10 Sep 2015 17:47 IST

Balance of power has shifted from brands to customers, says SapientNitro’s global CTO

Sheldon Monteiro explains how companies are coping with digital disruptions in the marketing world

Search, social, and mobility are three things that have shifted the balance of power from brands to customers, says Sheldon Monteiro, global Chief Technology Officer of digital marketing and advertising firm SapientNitro. Monteiro was recently in Delhi and spoke to BLonCampus about digital disruptions in the world of marketing and how companies are coping with it. Excerpts from the interview:

It has become essential for marketers to know how technology works nowadays, what’s your view?

Your observation is right. In January this year The Economist’s intelligence unit did a fairly robust survey and asked 500 marketers around the world what are the skills needed as a marketer. Digital technology and marketing technology were at the top of the list. Things like creativity and advertising were at the bottom. Not because those things have become less important in the grand scheme of things, but from a priority standpoint: the ability to understand the power of technology and data, and how that has changed the face of marketing, is crucial.

Digital has driven consumer behaviour. When consumers interact with brands today it starts with search, it starts with social and mobile; and if you don't understand how consumers use these media you are essentially not connecting with them.

How are marketers dealing with this new digital world?

What we are seeing increasingly nowadays is the rise of a new role, the chief marketing technology officer. You can look at a CMTO as an individual capable of bridging the worlds of marketing and technology.

It's not enough to bring technologists into marketing, you actually have to have somebody who spans the disciplines and is deeply involved. He/she should get technology as much as she gets creativity and marketing.

The reason is simple; the world of IT has, for a decade now, been about risk reduction and doing things that have been done before. Every CIO is interested in how they can reduce risk.

On the other hand, the whole premise of marketing is to be differentiated. It is about having a unique brand proposition that makes you special to your customers and as a result you are looking for innovation. You are looking for creative thought, you are looking for things that break the mould and breach boundaries. So, sometimes if you go to IT and take your traditional, best technologists, you are essentially getting people who are low on risk taking.

You have to have this new breed of technologists that actually ‘has’ what it takes to build scale and to innovate, and who gets the world of marketing. Marketers are looking for this kind of talent and it’s in relatively short supply.

Has mobile been the real disruptor in the Indian digital landscape?

At the macro level, you are looking at search, social and mobility as three things that have shifted the balance of power from brands to customers. Today, customers don't learn about brands from advertising. Their first piece of awareness might come from advertising but very quickly when it moves to the consideration set, you are asking your friends about it on social networks, you are going to your favourite search engine — most likely Google — to know what's being said about this brand.

And even when you are in a venue you are researching the product or service and seeing if what they are saying about it is true. If you don't like your experience with the brand you will be more than comfortable tweeting about it or putting it up on Facebook and telling your friends about it. That balance of power is a huge shift.

While interaction and engagement with a brand have become real-time, at the same time the distractions have been too many. How can a brand enjoy that top-of-mind-awareness like the good ol' days?

The role of creativity in all this is as true today as it has been for decades. It still requires ideas and creativity in order to be relevant in a social conversation and there are brands doing an awesome job of it. For instance, take feminine hygiene products by P&G. Look at the work P&G has done with #LikeAGirl campaign. It is a brilliant creative but what you might not know is that the technology it takes to actually target such campaigns requires tremendous data science inputs.

So, here you have Michelle Obama and millions of other people tweeting about that campaign and it is truly making a difference because it hits a cultural nerve. That said, the role of great advertising and great communication will always involve creativity.

What technology does is it amplifies that creativity because now you can figure out the exact time and place to surface those tweets. It is about taking a creative idea and multiplying its power.

Then, of course, there are experiences which are, these days, completely empowered by technology, whether it’s in-person experience by sales or customer service people or a mobile application. Today, Amazon is worth more than Walmart — it is a classic manifestation of the fact that technology used to empower brands and now it's really about empowering customers. Walmart was great at supply chain technology; today, Amazon is more valuable because it uses technology to empower its customers, not the supply chain experience. Yes, they do supply chain but it’s fundamentally about the customers.

How can companies compete in a digital world?

All the companies have realised, with technology empowering customers, that digital disruption is happening at a crazy pace. So, every CEO I speak with is really concerned about the competition that may come outside of their normal competitors. They are worried about being Ubered, NetFlixed, or AirBnBied. These were not traditional competitors. It is not a question of big eating small anymore. You can't rely on size and media budgets to win. It is about ‘can you really rebuild your company to be focused around your customer, and can you move with the speed of a start-up’.

Now it is a question of fast eating the slow. It is tremendously disruptive for the companies that have relied on size and scale in order to win. To be able to win big, companies will have to change their ways of working to embrace the disruption, to be able to experiment, and to be able to drive real change.

What are the trends you look forward to in the marketing technology space?

There is a whole space of augmented reality and virtual reality that is flourishing right now. You will see some practical applications soon. It will start with gaming and will also be in entertainment. Perhaps some amount of commerce, when it starts coming into our homes.

Another space we can vouch for is cognitive computing — with the power of artificial intelligence we can look forward to the computer becoming capable of engaging in human-like conversations.