DHL's marketing director on planning ahead

Interview with DHL Asia-Pacific

When DHL was first born in 1969, it shuffled parcels between San Francisco and Honolulu, by 1970 it covered the world. In 2002 it had been acquired by Deutsche Post, and has been consistently expanding its capabilities since. The story of DHL has never been dull, and it’s starting to get a lot more exciting, blending logistics, digital marketing and e-commerce to create a new kind of provider that’s nothing like its peers.

I spent some time with Matthieu Vermeulen, DHL’s new e-Commerce Marketing Director for Asia, to learn about his role and get some perspective on the changes he’s seeing in an otherwise traditional marketing role.

Could you tell us a little about your background? How did you find your way to DHL?
I worked and lived most of my life in Amsterdam before I started exploring Europe, working in London, Paris and Berlin. My work has always revolved around marketing, first as an entrepreneur running my own magazine, to corporate work before joining a marketing agency and finally DHL in Berlin. So my background is quite varied, and the move to DHL Singapore makes it all the more unusual, but it’s a change that I’m really enjoying.
What does Digital and e-Commerce mean to DHL? What are you actually doing at DHL?
In early 2014, Frank Apple, global CEO of DPDHL, announced his vision of DHL as a leader in the eCommerce space by 2020. Today we have teams within the Global Mail division that bring together the best minds inside and outside DHL, all focused on building a sustainable and profitable e-Commerce logistics business. As part of this vision, we are moving upstream in the value chain which means that marketing and customer service are an integral part of our new service offering.

My main focus is developing marketing support services for customers under the name Global Marketing Logistics. We apply the principles of marketing to logistics, allowing companies to deliver their campaigns and messages more efficiently. As you see we understand the opportunity and the importance of digital technology within e-Commerce. We have always been the transport, logistics and delivery guys but that is changing. For example see our drone service already operating in Germany and the recently announced use of augmented reality in a warehouse in the Netherlands.

How do you see this intensity of focus on e-Commerce and all things digital affecting marketers in 2015?
Over the past few years I’ve noticed how the role of the CMO is changing. It’s a change that’s accelerating and I strongly suspect that in 2015 we will see major overhauls at the top of many organizations. As the importance of electronic business grow, C-suite roles and requirements are being affected accordingly. The titles might stay the same but the person hired will have a different, more technical but also more holistic and data-driven, skill set.
The stereotypical CMO and CIO won’t be able to do justice to the new realities of business. There are differences that at times are hard to bridge. The core responsibilities should stay the same, with the CMO focused on customer engagement and retention and the CIO being paranoid about safety and reliability of the infrastructure, and both are critically important – the recent Sony hack being the perfect example of why CIOs need to be specialists in their own field.  

Usually most of the CIOs information security measures and policies obstruct the seamless user experience that the CMO wants, but that’s changing – especially with so many solutions becoming SaaS/cloud-based. Instead of nonsensical restrictions (no social media at work), or building and adapting in-house solutions, the CIO is free to focus on service quality and inter-compatibility and customisations (along with vendor reliability and corporate process).
The CMO benefits from a huge variety of (comparatively inexpensive) enterprise grade solutions that the CIO isn’t complaining about. He needs a solid understanding of digital technologies, data analysis and workflows to manage this environment though. The technology change is creating new expectations from the CEO and the board. Meaning the CMO and the CTO will want to justify the new technology changes and investment. So we’re going to start seeing enterprise content management guidelines and processes. Not just an “it’s ok to use Facebook” but actual processes to get departments generating content through enterprise grade solutions.

Does it seem a little weird that the CMO is becoming accountable for investments in technology and processes?
The technology change is creating new expectations from the CEO and the board. Meaning the CMO and the CTO will want to justify the new technology changes and investment. So we’re going to start seeing enterprise content management guidelines and processes. Not just an “it’s ok to use Facebook” but actual processes to get departments generating content through enterprise grade solutions.

Do you see a new definition in roles and responsibilities? Or change in organization structure to accommodate this?
The challenge that most organizations are going to face is how to handle the overlap between the CMO and the CTO. There’s a few different ways that I see this being addressed, from a formal, process and KPI-driven measures that ‘force’ the two to work together. To a solutions approach where some aspects of technology responsibility is included in the CMO role.

Depending on the type of organization and how much is outsourced, we may even see the CIO role being ‘reduced’ to a VP position reporting to a CMO as an advisory and support function. In any scenario a degree of role change is inevitable. A CMO that is not comfortable with IT topics, does not understand how security and usability should be balanced and has no feel for technological innovation, will find it increasingly tougher to be successful in any industry.

Similarly the CIO that is not familiar with marketing automation technology, marketing processes, or that cannot assess and match cloud solutions to the requirements of a marketing team, will be in hot water in no time. In internet start-ups we already see successful 30-year-olds (digital natives) acting as CMO. When you look closely they have a role that combines the CIO and CMO role. So the CMO role will gain but it is up to the current generation to determine how much of the process and technical aspects of the CIO role they’re willing to take onboard or how much that should be in order to be successful and accountable at the same time.
How does that change affect the organization? How is that change going to trickle through?

Organizations will have to create an environment that allows for faster decision making. There’s going to be a lot more data, which will hopefully result in more data-driven decision making, and a greater investment into analytics. With more cloud technologies, senior staff will need to be prepared with quick and decisive disaster response scenarios.
What does that mean for the CMO, that new skills do they need? What should they be learning this year?
If that is not already the case, the CMO should definitely understand digital, the cloud and data. With digital I mean, he should understand how the use of digital media in the broadest sense, has changed the way marketing works forever. In short he should understand the importance of mobile, the value and power of twitter, the directness of social media in general. But first and foremost he should understand how digital will increase transparency and with that his or her accountability.

Cloud solutions should be understood from two angles. First, the fact that good cloud solutions are based on best industry practices. In other words, not all cloud solutions are born equal and can be applied at will across all industries. Some are optimized for the financial industry, some are better suited for pharmaceuticals. Secondly cloud solutions work better if they are less customized. Contrary to IT solutions from a decade ago, cloud is built for scale and only scale if they are applied ‘as-is’.

This requires change management therefore which does not always go down well in the marketing department itself. Better learn how to deal with it then or get a bunch of consultants to do that job for you. Finally, data is no longer an option. So if you’re not already familiar with data-driven marketing and data-analytics, get someone on the team who is or better, complete one of the brand new data-analytics master programs that spring up at business schools and universities around the world.
As you can see, I haven’t mentioned creative here at all. To be creative is important but while it is the CMOs responsibility to make sure that marketing is based on great creative ideas, creative itself should constantly be monitored. This is in my mind still best placed with agencies that understand the new way of designing for digital, which requires more testing and A/B comparison of concepts and less ‘off the cuff, big balls creative thinking’. While there will always be a need for pure, big, bold creative work, 80% of the creative work for digital should be constantly tested, monitored and improved.
If you had to give an aspiring CMO one piece of advice, what would it be?
I don’t think I can just give you one, there are at least two things all aspiring CMOs should embrace. The first is the right attitude, it’s going to play a big role in shaping everything your company does. For me it’s probably best defined by Steve Jobs' famous quote: stay hungry, stay foolish.

The second is time. marketing is all about time and timing, which is why data anlysis has become so important. It’s the modern crystal ball, projecting the future using past performance and careful examination of the present. You’ll be able to select your tactics accordingly. To use another, slightly overused but very accurate quote: skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is right now.

This interview was conducted by Marketing Society Asia member Kameel Vohra, marketing innovation stategist at Esco.

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