Oliver CEO of global markets and operations Sharon Whale on the age of automation and the rise of in-housing
Pepelatz Production is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Ukrainian edition, we will be spending time with some of the personalities at the forefront of the global production industry today.
In this conversation, we speak with Oliver CEO of global markets and operations, Sharon Whale about the impact of in-housing, the changing role of CMOs and what production will look like in five years time.
LBB> Oliver is a mature creative and technology business, but was known for its production capability as well. The production industry is now reshaping itself, with both brands and agencies in-housing at the same time. What is your experience of this?
Sharon Whale> What's happening at the moment is that there is an acceleration in in-housing for both the creative and the production sides of marketing and advertising. And it’s easy to see why. Production used to be the part that happened at the end of the creative process. And now, because of the way marketing has evolved, production can be seen as 95% of the creative process.
When you think about the amount of content that needs to be produced by any one client, particularly in the world of commerce and sales, they need thousands of pieces across multiple digital and e-commerce platforms. They need to have the right content on the right channel with the right data and click-to-buy functionality in the right moment for every single customer. This is modern marketing and could also be deemed modern production, too. And so I think the word "production", which used to be that unsexy word that CMOs weren't massively interested in, is now the underpin of modern marketing, particularly for large brands that have a lot of customers to talk to across a lot of different channels. Fortunately for Oliver, we have both award-winning creative and scalable production capability.
LBB> Do you think there's any loss of continuity with the amount of content brands are creating now?
Sharon> There’s a risk to continuity today because the brand is often placed in the hands of a few people, rather than the entire business or a dedicated team of brand guardians across every capability. The role of the CMO feels almost impossible sometimes. In order to meet targets and budgets, you need to be an expert in many things: customer data, how to find it, corral it, use it, serve it up. You need to be an expert in channel marketing, all things media, all things technology, all things automation, all things AI... every part of the customer experience. There’s a question around whether it’s a sustainable role unless it has the operations to support it. We believe that the role needs to be reimagined. Why would you have just one person or one group of people that are experts in all those things? Every employee, every department, needs to be able to talk to these capabilities now.
LBB> So do you see supporting roles appearing for CMOs?
Sharon> I think many brands still grapple with the siloed and historical organisational designs that they've inherited, where digital, data and tech are often treated as separate departments. Yet they are as much about the marketing of the business as they are about the running of the business.
Do I think brands have got this right yet? No. Most are facing this conundrum right now. It's something that's on our agenda at Oliver all the time, because what we do is build bespoke solutions for clients designed to remove those silos and bring creative, data, content, media, production and optimisation closer together. So I think if you're looking for supporting roles, the role that Oliver plays is very much that - helping solve the CMO’s business problems as a partner, not just as an agent.
LBB> What percentage of brands do you think are working in-house at the moment?
Sharon> I’d say 70% or more have in-housed at least some of their marketing or advertising; whether they've done it themselves or it’s some kind of hybrid model, or whether it's a model like Oliver’s where we build bespoke solutions inside a brand’s world. If you put all of them together, I'd say around three quarters of brands today have started to take back control using in-housing.
LBB> For a big international client, what do you see as the best approach? Do you think they should have centres of excellence or is a one to all approach best?
Sharon> We don't typically work geographically in that way. We’re a very borderless business. For a global client, we would build a bespoke architectural solution that has centres of excellence factored-in, depending on where they’re needed in the world or what challenge they’re solving. And then we give them access to all of our global talent, which means that they have flex-appeal across skill sets and capacity. We have a number of dedicated offshore centres of excellence with over 400 brand-dedicated specialists in them, allowing us to scale-up and down expertise as our clients’ needs change.
LBB> What tends to be the jumping off point for most of your clients in terms of when they tend to come to you for help?
Sharon> Historically it might have been point of sale, CRM or needs-based digital content. Whereas now, a huge amount of the work we do is creative digital content in all its forms, particularly e-content – enabling a brand to capture all of its shoppable moments. The jumping off point is whatever the point of greatest need is for the client. So where they may have multiple vendors globally doing very similar types of work, we take all those silos out and we remodel their landscape to create one very efficient and effective operating solution that’s underpinned by our proprietary technology, the Oliver Marketing Gateway.
LBB> How much does the RFI/RFP process dictate your relationship?
Sharon> I think, again historically, when the market didn't exist for us, we had to make the market. As the first to do in-housing exclusively, there wasn't a market waiting for us when we started. We therefore spent a lot of time talking directly to procurement professionals. Our best customers really understood before anyone else the proposition of being able to remodel and streamline marketing operations in a way that had been resisted quite valiantly by the marketing community for quite some time. Procurement got it. Quite often our proposals were commercially-led for that reason. But now creative in-housing is the mainstream conversation, because we’ve proven that it can be done really effectively and really efficiently.
There are lots of RFIs now for re-engineering brands’ ecosystems and bringing marketing and advertising into the heart of their worlds. So despite the market being much bigger now, pitching is all-consuming. We do pitch, but we mostly work direct with brands that already know what we’re capable of building for them.
LBB> What’s your favourite operating model? Is there one that you look at and think that's a perfect client?
Sharon> Wow, that's a really, really interesting question. I think the clients that work best with us truly understand that we are in partnership with them. Not as in ‘your agency partner’, but part of their team, there to build their business success and personal success. For that we need to be treated like colleagues and be privy to their planning processes and their future thinking.
The client-supplier relationships that work best are those where clients very openly bring us into their marketing challenges, and then we work together to solve those challenges – whatever they are. We’re there purely to work towards their agenda. That’s when all models work best.
LBB> Does being a part of the internal team put you in a very different position to an external agency or production partner?
Sharon> It really does, because we understand all the challenges our clients face. One of the things that I was most surprised about when I joined Oliver was how much time we have with CEOs and CMOS.
I think the issue for most established agencies and networks is they understand the value of being in-house, and being a truly direct with their clients. But their institutionalised ways of working stand in the way of them truly being able to do that.
LBB> What about the importance of brand asset management - how involved are you in all that? Is it something you suggest or do you think a brand should be managing their own assets?
Sharon> We see that as very central to the role that we play. For our clients, that brand guardianship, governance and global quality control is a huge part of what we do. Utilising our own technology, the Oliver Marketing Gateway, but also integrating it with clients’ existing technology, we have the ability to not only create and distribute assets, but do it thousands of times in many languages and to many different specifications.
LBB> What do you think content and creative production will look like in five years?
Sharon> One of the objectives I've set for our Talent Team is to have our people’s next role in sight at all times. That’s because marketing is changing so fast. We're very actively developing our people to not just be specialists in one thing but to be a very agile global workforce with multiple disciplines. That's going to be critically important when serving our clients in the future.
In terms of the wider industry, production won't really be production as we know it now - it will be automation. The world will become even more digitised. It sounds a bit scary but I think it'll be good as it just means that we'll be much more focused on the added value and driving strong business performance where technology empowers business.
In terms of where I see Oliver, I see us as the leading choice for delivering business and marketing transformation – helping brands make the complex more controllable. We are very much a tech-first business, but it suits us to operate in the world of ‘agency’, as it helps others make better sense of what we do. But the word ‘agency’ is too restrictive for our unique and advanced marketing solution.