A view from Zaid Al-Qassab

BT's CMO: 'Communication that makes people feel is more powerful'

Al-Qassab is chief brand and marketing officer at BT and part of the Power 100 list of the UK's most influential marketers. Having spent 20...

Learn to lead by being curious

As an intern, my marketing director greeted me with these daunting words: "Leadership has nothing to do with hierarchy – anyone can be a leader, and that’s what I expect from you." I’ve never known better advice. Anyone seeking to be a great marketer should stop thinking of themselves as a marketing person and start thinking and acting as an all-round leader of their business. You need curiosity for every aspect of the business. I was lucky to have a broad experience during a 20-year stint at Procter & Gamble: from long-term brand management to commercial trading; from product design to advertising development; global, regional and local roles; brand and performance marketing; a schooling in traditional FMCG household goods. But most marketers are not fortunate enough to experience this range; they have to go in search of it and invest time in understanding their stakeholders. That’s the only way to gain credibility with the wider organisation so that you can have real influence.

Put the customer first

No, really put them first. How many of us actually do so? Does every product, policy and process deliver on what your customers want? Does every brief you write start with a deep understanding of your target customers? Do you invest as much time, energy and money in your current customers as potential ones? At BT, we have just relaunched our consumer marketing approach to build customer understanding and insight into the heart of what we do. Over the years, I have spent time pushing trolleys for shoppers, sitting next to people as they browse online, looking through mirrors at men shaving, stacking shelves and even watching women shower – all in the name of understanding customers better. (They had swimsuits on, by the way.)

It’s all about ideas

Many commentators would have you believe that marketing has changed fundamentally. Nothing could be further from the truth. The skills of understanding your customers’ needs and desires, and then designing products, programmes and communication that merge those needs with your own strategy and brand equity, have remained unchanged. And the lifeblood of marketing is still creative ideas. Ideas have the power to achieve cut-through and consideration. Ideas can drive purchase. Ideas make people want to get to know your brand and talk about it to others. Ideas give customers a reason to stay loyal. The best ideas can even drive brand love. Creativity sells, and ideas are the bedrock of creativity.

Creative ideas don’t come from the top. It’s more likely that junior marketers or front-line salespeople will be most in touch with their customers. So listen to them, but listen to your agencies even more. Clients deserve the advertising they get. If they insist on telling their agency what to do, they only have themselves to blame. Partner your ad agency on brand strategy and insight generation, then let them loose. Give them your business challenge, write a tight brief and trust their judgment. The same goes for your media, design, PR and other partners. Why hire experts if you believe you could do better yourself? Face it, you can’t.

Make people feel something

At BT, we have some amazing products. We have to remind ourselves that communication that makes people feel is more powerful than communication that only makes people think. Our customers buy broadband because it allows them to video-call their grandchildren in Australia. They buy mobile data so they can enjoy music while they’re running. They use BT Security products to keep their business safe. Marketing communication has to evoke feelings if you want it to be effective.

The world changes

Embrace the fast-changing world we live in, but don’t let it make you dizzy. The principles of excellent marketing are timeless. Invest your energy in learning about the whole business, understanding your customers and freeing your agencies to craft amazing ideas. Remember that emotions drive purchase and loyalty more than rational thoughts. Then innovate with these eternal truths in mind.