rather than the intrinsic objective, Peter Drucker (in ‘The Practice of Management’) reframed the purpose of a business:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

And as if by magic, marketing moved front and centre:

“Because it is the purpose to create a customer, any business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. These are the entrepreneurial functions. Marketing is the distinguishing, the unique function of the business.”

Digital marketing professionals are obliged to step away from traditional campaign planning into a new world of identifying and meeting consumer needs, and agile and innovative customer acquisition and development.

Build, Buy and Partner

A new approach commits us to new attitudes and new infrastructure:

  • Build on existing talent with retraining and redeployment
  • Buy new talent to enhance skills and capability
  • Partner and deploy third parties to fill gaps

It’s a situation that demands we redefine the business purpose for marketing from the outset: we need to know if existing or new colleagues are willing or able to focus on core business metrics, and relegate traditional activities like campaigns and execution to the support role they now occupy.

In the digital era, failing to meet this test creates instant redundancy.

It’s a painful tragedy that new strategies often require a new type of talent.

Setting Objectives

When drastic decisions loom, we are under pressure to establish and assess new needs and requirements.

A ten-step plan leverages a staged approach to digital capability assessment, from management oversight to specific competencies:

  • Marketing Transformation
  • Digital Strategy
  • Customer Relationship Management
  • Content Strategy
  • Platforms
  • Communications Strategy
  • Social Marketing
  • Search Marketing
  • Programmatic Marketing
  • E-Commerce
  • Analysis and Optimisation

It’s a list extensive enough to remind senior marketing practitioners that they’re stepping into unchartered waters.

It's also a big leap for traditional hierarchical team structures that relied heavily on the assumption of competence at the top.

Marketing leadership needs to embrace an uncertain world, where we may not actually understand the competencies we recruit into our teams!

Leverage Scorecards

When we can’t rely on our own experience and gut feel for judging competence, scorecards provide useful guidelines.

In addition to the suggestions below, it’s key that confidence in an employee’s initiative and commitment takes a leading role. Talent needs to demonstrate both authority and credibility in their specialised subject.

But more than ever, we need to trust them not only to identify new opportunities, but to assess them, package them and present them in ways that allow their department to take informed and calculated decisions.

Every member of the team, from the top to the bottom, needs the ability to take a leadership role.

Marketing Transformation

Digital transformation consolidates the marketing role to leverage new opportunities across the entire Marketing Mix:

  • Product
  • Price
  • Promotion
  • Place

Digital environments have redefined the notion of product and personalisation:

  • Products and services have become both virtual and flexible
  • Price points have become subordinate to fast moving trading platforms
  • Promotions have seen a rapid diversification of mechanics
  • Place has seen a pronounced shift from real to online environments

Insights into the impact of changes to the marketing mix, and the adapatability to devise new solutions become key skills to nurture and acquire.

Digital Strategy

Simple customer journeys remain a mainstay of digital strategy:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

What changes is how we translate these into action-based marketing strategies.

Where traditional media invested heavily to inspire product awareness through campaigns in broadcast media (and in the process delegated informational and transactional activities to retail teams), a digital strategy demands greater attention to meeting the needs of the customer throughout the purchase and post-purchase funnel:

  • Inspire
  • Inform
  • Engage
  • Interact
  • Transact
  • Empower

Traditional media remains uncontested in reaching out to, and inspiring customers to take an interest, but digital strategy has a greater role to play in signposting and facilitating the entire process.

Talent that grasps the bigger picture and the responsibilities that go with it are a critical asset.

Customer Relationship Management

It's still possible to use digital marketing as an extension of traditional marketing, using breadth and depth of reach to inspire broadcast awareness.

But the opportunity lies in leveraging the huge volume of data to offer staged relevancy and engagement:

  • Targeting
  • Context
  • Customisation
  • Personalisation

Insights into consumer media consumption, social conversations or search enquiries reveals both latent and expressed needs.

Insights into consumer motivation and their stage in the decision-making process offer the opportunity to deliver the right information and solutions just when the need is greatest.

So customer data, both for context and behaviour, is the ticket to success - and the creation of proprietary insights (owned data platforms) is the foundation for growth.

It is data that facilitates both the message and the signposting for digital communications and it's why CRM and data managment comes first in any digital transformation.

An understanding of data management, a willingness to generate, share and act upon data is a prerequisite for digital strategy.

Content Strategy

Despite the frustrations of legacy brand teams, big ideas about how products and services can meet both latent and expressed customer needs remain a vital foundation of brand communications.

What has changed is the way in which these messages are appropriated, tailored and delivered to customers in the right context.

The expectations of consumers in personalised digital environments are vastly different to those of broadcast media.

In conceptual terms digital moves creative communicators from a ‘research and execute’ model in traditional media (like a single big budget TV commercial), to a ‘test and iterate’ model in digital (like dozens of variations on a social media headline).

In practical terms it’s no longer effective for brand planners to cling tightly to an inspiring execution, they need to demonstrate how they can translate these messages to a few hundred characters, or an explainer article, a third-party review site or an engaging contest.

It's about exploring how CRM data guides us to...

  • Respond to a particular customer need
  • In a relevant environment
  • At a particular time

... to deliver a creative solution to a particular problem.

Flexibility with repurposing becomes a new creative skill.


The virtual world offers a host of customer engagement platform opportunities that transcend the binary media/retailer paradigm of traditional approaches.

From online publishers to comparison sites, from social media to personal blogs, from retail showcases to photo-sharing each platform demonstrates idiosyncrasies both in how messages are delivered and how they are received.

In turn these deliver consumers to centralised and decentralised retail environments, selling direct from the page, competitive listings, or right through to corporate direct-to-consumer facilities.

These experiences take place in small scale mobile environments, or stage managed PC widescreens.

The digital era demands that platform development skills shift from third parties back to the marketing department. Great marketing needs to both leverage and challenge these environments.

The ability to conceptualise the user experience and deliver required results are core competencies.

Communications Strategy

Digital strategy demands a transition from traditional brand positioning statements (who we are) to responsive vector based communications (what you need and where you can find it), offering customers a potential payoff, a signpost and the incentive to follow it.

You can find more detail about the new marketing communications narrative here.

It imposes a narrative structure on communications that is defined by the customer context:

  • Broadcast media messages that inspire customers to visit…
  • Publishing environments that inform their decision and prompt…
  • Social media discussions that challenge customers to approach…
  • E-commerce platforms to acquire products so that they can use…
  • Showcase platforms to demonstrate their allegiance and facilitate…
  • Sharing platforms that empower their friends and acquaintances supported by…
  • Customer dialogue that answer their questions

New narrative structures demand talent that can see the bigger picture, recognise and respond to specific customer contextual needs, and deliver the content to meet them.

Technical Disciplines

Social, Search and Programmatic marketing skills provide the technical support to communications strategy.

They demand a grasp not only of the overall marketing objectives and communications strategy, but the ability to implement them within unique environments to meet discrete objectives.

Each commercial ecosystem requires the ability to identify, define and leverage operational parameters that deliver the vector-based narrative customer experience the overall programme pursues.

Understanding how to translate diverse brand statements to niche environmental messages, and to exploit them to trigger consumer action, demands new skills both in technical insight and creative communications.


As the ultimate destination in any marketing strategy, retail capability is core to success.

Where bricks and mortar retailers provide their own staff to draw attention to new products or services, special offers and customer incentives, in digital that task is returned to brand side marketers.

Where traditional marketing is distant from the dynamism and hustle of retail sales, e-commerce demands insights into the psychology of decision making and the flexibility to deliver up-to-the-minute incentives.

It represents the transcendence of marketing from a bureaucratic backwater to the engine of growth.

Great talent needs to step up to the retail challenge.

Analysis and Optimisation

In the final assessment, digital strategies succeed because they are data driven activities.

The most important demands on marketing talent operating in digital environments are accountability and flexibility.

It’s often harder than it seems, and the desire to take short cuts based on anecdotal evidence is a hard habit to overcome.

A willingness and capability to seek out, understand and act upon the 'numbers’ is a ticket to success.

Seize the Day

Repurposing marketing teams from traditional to digital competencies is a hard-enough challenge on its own.

But digital marketing represents a fundamental change not only in technical capability, but in the focus of the business.

Getting started remains the biggest challenge, but just get going:

  • Reframe your marketing purpose
  • Establish your objectives
  • Diversify your thinking beyond media strategy
  • Establish your scorecard
  • Challenge your team

In the end, your success will rely upon your ability to leverage existing assets, identify gaps in capability, and either build, buy or partner to fill the gaps.

Make it happen!

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Nick Fawbert

Nick FawbertNick Fawbert

With 25 years in the media and marketing industry, and almost 20 of those in digital marketing, Nick is one of the most experienced practitioners in the Asia marketing industry. He is Founder and CEO of Mutiny Consulting.

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