Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer, Dentsu Creative explores the challenges facing CMOs and explains why marketers need to think beyond the consumer.

CMOs today face a maelstrom of existential challenges: from climate change to artificial intelligence to inflation and misinformation.

Our 2023 Dentsu Creative CMO Survey asked 700 CMOs around the world to share their hopes, fears and ambitions for marketing in 2023 and beyond. It was surprising but reassuring to learn that amidst such volatility their number one priority for 2023 and as they look beyond to 2030 is owning the audience in a world where third parties seem to hold all the power – and all the data.

Their key concerns, outlined in our report ‘Creativity at a Crossroads’, include “Owning the Customer Relationship” (30%), “Responding to Changing Customer Behaviour” (28%) and “Representing more diverse audiences” (28%). Their changing priorities and investments flow directly from this need to connect with a fast-changing audience in the spaces, places and conversations that matter most to them.

As our audiences embrace new expectations, new behaviours and new values, brands must be built in new ways; through Experiences, through Culture and through Action.

87% of CMOs agree that brands today are built through experience, while 84% agree that every touchpoint can and must tell the brand story, from comms through to commerce.

With that in mind, we see significant uplifts year on year in the importance of fusing creativity and innovation, humanity and technology. When asked to define a compelling creative experience, CMOs reference “Technology that enhances the brand idea” (48%), “Innovative new Interfaces” (48%), “A powerful organising idea” (43%) and “Intelligent personalisation to surprise and delight (43%). The importance of each of these criteria increased by at least five percentage points year on year.

The desire to win the audience is also fuelling increased investment in creating culture and entertainment. 79% of CMOs agree that brands today must entertain and engage, not interrupt, while 86% agree that brands should aspire to create culture and build their own audience. 58% believe that advertising today has forgotten how to entertain, a reminder that as powerful as it is to tug at the heart strings, laughter may be the best brand medicine. 

With this cultural agenda in mind, CMOs are investing in podcasting, programming, publishing and entertainment properties in a bid to engage an audience raised in a world of live streaming and social commerce. Yet while CMOs see undoubted creative and commercial opportunity in this space, they have concerns over the polarised, even toxic environment their investments may be fuelling. 64% worry that their media investments are funding a more polarised political debate, while 58% are concerned about social media’s impact on society.

Similarly, while they see AI as an opportunity to drive efficiency they worry about its long-term societal impacts and believe that even the smartest generative AI platforms can never create content that truly touches the heart. Can an AI make us laugh – or cry?

As CMOs wrestle with the future of the industry and the impact of their activities on the world it is no surprise that we also see some conflicted attitudes on the subject of brand purpose.

69% of CMOs agree that we have become so focused on purpose we have forgotten how to sell. Yet 77% agree that in a world where climate volatility is driving economic instability there can no longer be any disconnect between what’s good for society and what’s good for business. 81% agree that their business will make a fundamental pivot in response to climate change.

As every passing week brings fresh evidence of the impact of climate change on industries from olive oil to airlines to insurance, perhaps what we’re seeing is not an end to purpose, but an end to purpose as a side project or fig leaf and a shift towards sustainable business models at the core.

Which perhaps brings us full circle to thinking about the audience vs. the consumer. If we think about an audience, there is an imperative to entertain, to engage, to provide value and build relationships. If we think about a consumer, the imperative is to continue a cycle of using, discarding and depleting.

As an industry we often describe differently shaped work as “brave”. As audiences and technologies evolve, it’s no longer brave to invest our time and energies in those platforms and channels – from gaming to entertainment to experience – which capture an unfair share of attention: it’s essential. 

What may be truly brave is to consider how we can use our extraordinary influence in the world to shift business models and audiences alike beyond consumption.