Agency Leadership Advertising Week Marketing

At Advertising Week Europe, marketers were bullish despite increasing pressure

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

May 17, 2024 | 9 min read

Three days of Advertising Week Europe wrapped yesterday in London. We took the opportunity to take the industry’s temperature amid an uptick in troubling news for CMOs.

The queue outside Advertising Week Europe 2024

At Advertising Week Europe, The Drum took the temperature of CMOs and agency leaders / Credit: Advertising Week

This year’s Advertising Week Europe (AWE), its 10th iteration, found a new home at London’s 180 Studios, a chapter of many British ad folk’s members’ club of choice, Soho House. Hosting over 7,000 attendees and 350 speakers, it was the event’s most expansive outing to date.

In its 100 sessions, three mega-trends predictably dominated. First, first-party data. Second, purpose, trust and advertising’s role in the climate crisis. Third, artificial intelligence (there were scores of panels about AI, while plenty of panels ostensibly not about AI ultimately ended up being about AI).

Elsewhere, interactive exhibitions from the likes of TikTok and a relatively bombastic showing from Netflix: the massive head-swiveling, laser-eyed ‘doll’ from Squid Game’s ‘red light, green light’ game, a shrunken-down version of the glass bridge from same and roving actors kitted out in Bridgerton-style Regency regalia.

And on the main stages, an assortment of (distinctly British) media personalities: 90s boy band Take That, X Factor’s Stacey Solomon, Top Gear veteran Richard Hammond, Fame Academy star Lemar, broadcasting legend Fearne Cotton and assorted luminaries from the worlds of marketing and advertising.

Netflix activation at Advertising Week Europe

But behind all the drinks receptions and throwback celebs, how are senior marketers really feeling? When we asked brand-side CMOs and senior agency folk whether they were bullish or bearish about the industry’s prospects, they universally came down on the optimistic side. Beyond the buoyancy, though, there’s no shortage of headwinds to worry about.

Are CMOs feeling imperiled?

The Drum’s editor-in-chief has started calling it the ‘great marketing makeover,’ a converging set of concerning conditions for CMOs and their departments and the hints of an organized response by senior marketers to protect the discipline and grow its reputation.

The concerning conditions: Starbucks eliminating its CMO role (while Lyft split its CMO in two and Uber replaced its own with a VP). The well-known phenomenon that CMO tenures are the shortest in the boardroom – a trend that seems still to be going in the wrong direction. And buzz, whenever we go out and talk to them, that the CMO remit is expanding to include an ever-wider set of responsibilities and mounting pressure to measure and prove return-on-investment on every stream of activity.

The makeover: germinating movement towards a push for marketers to market their expertise better, both internally and externally, in order to protect budgets, jobs and reputation.

How much of this do CMOs feel on the ground? At AWE, we asked them.

With worldwide overlapping financial and supply chain difficulties not slowing down, it’s unsurprising that CMOs are still feeling the pinch – and pressure to prove ROI. Claire Cronin, CMO at Chelsea FC, told The Drum that many senior marketers have felt compelled to make cost savings across the board.

“There’s so much of a ferocious focus on trading performance that most CMOs come under pressure immediately to show how good they are by giving back marketing budget and being seen as a cost-cutter – that is a real shame,” Cronin says. “If your first benchmark – and your first deliverable – is to prove your worth as a CMO and to hand back budget, then you’re already starting from a disadvantage.”

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Elsewhere, Cronin says the industry needs to stop “pandering” to new trends regarding the CMO role. She warns brands against restructuring too quickly amid, for example, AI hype. “We have to stop becoming so faddy,” Cronin says.

The upshot of these pressures? Tati Lindenberg, vice-president of marketing at Unilever, says that the CMO must have a “stubborn character” to stand up in the boardroom and say: “This is what consumers actually want or need and this is what the brand stands for.”

Often, a business will get excited about new trends or viral moments that it then expects the marketing department to react to, Lindenberg says. “The temptation to deviate the brand idea happens in the boardroom because someone has seen something trendy for us to tap into,” she reveals.

“The CMO is the voice of the consumer and that’s what we often have to bring to the table and reinforce. It’s not about what you like and what you dislike, but it’s really about what consumers want,” Lindenberg says.

Meanwhile, the CMOs we corralled agreed that their list of responsibilities is expanding. “The role of the CMO today is much broader and more holistic,” says Jessica Dracup-Holland, CMO at new-media owner Outernet London.

“The role has transitioned from historically being more of a support function to being a critical strategic driver of the business and fully integrated within that decision making,” Dracup-Holland says. That centering of the CMO, she says, is to be celebrated and defended – or fought for if not yet achieved – by “ensuring that the CMO function is fully integrated into driving growth, and creating and establishing a successful brand.”

Pressure, then, but not necessarily peril. Deliveroo’s Adam Bishop has a job title – chief global marketing and product officer – which encapsulates this growing list of responsibilities and centralization of the marketing function. He credits that shift with helping the brand become more customer-centric and empowering the CMO. “We’ve deliberately pushed together our central marketing functions, product functions, and design and experience functions all into one to make sure that we’re absolutely at the heart of everything, putting the consumer first and designing back from them.

“It’s demanding, in a good way, but it’s really fun. I think, for some of the more narrow definitions of a CMO role (or product role), you can’t quite own the end-to-end experience for a consumer. Being able to own that end-to-end story is really exciting.”

The agency view

How are these board-level pressures trickling down to the agency partners who deliver the work for brands? The pressure toward proving value is being resoundingly felt: “If you can’t provide ROI, you’re dead,” says Rebecca Bezzina, chief exec at agency R/GA.

This applies to brand work just as much as more easily quantifiable performance work, Bezzina says. “There’s still room for creativity; there’s still room for good ideas and all that stuff needs to exist, but you also need to know what it’s in service of and how it’s performing. Marketing is about providing value to the organization, even where there are more intangibles around brand – which is the harder part to grasp for the C-suite”.

These pressures, as well as the expanding remit of the marketing leader, are powering a shift towards more strategy-based relationships between brands and their agencies. Thomas Byrne, chief executive at RocketMill, says that “historically, the core value proposition that an agency offered was in depth of capabilities and specialization. I’m seeing our relationship evolve to be much more strategic, much more guidance-orientated.

“The conversation is moving much more towards ideation and creativity. And it’s much more about how you guide across an integrated landscape… Global clients are generally looking for consistency. They’re looking to pool wisdom to make better decisions. It’s this notion of ‘how do you take this increasingly complex, changing ecosystem and simplify it down, without diminishing understanding?’”

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On the other side of the same coin, though, specialization is arguably becoming more important than ever for agencies looking to become essential brand partners. According to David Muldoon, vice-president at advisory firm MediaLink, we should expect the pendulum to continue to swing back away from generalists. “The dynamic between agencies and brands is changing quite significantly. A few years ago, we saw a huge shift towards a holding company model, where all agency relationships were under one bucket. But now brands are needing specialist partners to manage the wider array of expectations that the business has on the on the marketing leader… That specialist expertise can’t always be found within one solution.”

As for the agency’s-eye view on CMO peril, Kate Fulford-Brown, managing director at experiential shop 2LK, says it would be a mistake to lump all marketing departments together. “There’s a difference between B2B and B2C – in B2B, because of the price of entry and product proof points, it’s higher-jeopardy, so there’s more engagement and need for brand and product story, so in that sense, at least it’s slightly safer. But in B2C, I do think there’s huge peril. It’s become really febrile and flighty, price- and promotion-driven, with short price cycles and short tenures of marketing officers.”

For agencies and brands alike, says Max Whicher, co-founder of Spin Brands, the challenge is what it’s always been: to register all these changes and shape-shift accordingly. “It’s adapt or die. I’m quite bullish on that sentiment. It’s a fast-moving landscape, it always has been and it always will be. Any businesses that are fatiguing probably do need to change.”

Story co-reported by Hannah Bowler, senior reporter.

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