Creativity is the big differentiator for brands, says IAG CMO Brent Smart

Brent Smart is CMO for IAG brands, including NRMA, in Australia and New Zealand

Agency boss turned chief marketing officer (CMO) Brent Smart believes that the future of the marketer is underpinned by trusting gut instinct and knowing that creativity is the big differentiator between brands.

Smart’s background is an impressive CV of agency leadership roles, including being the managing director (MD) of Colenso BBDO in New Zealand, managing director at BBDO in San Francisco and finishing off his agency career as chief executive officer (CEO) of Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. With just two and a half years of CMO life under his belt, it may be no surprise that Smart is an advocate for the value agencies bring to brands, but this is specifically because he believes in creativity as the ‘make or break’ for brands.

“The reason I made that move was I spent 20 years trying to get marketers to buy great creative work and it was hard to do. I thought, what if I can be the guy to say ‘yes’? What if I can be the decision-maker on whether ideas do or die? That’s what I love. That bit hasn’t changed and it will never change because creativity is the big differentiator. CMO’s have a big power on whether big ideas get in the hands of customers or not,” he says.

Wielding the influence has been one of the key differences in the roles, he explains, as inside a company he believes that there is a lot more credibility and trust as the custodian of the brand.

“Once you are inside, you have so much influence, you are the one with the brand’s best interest at heart. Businesses look to you very differently and you have way more influence and a bigger ability to influence how brands turn up in the world. Your impact to change the whole brand experience is bigger, I am saying all the things I used to say but it holds so much more weight.”

The problem with holding influence and being ‘inside’ is that a person can lose outside perspective, says Smart, arguing a popular defence of the role of agencies, even in light of some brands looking to in-house some of their activity. The reason for that is because a person can become consumed by politics and internal issues. Smart believes he still has an outsider perspective after two-and-a-half years but that it’s a big problem for people who have been in similar roles, companies or sectors for a long time.

Smart believes this is particularly the case when it comes to culture and knowing how a brand fits into the wider culture of their customers.

“So many people in our business have the word ‘customer’ in their title, customer insights or customer experience, but I feel like I am the one who has to know what is going on in culture. It is the unique thing that the CMO does. A lot of people do customer roles but culture is key and this is why creative agencies are so invaluable. Cultural insight is critical to building brands and that is why you don't want to lose the outside perspective,” explains Smart.

He also believes a healthy agency industry is necessary to get the right talent working on brands as a lot of creative talent wouldn’t want to work on just one brand, creatives instead thrive in the environment on working on varied brands. This, in turn, fuels the agency as the outside perspective.

“Once you are inside, it is difficult to have the ability to question and challenge, I really value that perspective and because of that I will never in-house everything. That said, things like search or content, a lot of it we need to make fast and cost-effectively, we need to craft it but there is a strong case for doing it ourselves. That provides real value but none of it provides the incredible value that a big idea from a creative agency offers,” he argues.

One aspect that Smart has in-housed is the strategy team, though he also buys in outside strategic guidance from agencies too. The idea of having that strategic talent closer to the business is to be able to write the best briefs and have a strategic vision for the brand that is clear for partners to plug into.

Smart’s advice to anyone considering whether to in-house or not is to obsess over the outputs, which will help dictate decisions. “I obsessed over the outputs that we deliver to customers and if you obsess over that, you think ‘who are the best people to deliver that output?’ In some instances it needs to be in-house to capitalize your own assets and data, otherwise, it could be the right collaborator or media partner.”

The biggest tension in marketing, therefore, isn’t in-housing or not, according to Smart, but long-term brand building versus short-term results-driven strategies. He believes that this has been amplified by a focus on digital but that long-term thinking needs to be restored by CMO’s.

“It’s easier to show short-term results through digital channels than long-term results through brand building. The incredibly important narrative is about building brands in the long-term, rather than just focusing on short term sales targets and that is because this month’s sales are hugely dependent on how you built the brand over the last year. Thinking about building brands in the long-term is the responsible thing a CMO can do, it is the most responsible thing you can do for shareholders and stakeholders. Sure, there is pressure but you have to try and focus the narrative on long-term brand building.

“When you look at companies that are changing the world like Facebook or Google, they have had the same leaders for 20 years, they have had incredibly long-term focused leaders. Look at the incredible impact they have had. Without that those companies wouldn't be in that position,” he says, “We desperately need more long-term thinking in business.”

One of the biggest issues with long-term thinking is that the tenure of a CMO is very short, which means there’s a lot of pressure to get on with things and make a big change quickly. This often means pitches or a reshuffle of teams. However, Smart’s advice is to not do those things as you waste a year, and instead create a piece of work that makes a statement to the market.

“You don’t have time to spend a year pitching to find the right partner, perfect the perfect execution, you don’t have time. You have got to quickly work out the right direction for the brand and deliver a piece of work that sends a statement to the market and the organization, and one that gives you a platform to build momentum. It doesn’t mean you jump to short-term tactics but you start brand-building fast because might not have that long. You can easily waste a year repitching or restructuring the team,” he explains.

As well as driving short-termism, Smart believes that the way brands look at technology is often as a panacea, when it doesn’t replace some marketing fundamentals. “Data doesn't replace an insight and tech doesn’t replace an idea.”

In a world in which everyone is obsessed with technology, focusing on creative and ideas can be the winning differentiator, adds Smart.

“A lot of people get obsessed with tech and the data, but whats it in service of? Everything has changed and nothing has changed. The data we have gives us incredible efficiency, but you need insights and ideas because that is what builds brands. All that other stuff, it gives us knowledge and efficiencies and returns but it doesn’t give you the competitive value that creativity does. It differentiates you as a CMO because everyone has the tech but not everyone has the ideas and that is what builds the careers of marketers.”

This is part of The Drum's Marketer of the Future coverage for 2019. You can read our coverage here.

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