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Bridging the creative and tech gap to deliver value at speed

MSQ's executive director Ben Rudman underscores the need to unite creativity and technology

By Ben Rudman

‘Don’t give us a brief, give us a problem.’ It’s a line that’s trotted out in every agency creds deck, at every industry conference, by every executive wanting to appear as visionary to inspired colleagues and clients.

And yes, for the curious minds that this industry has in abundance, problems are better than prescriptions. We are an industry of problem solvers.

But I worry that, far too often, we’re being given the wrong problems.

The tension between creativity and tech

Most agency groups will gladly discuss the investments they’re making in both creative and technology. And some groups are doing very well at hiring and acquiring some very strong skillsets.

But having brilliant creatives solving creative problems and brilliant tech businesses solving tech problems simply isn’t moving a client’s agenda forward as much as you’d hope.

Because often, those problems are far too separate. This may be down to legacy operating structures in a client’s business – the marketing and technology functions have historically been split. Or the agencies themselves are not joined-up enough to combine the problems they’re being given – one goes one way and solves the marketing brief, one goes the other and works on a tech issue, and when they come back together the solutions that have been built in isolation may be transformational to an individual client silo but aren’t transformational to the client’s business as a whole.

Instead, it’s about uniting creative and tech teams around a single business problem. Not working in vertical silos, but making horizontal slices through a business challenge-at-large, to generate value at speed.

A shift in mentality

When I co-founded MMT 24 years ago, it was billed as a ‘technology business’. But what’s become abundantly clear as the business has grown is that it’s not really about the technology at all – it’s about the transformational and organisational set up piece, the agility that means the benefits of the technology are applied to a business problem, rather than being built in isolation just because the client has been told to do it.

Instead, you need blended teams taken from brand, creative and media, alongside tech, data and engineering experts, working hand-in-hand (or even embedded) with the client in an agile and iterative way.

It's a different way of working that tries to have a common language, baking the benefits of the technology into the business solution that’s coming together.

That’s easier said than done, of course. But speaking to business leaders, the appetite to do it is growing. Partly because marketers are embracing the approaches and language used by technologists as skillsets evolve, but also because marketing teams are fed up with seeing creative ideas kiboshed by tech restraints and want that solved.

I attended Cannes this year with our Head of Digital Engineering client from Vodafone, and it was interesting to see how often he was pulled to one side by CMOs who wanted to know the secrets for getting their tech teams on board with their wider marketing plans and were looking for tips around what’s required to enable that joined-up delivery.

The answer involves people, process and perspective – and you need all three if you want to connect what’s disconnected in your organisation and drive genuine transformational change…

Embrace the product mindset

Delivering business transformation is an iterative process, so by ensuring everyone embraces a product mindset, you develop a culture and a team where everyone has a greater understanding of the overall opportunities and challenges. Team members end up more readily appreciating the problems that others may face in other roles, and it’s amazing how much easier it is to then solve those problems when everyone has the same perspective on it.

Immersing teams in such a product-focused way may mean more upfront work at a granular level, but you end up with longer-term benefits. You find as you go along, you get faster and faster. And truly high performing teams in this area have typically been working together for a longer period of time.

It’s not about eradicating silos and job functions, it’s about delivering speed to value. We need to react to changing business and customer requirements quickly, so you need flexible structures and mindsets in place to pivot and adapt.

Hire collaborative thinkers – and doers

To adopt that product focus, you need people in place who are open to doing so. That means people who are keen collaborators, who are excited about solving problems that may not yet be known.

Businesses who used to work in yearly or even 3-year cycles are now running highly iterative plans on a quarterly bases – or even less – so you need people who have a joined-up thinking mindset, who are not individualists but are able to see different perspectives and understand how utilising those different perspectives at different times works for the greater good.

And fundamentally, you need people who know how to get stuff done. That’s where agency groups will always have the edge in this space over consultants – sometimes the advice given about how to do it is fine theoretically, but can be impossible to apply practically. The thinking may be quite generic, or not apply specifically to the organisation at hand. It might be completely hypothetical and not apply at all. There’s a balance needed between being able to provide great advice and actually understand how to make it happen as a team.

Get top-tier buy-in

Let’s end with another agency cliché. The one in which everyone talks about having a seat at the client’s top table. But the very best business transformation projects are driven from the very top. The tension that often occurs between marketing and tech tends to not actually be a ‘marketing versus technology’ problem. They’re ‘how do I structure an organisation and instil the right culture?’ problems.

And so, if the C-suite is focused on solving business problems – of which tech and marketing are two levers that drive that – then for me this is about understanding what the organisational challenges are, and understanding how you then go about solving these challenges.

Because if we as problem solvers want to step back and look at the bigger picture, then we should see both marketing and technologies as enablers. Neither of which should be run in silos or talk a different language. You need one blended team, running at the same thing. And that can only be applied if everyone is bought in.

Ben Rudman is the executive director of MSQ and co-founder of MMT


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