What’s the state of marketing ops in China today?

Bessie Lie

Who better to talk to than Bessie Lee? She has three decades of experience in the media communications industry in Greater China, working as CEO of WPP China and GroupM, as well as Co-founder of the Mobile Marketing Association. Ms Lee is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Withinlink, a China-based start-up incubator and early-stage venture fund focused on marketing technology that supports China’s media communications industry.

We asked her five questions and received great insights in return. Spoiler alert: Many trends and developments will put marketing ops center stage in China!

  1. How did you get involved in marketing ops?
  2. What are the main challenges of CMOs today?
  3. How do you see the role of marketing ops in the next decade?
  4. What are the top3 trends in marketing ops?
  5. What is the one thing nobody talks about in marketing ops?

Shift from art to science

Question 1: How did you get involved in marketing operations?

During her years with WPP, Bessie realized that the agency model was relying on humans as opposed to technology. “At WPP, we reviewed all the pain points of all our clients in the past 24 years. I looked at the art and science of the marketing equation and concluded that we have done more art than science, but science is growing fast.”

“This manual labor model does not scale, I thought”, she says. “So I convinced Sir Martin Sorrell (founder of WPP) that we needed technology partners.”

“When I began to research new operations technology, I saw some very sexy start-ups. I decided my mission was to help these companies to accelerate. That was the start of Withinlink, a start-up incubator and early-stage venture fund. We focus on marketing technology that supports China’s media communications industry.”

After combining both the WPP CEO and WithinLink CEO positions for a while, Bessie Lee decided to fully focus on what she calls: “the science side of marketing”.

Ever More Fragmentation

Question 2: What are the main challenges of CMOs today?

 As Bessie is in regular contact with enterprise CMOs, we asked her what the main internal challenges are for CMOs.

“There is a lot on marketing’s plate. Many CMOs are scratching their heads. But if you get following three things fixed, you have made a good start.”

  1. “The first challenge is fragmented channels. Corporate brands easily manage up to 25 specialized agencies, each agency managing their own channel. Imagine if sharing marketing materials cross-agency is done manually (and we’re not even talking about content adaptations and variations). It’s madness.”
  2. The second challenge is customer attention fragmentation. “Today you look at TikTok. Every video is 15 seconds and then you move on. The content is smaller in bytes but higher in frequency. That is very different from earlier days, where we could do with one 30-second commercial covering 5 channels. Any idea how long it is going to take an agency to produce those variations? Well, converting a master version into 100 variants is something machines can do for you.”
  3. The third challenge is orchestration. “How do you manage the data to and from the customer touchpoints? How do you collect it, process it, understand it, and then apply that data to your next campaign?” That is not only a technological challenge as much as it is an organizational one. “How can you ensure various agencies collaborate smoothly together? Every agency says: “the rest should follow my lead because my channel is the most important one.”

Integration is Key

Question 3: How do you see the role of marketing operations in the next decade?

“Interestingly, using technology to increase coordination and collaboration is not common in China. Marketing operations is not a term we are familiar with yet. The term here that comes closest is MarketingCloud. These are platforms that help to centrally manage everything related to marketing messaging. An example is RabbitPre.”

“I would not be surprised if there are around 10 mature, proven MarketingCloud platforms in China. I have not yet seen any platform here that does planning, budgeting, implementation and ROI yet.”

This is where MarketingCloud platforms and marketing technology must enter and expand. They will play an increasingly important role in companies.

AI as a National Movement

Question 4: What are the top 3 trends in marketing?

The first is AI. In China, artificial Intelligence has become a national movement. “In 2017 the Chinese government wrote a paper about AI. It is called the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. It is an overarching strategy explaining where the nation wants to take AI. This is a very different approach than in the USA where the government leaves direction and development (mainly) to the big tech companies.”

“The Chinese government decided to take AI ahead with the aim to move faster. The plan gives a central direction to the local city governments”. The KPI for each government is to encourage AI start-ups. “It is not limited to applying AI to IOT (internet of things), smart city solutions, green transport applications, etc. Marketing technology is embracing AI on their roadmaps.”

Next is, PII, or personal identifiable information. “China is a highly digitized country. As such it produces lots of data. Add to that, that the Chinese decided to stop the use of paper bills entirely. All transactions will be entirely digital. Everyone will have a wallet in their mobile phone linked to their bank account. That account is linked to payment gateways (e.g. aliPay) managing online purchases. As a result the whereabouts of everyone can be tracked (in 3 to 4 years from now). That puts the topics of PII and GDPR high on the agenda.”

Third, “China is looking for new growth. And they found it in the lower tier cities. The Chinese geographical structures are similar to Europe, operating through a central HQ with local branches that require consistent and locally relevant content.”

“Understand that the HQs are located in the big Chinese cities, where the lower tier cities only have a sales function. As a result, the challenge is not only to understand those clients but also addressing their needs without having a marketing function in place locally. That is very difficult. This calls for training and converting local sales into a micro-marketing team.”

“This is where MarketingCloud and marketing technology comes into play.  It supports the standardization of materials, i.e. recycling and tailoring consistent messages from the HQ into the branches.”

Celebrate Failing Forward!

Question 5: What is the one thing nobody talks about in marketing?

“The systems we use are mature. It is not about having the right system anymore. It is all there. It is the people that stand in the way.”

In order to grow the people, we need “that trial and error approach. However, corporations, and in particular marketers are risk averse. Marketers are not moving as fast as they could in China. They are very cautious. And agencies even more so. I am not even sure if agencies nowadays lead the client anymore. They are not embracing technology. “

“As agencies tends to be labor-intensive, a more automated model is needed. How should we do that? How should they work together? Well, coders need to get closer to commerce. In last 27 years we spend a lot of time on art, not science. It is time to combine the two.”

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