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Alicia Tillman, global chief marketing officer of SAP, tells The Drum how she’s rewriting her 2020 strategy in the eye of the coronavirus, which has pushed the company to cancel four large events in March alone.

SAP put out a blanket ban on all in-person events for the month on 3 March, “out of an abundance of caution related to the transmission of Covid-19”.

The company was due to host Qualtrics’ X4 Summit in Salt Lake City last week (10-12 March), expecting 16,000 people to attend. Additionally, it was set to produce two other proprietary events in Orlando and Las Vegas – each with an audience of around 4,000 – and stage a large activation at SXSW in Austin.

The decision, while sensible, has upended SAP’s marketing strategy for the entire year.

“These are big events for us,” said Alicia Tillman, SAP’s chief marketing officer. “These are for customers, prospective customers, partners, media and influencers. So, it was a hard but really important decision that we had to take.”

The live events are more than a platform than product announcements: they play a vital role in feeding SAP’s entire company’s sales pipeline. By that token, the networking hours across the company’s live portfolio are just as important as the in-depth, sales closing meetings that take place during the day.

But while meetings, keynotes and presentations can be live-streamed relatively painlessly, upper-funnel relationship building can’t. So, Tillman and her team have been challenged to rework their media plans to keep the balance as the pandemic rages on.

Firstly, SAP is “accelerating” some of its digital spend in media and search to keep the pipelines full. Secondly, it’s experimenting with live streaming to see if can create a new way of doing casual business while maintaining social distance.

The company is encouraging ideas on these lines by getting staff to think not in terms of events, but in terms of TV production.

“When you sit in front of your television and you’re watching a TV sitcom, there’s a huge entertainment factor that deliberately exists within that to keep your attention,” said Tillman. “There’s only so much content they throw at you during a period before you see a commercial come on.

“We have to think about how we serve up these interactions in a very similar way. I think if you set up your environment, and you have technology that makes it feel very real … this is an opportunity to have a lot of fun with it and think about what the production of that can be.”

‘Reprioritizing’ finance

The shift, however, is clearly an expensive one. Not only is SAP losing money from postponing or canceling events, but it’s also having to invest in new partners and technology that can allow for a seamless video streaming connection, all while juggling a staff that is working remotely, juggling childcare and in danger of getting sick.

Tillman’s strategy has been to remind her team – and herself – that they’re no longer working in a “business as usual environment”.

 “[If we were] to continue to do what was laid out in our global plans at the start of the year… not only is some of it very irrelevant right now, because the environment doesn’t allow for it, but it also operationally may not be feasible,” she said. “What that means is … we’ve got to almost stop what we’ve been doing, and really rethink the or four areas of focus that we need to have right now.”

For SAP, this means scrapping the pre-written marketing plan to focus on the following: how it will maintain visibility with its community of customers and partners; producing relevant content that will engage and inform them throughout this period; finding a way to deliver that content in the most sophisticated way possible; and doing it in a way that makes sense financially.

“It’s about reprioritizing both people’s priorities and the financial means to do the most relevant, most necessary thing that’s going to yield the greatest results from a business continuity standpoint.”

Despite everything, Tillman said she feels “energized, motivated and inspired” by the chance to really lead a team in a time of crisis. The marketer sees silver linings in being pushed towards digital innovation at a faster piece than before.

“I think some of the best marketers are going to really take advantage of it and see it as a way to reshape how we go market differently in the future,” she said.

But Tillman works for a company that, as of January, is on track to grow its market value to €300bn ($338bn) by 2023. Other marketers might not feel so optimistic about the future.