This interview is part of the Marketer’s Toolkit 2020. Download the summary report here.

In this exclusive interview for WARC’s annual Marketer’s Toolkit release, Gill Zhou – VP of Marketing, Communications and Citizenship at IBM China – speaks to WARC’s Jenny Chan about how Chinese brands are innovating at a global level, the new skillsets marketers need, and avoiding the ‘data tsunami’.

This interview has been translated from its original Mandarin into English.

Gill Zhou, VP of Marketing, Communications and Citizenship, IBM China

WARC: What are you going to prioritise in 2020?

Zhou: It is a pity that the charm of Chinese culture has not really been shown on the world stage. Our domestic marketers have done a lot of exploration over the past two decades, but we have not created much award-winning work that can be considered world-class. I am the Chair of the Effie Greater China Council and see this as a call for us; this is our mission; this is also our desire. China is an ever-changing market. How can we use the rapid development of the internet and technology here to turn Chinese brands into real global brands? Better creative work can influence generations of marketers in China in the future.

When I first saw how the work of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty abandoned the conventional method of portraying ‘perfect’ female stars as role models, I found it influential. The beauty of an ordinary person, whether elderly, middle-aged people, fat, thin, black, or white, is discovered in this campaign.

My thoughts at that time revolved around how the industry has been exploring various ‘shells’ (or formats) of marketing. Marketers operating in China are particularly imaginative in this regard. Look, even Chanel tried Douyin (Tik Tok). But at the end of the day, if you look at the most influential campaigns, including Nike’s Just Do It, what is most important is to reach people's hearts. Whether it is B2B or B2C marketing, it is all about B2P (business to people).

WARC: How can Chinese brands work to gain more resonance among international audiences as they look to target more markets?

Zhou: We the Chinese have a lot of marketing and advertising ideas, but can they reach a person’s heart, regardless of the person being Chinese, American, British, or Indian? Will the person get goosebumps and feel touched at that moment of brand contact?

Only then is this successful marketing.

I personally feel that there is no lack of such work in China, but it may not have been scaled up to resonate across cultures. Here is where ‘packaging’ and storytelling comes in. No matter what language you speak, you will understand it at once, and you will be touched immediately.

As a culture, our ‘packaging’ ability is relatively poor, even though the original materials are very good. This is something we need to work hard at. During last year's Spring Festival I was touched by Peter Chan’s ‘3 minutes’ film shot for Apple. The film tells the story of a mother who works as a train conductor and only gets to spend a brief reunion of three minutes with her son and sister at one of the train stops. Chan has already made a great effort in this direction, so I feel very hopeful for China.

WARC: How have you transitioned IBM’s marketing department from being a process-driven to an outcome-driven function over the years? What is the thinking behind your approach to overall strategy shifts?

Zhou: I have been at IBM for 18 years out of the company’s 108-year history. In the high-tech industry, IBM is the only company that has lived for a hundred years, and the witness of history in continuous change and transformation.

More than a hundred years ago, IBM marketed machines. Today, it has basically changed from a supplier of physical IT systems hardware to one that provides digital solutions based on cloud computing and artificial intelligence. Our marketing department has coped with this strategy shift, which is major.

Ten years ago, selling PCs meant we needed marketing skills around paid advertising and traditional PR. Now, without exception, every IBM marketer needs to deal with data, so the most powerful person in our company is the person who studies statistics. A marketer is originally a creative person. Now, times have changed. Creativity is still very important, but those who learn about data, statistics, and algorithms have become ‘mainstream marketers’.

All customer and market insights must come from data. All marketing activities cannot be carried out, from design, execution to performance measurement, without data. Data speaks volumes.

Because I am in predominantly a B2B industry, my sales cycle is particularly long. Unlike B2C companies, it can take up to 180 days to close a deal. It is challenging to keep the leads hot because the long sales cycle cools them down. Skills on how to improve data mining of customer insights, discovering new customers, or rediscovering old customer needs are in high demand.

We must keep up with the times. We can’t think about how we used to do marketing. Every day is new. When we face challenges in this new world, marketers should be those who are walking at the frontline. The marketing team at IBM China is akin to the air force, with the sales team as the army. We use a lot of military terminology because we feel that every day is wartime. The (marketing) air force must find where the target is, plan to launch an attack, and after returning to the headquarters, tell the (sales) army to set off. Don't feel scared. Be brave.

WARC: When spending on digital, what trade-offs do you make between quantity and quality of reach?

Zhou: Because China’s digital environment is completely different from other countries, we can't use Facebook or Google. We have to use completely localised DMP and DSP partners. This is especially important for us.

The challenge, since we are an international company, is how to link to our global database for precision marketing. In China, we are using a limited database to create algorithms, so precision and accuracy are not as high as if we were to be connected to the entire network in the rest of the world, from my perspective.

Although we are all talking about precision marketing, although we all want to know the various behaviours of our customers, we are limited just like any other company in China. We are still on the road.

There is a lot of truth in data, but I say, don’t blindly believe in data. I often ask for insights directly from IBM’s customer-facing sales representatives, because they are humans spending time with customers every day.

For us, it’s too early to start AI-based marketing, but the idea of such marketing practices based on big data analysis and deep learning algorithms has already begun at IBM.

I would like to say this to any fellow marketer who just entered this century of big data: if you completely abandon AI marketing, if you do not take heed, you will be swallowed up by this data tsunami.

WARC: Companies such as McDonald’s, Uber and Johnson & Johnson have removed the chief marketing officer position. How do you as a marketer respond to this career disruption?

Zhou: CMOs are in trouble because their performance cannot be quantified easily, and they are nicknamed ‘chief money officers’. The CEO is particularly annoyed at the CMO; [and] the CFO is his natural enemy. The average life expectancy of a CMO is four years overseas, and two years in China. The mortality rate is particularly high in China because there are faster and more cruel changes taking place here and there are very few people in this role who survive.

There is a lot of discussion about this, and I agree with one view that the CMO should be renamed as CAO - the A being accountability. The CAO will be held responsible for not just marketing, but also finance, management, strategy and customer service. At IBM, I sometimes call myself a ‘chief miscellaneous officer’, as almost everything is related to me and requires me to pay special attention to. I consider this to be my own transformation and re-engineering.

Under such a tough environment, the quality of marketers is key.

There are three skill sets that marketers must not escape from. Being a member of this industry, you must know how to build and operate a brand. The brand is the lifeblood of a company, and is significant in the eyes of customers, the government, and the media.

Second, you must be customer-centric. We often see that only salespeople are truly customer-centric, and marketers are not forced to be. Marketers seem to talk to themselves in ads, or talk down at customers. You will lose the match even before the starting line. Being customer-centric is not about slogans, it is anything that you do every day to listen and to solve problems.

Third, you must be effective to generate a better return on marketing investment (ROMI). Many times, the marketing department is seen as a cost centre, so CMOs save money to increase output, but it is not enough. The CEO will always measure your contribution to sales or to the whole business. Cutting costs will only result in an incremental contribution. At IBM, my department is generating win-wins in parallel with sales, product development, and distribution channels. We have to contribute 20% to the company’s conversion rates through marketing.

WARC: What is the relationship between effective marketing and growth, and what kind of effectiveness criteria do you have for yourself?

Zhou: In my world, there are only three factors to evaluate whether my marketing strategy is effective or not. What is the improvement in IBM’s brand reputation, brand loyalty, and conversion rate? It is especially simple.