Tough Truths Roundtable – What really matters to brand side CMOs?

Tough Truths Roundtable – What really matters to brand side CMOs?

In a world filled with false praise and self-promotion, honesty in agency/client relations has never been so valuable. 

Propeller prides itself on straight talking. We know how powerful the truth is. And this power is amplified when you bring people

together in one room to share it.

This was demonstrated at our latest Tough Truths roundtable dinner. For this event Propeller Group’s Founder and Chairman Martin Loat brought together a room of industry leaders in a central London dining room to address a critical question: what are the tough truths agency leaders need to know that matter most to brand side CMOs? 

And to answer this question, we were joined by a special guest – Peter Zillig, Director of Marketing for Ford of Europe. 

It should be noted that Peter tested positive for Covid on the day of the dinner, but heroically joined the group via Zoom on a big screen. So he missed out on the tasty fare at the table, stoically settling instead for a glass of wine at home and a bag of nuts. This meant we conducted a bang on-trend “hybrid-dinner”.

Propeller’s dinner guests IRL sitting with Martin Loat were:

Robin Bartlett – Commercial Director – The Social Element social agency

Rose Bentley – Director of Client and Strategy – Propeller Group

Claire Charruau – Marketing Director UK/EMEA –  VMLY&R agency

James Irvine – Client Partner, Wunderman Thompson agency

John Kearon – Founder & CEO – System1 advertising research 

Tom Laranjo – Managing Director, Total Media (London) and Behave consultancy

Charles Southey – Founder and CEO – Forge agency

Jody Osman – Director of Growth – Propeller Group 

Neil Sims – CEO – Oakwood B2B agency 

Before joining Ford, Peter spent 20 years agency and supply-side,  being CEO of Euro RSCG New York (now in Havas), then TAG Worldwide, before becoming CEO of the agency Cheil UK.  So he’s well-qualified to give a clear-eyed view of the challenges faced by marketers and their agency partners.

Peter unpacked five themes in his opening remarks from the TV screen and the attendant guests round the table then chipped in.

It’s not about categories so much as consumer experience 

“I know how difficult our jobs are and I can see how much our world has changed in the last 18 months,” said Peter. “In particular, we can see that CMOs are now competing with more businesses than ever. Ford is no longer battling with rivals within our industry – we are competing with the last best experience a customer had. And this could be in any category, in any field.” 

“For agencies this means you have to look beyond a traditional “category” when dealing with a client. From a Ford perspective, we can see how the automotive experience has evolved with technology. The “car” experience can just as easily be compared with that of an iPhone or an app. The breadth of comparison has changed forever.” 

Tom Laranjo of Total Media commented: “To understand the experience you have to focus on the consumer. Supply chain issues and emerging technologies are naturally things marketers must keep a finger on the pulse of – but the pandemic has helped us refocus on the fact that a brand is simply a vehicle for solving consumer needs.” 

Bending over backwards to be agile

Peter reframed agility for marketers, saying: “In recent times,  agency and brand leaders have often referred to agility as a codeword for digital capability or technology processes. But now it is a much more encompassing modern marketing approach”. 

He pointed to the impact of the pandemic.

 “We have all had our ‘Black Swan’ moments – unanticipated surprises which change your path. For the automotive industry, alongside COVID, we have had to adapt to a semiconductor shortage which has hugely impacted production, pricing and our overarching marketing strategies.

“Agencies need to be ‘Black Swan-ready’. Brand side CMOs want to know that agility is present and part of the service.” 

Robin Bartlett of The Social Element added that agility wasn’t only needed in a client-serving sense, it’s also about how an agency sets itself up. “So many businesses are one Government policy update away from pivoting their purpose. At The Social Element [during Covid] we pivoted with our client’s needs from social media services to providing business intelligence from social audience data, almost overnight.” 

Who you serve and why 

Peter’s next tough truth for agencies focused on the importance of truly understanding data – and how to use it. 

“Marketing used to be just about knowing your customer. Now it is clearly about knowing your customer segment.”

“Everything has become much more precise,” he continued. “Data has become incredibly important and is a primary topic for brand-side leaders when communicating with agency partners.” 

He pointed out that sophisticated use of data empowers marketers to create work which genuinely moves the dial. “Data allows marketers to take previously separated ingredients and fuse these together into an engaging story. The art of storytelling is a creative talent – and marketers should never let this talent be left behind.  Data is crucial – but don’t confuse the tools we write these stories with for the tale itself”. 

Relationships reimagined 

“The pandemic has changed how we feel about relationships in every sense,” Peter summarised. “Who we want to see – and indeed work with – has changed forever. Relationships have gone from mattering – to being absolutely everything.”

Claire Charruau of VMLY&R underlined this thought on relationships. ““Every agency should want to be their clients’ most important partner. You want to be the partner they trust to call at these Black Swan moments. And it means having your finger on the pulse of their industry and not just know the issues – but be ready with prospective, creative solutions.” 

Big ideas are bigger than ever 

John Kearon of System1 stressed: “Brands need to give audiences a reason to have this relationship. You need to engage and encourage audiences to enter your brand world. Characters, or fluid devices, are a powerful means of achieving this. Look at the Compare the Market Meerkats – or the M&Ms”. 

“These characters create a distinct brand universe. Targeting and timing are nothing without this relationship – these foundational brand icons work as shortcuts to transport audiences when leveraging shorter form digital formats”. 

Big ideas are more important than ever in creating relationships with both customers and brand partners. But as Neil Sims from Oakwood noted: “The best big ideas are still the ones which can be done within the existing budget”. 

The power of storytelling extends beyond brand campaigns – all the way to the agency pitching process. Tom Laranjo and Jody Osman both asked Peter to share his perspective on how agencies can sell their stories to brands when pitching remotely. 

“Nobody has been able to rip up the rulebook entirely and present ideas in a truly novel way in our Zoom era – but we have seen less paper, less powerpoints and less paraphernalia surrounding an idea. The context of a Zoom encourages people to get to the point and tell the story simply. And I think this is a good thing.” 

“Everything is now hyper-selective,” Peter concluded. “People no longer have room in their lives for things that do not spark excitement, passion – or speak to a greater purpose”. 

To learn more about the Tough Truths series or Propeller Group’s services, get in touch with the team at