Ruth Rowan, Chief Marketing Officer of Avanade talks to mClub’s co-founder Lorna Davidson about the CMO’s role as the driving force behind growth, the keys to being an effective leader, the challenges facing the marketing world now, and more.
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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- Ruth’s fruitful first year at Avanade and her keys to integrating effectively into a new organisation
- The role of the CMO as a primary driver of growth
- The fast-paced nature of marketing and how leaders must always be ready to adapt
- Generative AI taking the world by storm and what’s on the horizon
- Challenges marketers today are facing
- How to balance work and personal life
What does your company do?
Avanade is the world-leading provider of services in the Microsoft ecosystem. So essentially, for clients all around the world, who are adopting Microsoft or using Microsoft to run their businesses, we will help them deploy it. We will help them understand the roadmap to do that, but we’ll also manage and have it evolve for them over time. So that means, in health care, we’re helping use Microsoft to effectively deliver better patient care. In consumer goods, we’re helping move and develop products around the world in different ways, effectively helping all of our clients make a real human impact. And I love that it’s really about getting to understand how technology is transforming our clients’ worlds in all the different ways that it does. In fact, we’ve adopted that as our brand positioning in talking about doing what matters.
What is the role of the CMO in one word? Why?
So it’s really mean to make me choose one word, but if I had to choose one word, I’d choose the word ‘growth’. And growth is such a positive word, implying things changing in the organic world. It’s the beginning and start of the season. But for me, in business, growth is really the thing that implies that we are adapting to what’s going on in the marketplace and that marketing is helping an organisation evolve and respond to a change in markets, lining up and being able to provide services, products, and skills to that changing marketplace. That, ultimately, drives growth.
And interestingly, in marketing, we have so many different audiences that we look after and that we help an organisation respond to. But all of those things—whether it’s helping to recruit the best talent in the markets, providing services to our clients, or influencing the people that advise our buyers—ultimately, that all drives growth.
“But all of those things—whether it’s helping to recruit the best talent in the markets, providing services to our clients, or influencing the people that advise our buyers—ultimately, that all drives growth.”
You’ve just celebrated your first anniversary as the CMO of Avanade. What were some of your learnings and insights from the past 12 months?
Firstly, it’s been a privilege to join Avanade as their CMO. And as I hit a year, I did have an opportunity to reflect on three things. Firstly, it’s important to invest time in really understanding the business and building relationships. Secondly, it’s really important to articulate a clear vision. And keep repeating that. You can never spend too much time in articulating a vision. And then thirdly, prioritise a few things to change and then build momentum. You may have a list of 100 things, but prioritise a few things and build momentum around those few things.
What are your biggest marketing challenges at the moment?
I think, in our industry and in technology, there’s so much changing in our world. If I wind back just a year ago, we were just coming out of COVID. The world was beginning to come back to wanting more face-to-face contact. And in that year, gosh, that’s really dramatically changed. And it feels like that need to connect is back with a renewed vigor. If I go back to a year ago, nobody had heard of generative AI or ChatGPT. It’s what we were doing in the background in some of our pilot projects in our Emerging Technology Office, but it definitely wasn’t mainstream. It certainly wasn’t in the public domain. So even in my first year, so much has changed. So that kind of pace of change is always an opportunity but also a challenge in marketing. You can write a plan, but that plan is going to need to flex and change several times through the year.
But there are probably two things, reflecting, that are our big challenges at the moment.
One is data. It’s the same in every function in every industry in every organisation. There is so much data now at our fingertips. It’s being able to use that data and translate it into actionable insights. So we can do something with it. We become more relevant to our clients. We can present information to them in a way that is relevant at the right time for them that we can help our sellers with the relevant data so that they can do the right thing. That’s always going to be a challenge, using the data in our organisation to build a really intelligent marketing machine, particularly as we interface with our colleagues in other areas, such as sales.
The second thing, I think, is really interesting for me, personally, at the moment. It’s also thinking about the client experience and really being able to join the dots across multiple parts of our organisation that touch the client at different stages of the client journey and making sure that that is consistent and that we’re creating those magical moments, we’re demonstrating value, and we are providing relevance to our clients across all of those touch points. And most of those are not directly in control of marketing. So absolutely, we can control the client experience when they hit our digital channels on our website. But as soon as we go into things like how we contract with our client, how we deliver services, and how we celebrate ends of projects, it’s really thinking end-to-end around all of those touch points. And that, I think, is going to be the big differentiator in the B2B space, particularly in technology services, in the coming years.
How do you see some of the emerging technologies such as Generative AI changing the role of Marketing?
Generative AI is kind of the hot topic of the moment. Isn’t it as if the whole world feels like it’s talking about generative AI at the moment, including all of us as CMOs and those in the marketing space? So we’ve been really privileged in Avanade, because we are a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft, that we’ve been working with generative AI, large language models, and actually the emerging wider industry of artificial intelligence for several years. So I’ve had the privilege of being able to see behind the scenes of some of the work that our emerging technologies have been doing in pilot projects for some of our clients before the explosion at the beginning of 2023 into the public domain of ChatGPT. And I think what’s interesting is that there’s such a massive value around large language models and other generative AI for all functions. And so the first observation is that if you’re not thinking about it, and if I’m not thinking about it, then we will get left behind. There’s so much potential for these new technologies to effectively come in and really help us make better decisions more quickly, and get to a new level of delivery more quickly. So it’s like automation on speed. And so we’ve been talking about automation for a long time. There’s a lot of fear-mongering, I think, and a lot of anxiety. It’s understandable anxiety. Will this take jobs away? Will we continue to need copywriters? Will we continue to need the creative industry? And certainly, my observation is, absolutely, we will. But the roles will change. So Microsoft talks a lot about generative AI needing co-pilots. All of us doing marketing are increasingly becoming the co-pilot of artificial intelligence and automation. Generative AI will be able to write great copy. That’s kind of hygiene-level copy. It is going to take a human copywriter to actually add the emotion, the nuance, and that differentiation that’s ultimately going to create something that people will want to read and that will be brand-aligned with our tone of voice. So I think we’re all gonna have to lean in to kind of understand how to work with these new models. How are they going to take a lot of the more repetitive work away from us? But then, what does that free us up to do in our roles as marketers?
And I’ll give you a couple of examples. We’re live-testing a pilot at the moment in Avanade, in marketing. One is around one of the pain points we often see in B2B marketing, which the handshake between marketing and sales and, particularly where we find a new opportunity with clients at an event or through our digital channels. We’re actually passing an action on to sales to follow up with the client. And to make that handshake really, really seamless, we’re using generative AI to not just help write a draft script, but it’s able to pull information from lots of different places around that client touchpoint, the journey that we’ve nurtured for marketing, whether it’s the web pages that that client has been looking at, the content of the event that they might have attended, the information that we’ve sent them as marketing around a particular case study, working towards being able to pull all of that information together and then be able to write either the follow-up email from the seller or a little script that is totally personalised to that individual client journey. And whereas we passed all of that information to the seller, generally, through our marketing automation tools in the past, it’s required them to do the work to go into those different systems to actually pull that together to do the cognitive processing to figure out what they’re going to say. And now what we’re able to do is having AI effectively able to bring all of that together, as well as then translate that into either a script or a short email for that seller to use. So it’s making their job much, much easier for them to do the right thing. So that’s the first pilot we’re running at the moment.
The second one, which I think he’s really interesting, rightly or wrongly. We’re doing quite a bit of planning at the moment in PowerPoint. Lots of organisations love using PowerPoint for lots of different things. We are actually using an AI tool to actually pull insight out of hundreds and hundreds of different PowerPoint files to bring insight into a collective model for us to actually be able to inform marketing strategy and planning around intent for where we see opportunities for growth with our clients. So previously, we probably have used an analyst to do that for us, being able to analyse all of that and pull it into a model. We’re actually using the model for all of that insight out of PowerPoint. Hundreds, if not thousands, of PowerPoint files to actually be able to ask those files questions to understand kind of segmentation classes to inform marketing campaign strategy and planning for next year. So it’s really interesting. That’s come out of me saying, we’ve got a problem, we’d love to be able to shortcut this work, and then using those last language models and artificial intelligence to do that work forward.
What sort of tone do you strive to set as a leader?
There’s a balance between the tone we strive to set and the turn that we do set, but I think it’s always something I try and check in on in terms of striking the right balance in terms of high performance but also a human-centric culture. And personally, I’m a big believer in striking a balance between confidence, leadership, and humility. And I think, certainly, in the technology industry, all those things are really important. Confidence drives execution and enables an organisation to really rally behind a number of core ideas. And the second thing there is humility. I think it is really important in a fast-growing industry. I’m really privileged to work with some brilliant, technical brains. You’ve got to have the humility to understand what you don’t know, kind of understanding where your skills are and understanding where they’re not. It’s really important.
Can you share a little about your personal passions and how they influence you at work?
Firstly, I’m a big believer in having personal passions, particularly outside of work. I think it’s actually the way that we all achieve work-life balance, really. I think, if work is the biggest thing in your world, it can sometimes become quite overwhelming. So I’m a biologist by background. So as a scientist, I love the natural world and love being out in the natural world. So that’s kind of one of my main passions. It sounds very basic and simple, but it really helps balance being inside a lot. So I’m passionate about the natural world. I’m really passionate about storytelling. So, I love finding authors or script writers who are just brilliant storytellers. And I think that connects with all of us in a very emotive way. And then, on a very practical level, the thing I’m investing lots of time in learning is around wine. I love wine. I realised about five years ago that I spent a lot of time in wine areas, visiting vineyards. My knowledge was pretty unstructured. So I’m actually going through a series of qualifications in wine industry, which is very exciting.
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