Starcom's John Sheehy Keys to Unlocking Transformation and Growth

October 02, 2019

No industry is exempt from upheaval of today's disruptors. That means every organization needs to transform the way they operate — especially how they use data and engage customers — if they are to grow and thrive. "The ecosystems are more complex; the challenges with technology are complex and expensive," said John Sheehy, Starcom Worldwide's global brand president. "So, marketers looking to unlock growth should focus on doing fewer things better, faster."

Expert in driving the design of compelling customer experiences, Sheehy has dedicated his career to helping brands such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, and P&G tackle the challenges wrought from the convergence of creativity, media, and technology while staying connected to their customers.

In a conversation with MediaVillage, Sheehy talks about the most profound shifts in the advertising, marketing, and media industry over the past 30 years and the impact they have today, the importance of staying human while embracing data, and the reasoning behind focusing not just on customer experiences but also on the human experience. He also reveals the biggest mistakes brands are making on their transformation journeys and what they should do instead.

Conlon: What are the three most profound changes you've seen over the past 30 years?

Sheehy: I'll look at the first from the perspective of our business. Everything comes back to fundamentals — how we're trying to create, target, and engage with audiences. And, certainly, how we're trying to measure that activity to find out if it's working. Even in the last 10 years, we've seen a profound shift. Back in 2010 and 2011, 85 percent of our dollars were going through traditional pipes: TV, print, radio, out-of-home. At the same time, we set ourselves up for shifting to a 50/50 traditional/digital model. We were purposely trying to move based on where the dollars were going … to help solve our client's problems.

Fast forward to 2015, and sure enough, about 50 percent of our revenue was going through search and social … programmatic was taking hold, and the way we were engaging the consumer changed.

Now we're looking at data, and how we're leveraging data differently. We're looking at dynamic content and making sure that we're getting the relevant message out there. And we're looking at commerce as it plays a more important role in terms of delivering those experiences.

The second one, then, is talent. The skillsets needed to succeed in our industry have evolved and continue to change. The skillsets of tomorrow are certainly different from the skillsets of today. So, the way we bring in and develop talent has changed, as well; even career pathing has become much more dynamic.

Third, is clients. The way we're helping our clients and trying to solve their problem is more diverse and dynamic. We're building our capabilities and our models to better deliver against their changing models. That goes from investing their dollars to creating their experience to looking at ways they can be more effective and efficient as their categories and brands are being disrupted.

Conlon: In an age obsessed with data, how can brands stay human?

Sheehy: Data is an accelerator for creating human connections. We've had data since the beginning of this industry, but as we get access to more and more data, it has to serve as an accelerator that can drive a better outcome for clients and, certainly, for the consumer.

The only way that you can do that is to leverage data to be more insightful, to be better at crafting audiences and activating them in a smart, relevant, meaningful way, and to be able to optimize to their experience — not just to a client outcome — that's going to make that whole journey relevant for them. It's that simple and it's that hard.

Conlon: Starcom notably said people are messy and unpredictable. Why is it important for brands and marketers to embrace those attributes?

Sheehy: The answer is pretty simple. Just pick a category, and a brand in that category, and you'll see what's happening. No one predicted what's happening in the food category, with changes in dietary needs and preferences. Look at the hotel business with Airbnb. At the heart of that is the messy consumer, empowered by technology, who's unpredictable with needs that are continually evolving.  Someone's finding a way to deliver on these ever-changing needs better than what was out there before.

That's the challenge for brands: You can't force consumers into your old behaviors. You have to understand where they're going. And that might mean you have to innovate with something brand new versus trying to fit something that's been around into those new expectations. That's a struggle. That's where we use data and human experience to understand the tension between what a brand needs and what the consumer wants. How do we create a meaningful experience and deliver not just business results, but also the human outcomes?

And that's at the core of what Starcom's about — trying to understand those messy paths in a predictive way.

Conlon: Starcom defines itself as the human experience company. How does the human experience dovetail with digital transformation?

Sheehy: Starcom as the human experience company is about technology and creativity coming together to create experiences that, again, match up against what people want and brands need. And then it's being able to measure and deliver against business outcomes such as sales, as well as the human outcome — the emotional solution.

We're doing more and more with the science of that. We're working with organizations like Forrester to be able to quantify why these experiences matter, and to be able to put a value against the importance of creating experiences, as opposed to laying down investment or delivering media plans. It's part of our shift towards being a business partner, not just a media partner, for clients.

Conlon: What are some of the biggest mistakes that brands make on their digital transformation journey?

Sheehy: Different brands are at different stages of their journey. Some are on the leading edge; some are playing catch up. The biggest mistake is, even if you're catching up, not seeing yourselves as a leader in this area, not having a shared vision. Laggards are putting a metric goal of, "We will have X percent of our dollars going in this category," as opposed to, "What's the experience we're trying to create?" Beverage marketers need to understand why consumers are going to drink White Claw instead of more beer, for example. That's a dynamic that shifts almost overnight.

Similarly, another big mistake is not being close to your consumer; really looking those insights and managing the experience based on that, as opposed to artificial goals of, "We're going to spend 50 percent in programmatic" or "We're going to do X amount in this category." That never gets the energy that's needed to create the real talent transformation that's essential to keep up with this changing consumer.

Conlon: What can agency leaders do to help clients navigate through these challenges? Similarly, what can chief marketers do to help their teams manage through all the change?

Sheehy: Call it old school, but I think, more and more, people need to have a greater focus on consumer and category dynamics. Sticking to those fundamentals is absolutely where more time needs to be spent.

GI Joe says, "Knowing's half the battle." That's important, as is activation and agility. So, strategy is one part, delivering the results and the activation is another critical part. My advice is to be more agile and to be quicker to action, especially given the change that we're seeing.

Also, think through the use case first. Think through the where and why before you jump into digital business transformation. The use case allows you to better focus and prioritize because you can't do everything at once. And it allows you to build momentum through successes, which builds muscle faster.

And, finally, if you don't see what's coming up on the horizon and get excited about it, you're never going to get there. You should already be looking toward what else can data do for you, how you can be more agile in deliver messaging in a relevant way, and how you're going to measure those things and optimize them in real time. These are the challenges of tomorrow that we in marketing have to solve today, and that's a pretty exciting place to be.

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