'Marketing Is About Inspiration': CMO Leadership Talk With Telefónica/O2's Nina Bibby

What makes a successful marketing leader? In this interview series, I’m meeting up with leading CMOs to discuss the secrets of marketing leadership: what works, and what doesn’t. This time: Nina Bibby, CMO of Telefonica UK (O2).
Thomas Barta: Hi, Nina. I always like to start off with a simple question: What’s great about being a leader in marketing?
Nina Bibby: At its best, marketing is about inspiration: inspiring customers to choose us, buy from us, stay with us and recommend us. It is also about inspiring colleagues behind our customer offer. We are storytellers. Of course, we need to craft that story and ensure there is a compelling fact base behind that story — but we are storytellers. And marketing leaders need to be chief storytellers, engaging and aligning the entire organization behind delivering our best for the customer. It’s very exciting to inspire your colleagues to get behind an ambition. That’s one of the reasons I love marketing.
Barta: Can you share a story that helped you energize your colleagues?
Bibby: Just after I joined InterContinental Hotels (IHG) as senior VP for Global Brand Management, I was handed the massive task of relaunching Holiday Inn globally — the biggest hospitality relaunch in history in terms of number of hotels, number of countries, etc. I was new to the industry and I was new to the company. So, getting the engagement and the belief from many colleagues was pretty hard. This wasn’t just about engaging people at IHG but also about energizing the many franchisees. The way we engaged people was by retelling the story of Holiday Inn from its inception to the current time. We used many quotes from customers about what they loved about the Holiday Inn brand. Those stories and the link with Holiday Inn’s heritage are what helped us win the hearts and minds of all staff involved.

Barta: What’s marketing’s reputation inside your C-suite?
Bibby: We’ve got a firm seat at the top table. We’re fortunate that marketing has P&L accountability at O2, so we are accountable for revenue and for profit. We’ve got pricing within marketing, products, promotion, of course, insights and analytics — it’s very comprehensive. Both on the Executive Committee and on the Management Board, marketing is present. Equally important, our brand is a great source of pride internally, and the organization feels almost a sense of responsibility to do what is best by that brand. Our former CEO used to say, “We are a brand that runs a business, not a business that runs a brand.” Marketing, brand, and customers are up front and visible, and acknowledged to be the most important drivers of our success.
Barta: How do you manage the tension between what customers want and what your CEO wants?
Bibby: I have a simple mantra: “We have to create value for our customers in order to create value from our customers.” It’s got to be a win–win. At O2, for example, we have a digital loyalty program called Priority, where we give people early access to unforgettable live experiences in rugby, entertainment, or music. The program is one of the reasons people choose us and stay with us. But I’m also clear about the value Priority creates for us. We’ve known exactly the loyalty and churn benefits — and the financial impact. We’re creating value for our customers, and we’re creating value for the business.

Barta: Has leading marketing changed from the time when you started to today (if at all)?
Bibby: Because of the ubiquity of digital channels and social media, it’s a more transparent world. As marketers, we have to understand that we’re not going to control all the conversations or all the narratives, and it’s become more challenging for brands to cut through the noise. As we’re a service business, consistency and excellence of the experience is paramount because every interaction is a representative of the brand experience. In fact, everybody who works here is delivering the brand experience, and therefore, I go back to my earlier point that it’s so important to inspire all colleagues. If you can’t inspire your colleagues, you’re not going to be able to inspire your customers. Inspiring colleagues, having them all understand the importance of what we’re trying to do for the customer, making sure everybody’s pointing in the same direction is more vital than ever before.
Ubiquity of digital also brings opportunities, of course, such as the ability to have more personal interactions with customers. I want to create value for customers through every interaction. In order to do that, we use data-driven customer insight to power personalization, ensuring a consistent O2 experience that delivers to customers’ needs.
Credit: Telefonica / O2
Barta: In our research for “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader,” we’ve learned that successful CMOs don’t just talk about customers — but get their hands dirty and go to the frontline. Do you agree?
Bibby: Absolutely. As a board, we’ve committed that we go to as many of our stores as we can. We talk not just to store leaders but to all the store colleagues or the people in our contact centers. That way, we hear firsthand what customers are saying, what’s working, what’s not working. Last summer, one store manager told me, “How come you do so much research amongst customers, but you don’t do research amongst us?” I thought, “Yeah, that’s a really good point.” We have a permanent panel of customers to test ideas quickly, why not for frontline colleagues. So, we’ve launched the equivalent panel for our retail and contact center staff because they are hearing and seeing what works every single day. Just yesterday, I did store visits in the west of the country again. I think that’s absolutely critical, for marketing leaders to leave the office!
Barta: What’s going to be your biggest future leadership challenge?
Bibby: For me, I guess there’s a couple of things. Leadership was always about having the right team, the right people. The team is number one, two, and three of what I’ve got to get right. This means to make sure we have the right people at the table, that we’re developing them, that we’re coaching them, and let them go to another role when the time is right. Also, the workplace is changing, and therefore, peoples’ expectations are changing, too. Because of digital, we all have the ability to work more flexibly today. In fact, flexible work options are a huge part of what O2 offers. The other challenge on the horizon is the convergence of customer expectations across sectors. Customers expect to receive the same level of service, the same immediacy of fulfillment across their transactions. Why wouldn’t they? We have to continually innovate and re-engineer to ensure we are meeting these expectations.
Barta: Nina, in your organization, what makes you a role model?
Bibby: I’d say I hope I’m a positive role model. First off, I’m a working mother, which is still perhaps too rare on executive committees and boards. I strive to make life work. I love my work. I’m passionate about it; it excites me. Of course, I adore my family, and I’m passionate about them and devoted to them. These are not mutually exclusive things. I’m not trying to balance them. I want to embrace them, and I want my team to see and feel it’s about making life work versus work–life balance. And I think that’s a really important message — getting away from the guilt.

I guess the other thing is customer first. I am always the one who is loudest, strongest, most vocal about “Where’s the customer in this?”
Barta: What’s the most important leadership advice you’d love to give to other people?
Bibby: If you want to get true “engagement,” you’ve got to really invest time. People value your complete attention and focus on them as individuals. It’s about letting people know that you’ll support them. You are only going to grow if you encourage risk-taking. And if you take risks, mistakes will be made. That’s just a fact. Your people need to know you’ve got their back. Mistakes are going to happen, and that’s okay.

My other advice: Let go of your ego. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability, to say, “I’ve been there. This is how I learnt. This is how I grew from that position.”
Barta: Nina, many thanks for your thoughts.
Marketing leadership expert and keynote speaker Thomas Barta is a former McKinsey partner and the author of the new leadership book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader (with Patrick Barwise).

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