Recentralizing Digital Marketing

The design of a global organization would appear to be a dreary exercise in org charts and bureaucracy. The rise of the multi-national conglomerate in the 1970s in a pre-fax era, made decentralization a necessity. But does decentralization lead to chaos, redundancy, and loss of control?  Bear with me, as I believe it does for the simple reason that the very nature of digital marketing is its capability to be managed, executed, measured and optimized from a single point, a function that revels in the fact that technology destroys distance and time zones. What remains is localization and translation and little else.

In the lobby of International Data Group, Pat McGovern’s global IT publishing operation, Pat’s ten guiding principles included a bullet point about putting control out in the countries, a necessity when he realized his own travels and capacity made him a bottleneck to getting things done in a company, that among other things, was one of the first to establish an operation in China prior to the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms. McGovern drastically decentralized a company focused on information technology, putting P&L and operational control in the hands of his country managers. The results spoke for themselves in the 1980s when IDG was a publishing giant. But by the time I arrived in 2005 it was evident to me that the strategy exposed some flaws, flaws that the current CEO Bob Carrigan took steps to merge through a “federation” project to combine the company’s massive customer databases into a single monolith.

Carrigan’s insight was that IDG’s customers — the marketers seeking to leverage its insights into corporate information technology buyers — really didn’t care if the country manager of ComputerWorld Russia was sharing his circulation database with the country manager in India. Hence IDG Connect was created, a merger of those databases into a coherent single powerhouse.
Database and lead generation consolidation is only one part of the process of bringing the disconnected back to the center. As publishers made the transition from print to digital, their production systems moved from mechanical presses located closest to the reader, to content management systems, feed managers, and metrics capabilities that could, thanks to the world-is-flat phenomenon of TCP/IP standardization to a single set of standards. Publications running WebTrends vs. SiteCatalyst vs Interwoven vs. Vignette under one corporate umbrella is a recipe for utter chaos. Indeed, as any management consultant will tell you, the most difficult part of post-merger integration in finance, media, what have you is the bridging of incompatible technologies into one cost effective solution.

The centralization of technical systems to provide a unified customer experience is a given, but after more than four years inside of a Fortune Global 100 brand, I have come to conclude that the customer/client has the same ugly issues to confront is a post-decentralized world.

A few anecdotes on client side centralization, random, but in my mind linked:
  • Singing from the same page: Lou Gerstner, the former chairman of IBM, tells the story in Elephants can Dance about bringing in Chief Marketing Officer Abby Kohnstamm. She gathered the giant’s marketing executives in Armonk in a conference room ringed with examples of the chaos the company was inflicting on the world with out of sync advertising campaigns. She knocked heads together, revoked the right for anyone with a bright or “better idea” to execute it, and got the company singing on the same page with Ogilvy & Mather’s brilliant eBusiness campaign.
  • Where is it written?: Marketers may have certain “unalienable” rights, but as one very smart marketer at Coca-Cola told me at a Google Marketing Advisory board meeting, where in hell is it written that a country manager in Uzbekistan has the right to her own 30 second spot? Consistency is everything, this is not to say that localization is needed and warranted, but permitting the edges of a brand to dictate what their web presence looks like on any given day, other than to reflect some sensitivity to local culture and mores is insane in my mind.
  • Web: to quote Tolkien: “ One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” That ring, being of course, the most Precious of all brand assets, the corporate web site. Here is where the brand begins and launches the customer — existing or prospective — into the brand experience. Operating a global brand web infrastructure makes centralization mandatory. From content management to translation and verification, the notion that a brand would not present the same digital face globally is insane, yet …. I think (fodder for another post) that large corporate brand sites are hopelessly screwed for the most part. Done in by internal politics until they are link fests satisfying internal owners, but doing little in terms of supporting a unified customer experience.
  • Microsites: where brands go to die. This is the classic manifestation of marketing going off the rails and into the weeds of inconsistency. First off,the behavior to acknowledge is every one is a web designer and everyone is a creative director. Everyone wants to take lunch with the rep from Google and feel part of the cool-kid club. The local agency proposes a “Twist” on the new campaign and next thing you know you’re sending traffic to a microsite with no tagging, no metrics, nothing but the latest Flash bling and a check mark in the campaign cookbook. Sure, it’s a bitch to get the temple priests running the corporate Web Vatican to build custom pages. Templates and corporate style guides are the anti-Viagra of innovation, but do you really want to find out that the brand is being lit up on some disconnected set of pages dictated by the aesthetics of a junior marketing manager in Moscow.
  • Outposts: Facebook to Twitter, Orkut to Flickr — brands are falling over themselves to establish a presence on the highest populated social networks and sharing services. First: you can’t be everywhere, second, this is where the real chaos is occurring. Some bright young marketing professional in a far flung country is just dying to practice his social networking chops, so up goes a Facebook fan page, a country Twitter account — and the brand has yet another outpost to manage and keep consistent with the messaging emanating from headquarters.

That last point, the chaos caused by third-party services and over-eager local teams is where brands are feuding internally. Unless there are consequences and an iron-fisted CMO like IBM’s Kohnstamm, global brands will continue to kill themselves from within trying to defer to the edges in the belief that there is where the creativity lies. Sorry, in digital your brand crosses country sites. That killer product you only sell through one channel? Well good luck concealing it from a Chinese consumer who wants to know why they can’t get it at their local dealer. The very fact that everything is a click away from everything else makes the artificial silos and pigeon holes of marketing management an utter and complete fiction.

Next up: a modest proposal on how to, in the words of McKinsey’s Dick Foster, “Loosen control without losing control” in a global digital marketing world.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

One thought on “Recentralizing Digital Marketing”

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