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Even though she has been at Microsoft for many years, Hitu Chawla took over the role of chief marketing officer for Microsoft India in 2020 amid the pandemic. The new age CMO – or CMTO as she calls it – will have to do many things differently: from learning and reinventing virtual events to getting past vanity KPIs of clicks and views and being accountable for business, and much more, for marketers to earn a seat at the business table

“If you hit a wall, climb over it, crawl under it, or dance on top of it.” 

If the last year has taught us anything, it is this. 

When I took over as a remote CMO six months ago, I had anticipated challenges, but I never imagined how fluid 2020 would be. A pivotal year, it transformed how we live, work, connect and communicate. I’d say it transformed the ‘digital’ in digital transformation, forcing every business function to re-write the traditional playbook. Marketing surely is embracing this change the fastest.

It’s almost like relearning and rethinking the building blocks of B2B marketing for a new playbook.

Agility and reinventing will be the way forward

“Learn fast, fail fast” is the name of the game. In an ever-evolving environment, giving your team the license to experiment is the only way to figure what works!

To bring in agility and a learner’s mindset we set up ‘war rooms’ at Microsoft, to bring the sellers, marketers and engineers closer. This way, sellers' needs are wired back to engineering and, marketing gets quick feedback from its frontline and partner sellers on what offers, discount, product bundles are working and what needs change. Agility also lies in harnessing the collective. 

We are also learning and reinventing virtual events, shifting from ‘Theatre’ to a ‘TV production’ mode. From humanizing the presenters to training them for virtual, infusing contests, gaming, polling, celebratory events and celebrity appearances, we are constantly experimenting to dial-up customer engagement. 

Accountability and agility are very real, physical things for the team, making us improvise our offerings and go-to-market tactics almost real-time. And they’re here to stay!

The new age CMO checklist: more accountability and less vanity

The conventional platitudes once attributed to marketing, shoe-horned to just the brand or advertising arm of a company, have become obsolete. Today, the CMO of a new-age digitally native company is seen as the head of Growth, with direct accountability for the company's performance and bottom line.

Marketers earn a seat at the business table by being razor-sharp in articulating the metrics that directly impact business performance. This means getting past vanity KPIs of clicks and views and being accountable for business indicators such as the sales pipeline, customer retention and satisfaction. 

When marketing gets embedded into the business dashboard, reviewed by the c-suite, it shifts from being an ancillary function to a first-class citizen, enabling growth. Going forward, I see this becoming a norm, across organizations both traditional and new.

At Microsoft, we have a 'shape of business' dashboard which provides the health of business performance across customer segments, based on current penetration, long term growth and other variables. The team is directly accountable for moving the needle on accounts that have low customer engagement index and no or low revenue pipe. 

Marketing will be increasingly about consent and privacy

Security and privacy went from important to indispensable overnight, as millions became remote workers. 

As a marketer, you might think that it’s outside the purview of your role. There couldn’t be a more dangerous presumption than this. The reputational damage associated with a breach of customer, employee, or other stakeholders’ personal or business information is irreparable. Every piece of data that we collect and store could be a cyber thief's target. Hence, it is imperative to exercise extra caution and protect your data

The recent climate has created more consumer awareness of data privacy. Marketers now require the explicit consent of consumers. Moreover, the lack of third-party data is forcing marketers to rethink the value exchange with customers. What was a checkbox exercise earlier, now pushes you to think, “What’s the value add if a customer checks the box and joins my database?” 

The birth of the CMTO

Today, marketing functions at the intersection of creativity, technology, and data. It is exciting to see how AI/ML is enabling a new era of storytelling. While human storytellers create screenplays with clever plots and dialogues, AI predicts how audiences will react! Disney is a great example, where it deploys AI-based autoencoders to track facial expressions and understand how audiences respond in real-time to its films and create greater stories! 

Another example is technology as a game-changer for fan experience in live sports. Microsoft’s partnership with NBA is transforming the way fans experience basketball, allowing them to immerse themselves in all aspects of the game and engage directly with teams and players. 

With AI as the vanguard and mar-tech becoming commonplace, there is an urgency for becoming the CMTO (CMO + CTO). This new reality of balancing and innovating with art and science will be the key to success as a new-age marketer. 

Marketing will increasingly be about inclusion and empathy

The pandemic has brought centerstage, the need for being empathic and building honest connections. The last few months have shown us how people and organizations have overcome challenges with resilience, using technology to respond, rebound, and reimagine a new world order.

Organizations are becoming more mindful of creating inclusive products and engagements. I admire Future Retail for their efforts towards accessibility. Personally, I have been learning a lot from a visually impaired member on my team. I am far more mindful and able to empathize with people living in this additional parallel world as it were, of communication and content consumption.

Accessibility and inclusivity are built into our products, approach and messaging. It stems from our mission to empower every person and organization on this planet to achieve more. And to deliver against that empowerment promise, our marketing strategy has got to be less about us; less about our products and solutions — and more about what people can do with our products. 

Our recent ad film captures this ethos. “Hum Rukna Nahi Jaante” meaning ‘We are unstoppable’, relates to resilience as a universal truth because it is exactly how everyone is responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The learning curve is steep, and we will continuously be tested. The unlearning and relearning, mindfulness, humanization, and agility is only making me a better marketer and a better leader. 

Hitu Chawla is chief marketing officer, Microsoft India.