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Managing Marketing: The importance of understanding culture to stay relevant in a changing world

Sharon Foo
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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Sharon Foo is the Client Partner at Sparks & Honey and she talks with Darren on the importance of diversity, data and technology in understanding the cultural changes occurring in society and staying relevant to your audience, allowing you to change to meet the future needs of the market.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome back to Managing Marketing. I’m still in downtown New York.

Sharon:

It’s mid-town—come on Darren.

Darren:

Well, mid-town New York and I have a great opportunity of having a chat with someone who, like me, has come from the other side of the world to be here, but now lives here: Sharon Foo who is client partner at Sparks and Honey. Welcome, Sharon.

Sharon:

Thank you.

Placing a focus on culture before strategy

Darren:

Look, this agency’s really interesting from my perspective and that’s because of the focus of the agency on culture. Now, Peter Drucker said, ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’. I’m wondering why do you think agencies (and you’ve worked at other agencies) have been so focused on strategy and developing strategies for their clients and really missed the whole culture piece?

Sharon:

First of all, thank you for giving me this opportunity. What I know I know, and what I don’t know, I don’t know because I literally joined Sparks and Honey about (in my mind) definitely less than 100 days ago. So, it’s been two and a half months so I’m still looking at this place with wonder, and still wondering what is it that got me so interested in this agency in the first place.

I’ve done advertising agencies so I get ‘driving awareness’. I’ve done shopper marketer agencies, which is really the other end of the spectrum and that’s about driving conversion.

Darren:

The last ten metres.

Sharon:

Exactly. Allegedly 8 out of 10 decisions are made in front of the shelves. And I’ve also been at an experiential agency where it’s about changing behaviour. So, I’ve done all these three so I thought to myself, ‘o.k. that’s a nice lovely spectrum of conception to execution’ and what was it about Sparks and Honey back then before I had joined that got me so interested?

And I think, as the landscape is changing so rapidly and all agencies are trying to steal another agency’s lunch, Sparks and Honey was for me this really weird, interesting, shiny object that’s so different it sits on its own. Is it a marketing consultancy agency or is it a consulting agency like Bain or Boston Consulting Group, or is it a creative agency like BBDO or JWT, the space that I’m familiar with? Because everybody claims to do strategy, right?

Darren:

So, as you said, it’s less than 100 days—do you have an answer to that? What does it feel like for you?

Sharon:

I think the differentiator for me is culture because people talk about culture all the time but most of the shops that I’ve seen so far do it as a bolt-on. So, maybe a team of five that’s supposed to understand culture and somehow infuse that essence of culture into the work that they do.

Whereas at Sparks and Honey for us what we do is really getting deep into culture and it’s all we do and so that’s our north star. And it translates in certain routines that we have and the daily culture briefing is the testament of that. That in order to understand culture you need to do that every day. You need to be always on. You need to build muscle memory.

You need to look at culture across the horizontal whether it’s from tech to humanity to media to ideology and it’s getting, not just people at Sparks and Honey to understand and keep track and identify patterns of culture but to invite other people into Sparks and Honey for that magic hour so that people can contribute to how we understand culture.

Darren:

It’s interesting because what you’ve just said is that it’s a constantly evolving, constantly developing interactive. It’s like a puzzle that you’re monitoring. And yet so often people and especially agencies and especially from my experience, communications agencies, advertising agencies almost take culture as a constant.

Like there’s a culture and now let’s put the strategy on top, right? Whereas this feels very different. It’s almost acknowledging that culture is constantly evolving and incredibly multi-faceted across different audiences.

Sharon:

You’re absolutely spot on because sometimes it feels so nebulous. It’s interesting that you say it’s a puzzle and I sort of wish it was a puzzle because by the time you find the last piece that’s when you go, ‘oh no, sorted it out’ but it’s not.

Darren:

It’s not that sort of puzzle, it’s unsolvable.

Sharon:

Exactly. It’s a constant search because what you know yesterday may not be relevant in the next week or month and that’s why the system that we have allows us to track culture or trends from micro to macro to mega because it’s understanding this really holistic system of trends that can affect a brand, a person, an organisation in the next 12 to 24 hours, to in the next one to three years, to in the next five to ten years.

That helps us to operationalise the intelligence that we give them all the way up from the C-suite down to the Assistant Brand Manager where it’s something that unifies. Culture is what unifies the organisation.

Darren:

It’s giving them context, isn’t it? It’s giving them a context in a moment of time.

Sharon:

Yeah.

Darren:

And, as you say, we live in a time where the pace of change is relentless and accelerating, driven by technology and a whole lot of social issues associated with it.

Sharon:

It’s a moment of time as well as what’s about to come. So, it’s the insights for the now to the foresight for what’s now next and future. Where’s it taking us?

And it’s being able to identify the cultural tailwinds and the cultural head winds that we can therefore provide the consultancy to a client, to go if that’s your destination then here are the landmines or barriers that you need too be cognizant of so that you can navigate your way in the fastest most efficient way with intent, clarity, and purpose to get to where you want to be.

The role of strategy in the face of emerging cultural trends

Darren:

There’s still strategy but strategy is now about how to optimise the opportunities revealed by culture, is that correct?

Sharon:

That’s actually incredibly eloquent. Yes.

Darren:

The reason I say that is you see so many organisations that talk about their two-year strategy, their five-year strategy, I just wonder how does the relationship, your work with your clients change because of this acknowledgement that culture is constantly evolving and changing so that it’s not about sitting there working out five-year plans it’s actually looking at every opportunity as it presents itself.

Sharon:

I’ve clearly never been a client before in my entire life; I’ve always been on the agency side. But I do know from working with the likes of Mars, PNG, Diageo, some really amazing marketing companies there’s always a base line of what they need to do now and for the future because there are shareholders to report to.

And the value that Sparks and Honey bring to that partnership is to provide an always on system that allows the client and us to make each other better by creating a system that keeps us on our toes so that we can help them react to a baseline plan now or the next two fiscal years but certainly for the next five years as well.

So, policies are being shaped of the now, like sugar tax for example, we can then help them architect a solution that not only affects the R&D but also possibly the types of people we need to recruit and arguably their distribution system as well.

I think ‘always on’ is actually key because it’s constantly evolving.

Darren:

Yeah, constantly monitoring and when you just mentioned the sugar tax and the issues around sugar and food and food security. I mean it really is incredibly complex isn’t it because it’s not just about consumer trends and consumer culture but it’s also the role of government, it’s the role of finance–there are so many elements that actually underpin this.

Sharon:

What an amazing spectrum. There’s policy making and then there are consumer desires and needs, and in between there is also that consumer truth, that human truth because we still want what we want even as policies are evolving.

So, as a brand how do you reconcile selling a product that a) is still profitable, b) one that is culturally relevant, and one that will not alienate your base consumers as you continue to mine for new consumer segments because otherwise you lose relevance.

Darren:

And that’s the big challenge isn’t it, which you guys would be providing is for companies to be able to see forward how to remain relevant to audiences? There’s that quote, ‘more than half of the companies that were in the top 100 on the stock exchange in 1955 no longer exist today’.

Sharon:

That’s frightening.

Darren:

Because of the change. In fact, when you think about the companies that are dominating the media and dominating talk about the stock exchange they’ve all been created in the last 10 to 20 or 30 years. We’re talking about Google, Apple, and Facebook; all of these companies are relatively new.

And if anyone needed an example of how rapidly the world’s changing that would be a good example.

Sharon:

Clients out of anyone of us know who their current consumers are, extraordinarily well. They probably have an embarrassment of riches in terms of understanding their consumers in terms of brand affinity to what are the consumer journeys to the present.

But one of the things that we help them to do is the personas of the future. One of the categories that we work with is the beer category. And we know from our elements of culture that one of the trends is about new sobriety, it’s about wellness so the people who are buying beers now are they still going to be the same consumer segment in 2025?

Are they going to be buying more? Are they going to be buying less? Are they new people who are not buying it who will be buying it or drinking it? Are there new occasions that will come out that will allow new personas to come in?

So, we help them figure out the formats that will appeal to the consumers of the future. And I think it’s connecting all these different dots and horizontal connections. There’s no one silver bullet to provide a strategic road map.

Identifying customer insights and opportunities from cultural trends

Darren:

The concept I’m hearing here is actually framing because you’re right; a lot of companies, a lot of marketers have a lot of data around their current consumers because that’s where the wealth is.

The purpose of marketing is to create customers and then to maximise the value of those customers to the organisation but unless you’ve got the broader framework of ‘how does that group of customers fit in to the overall trends?’ And it’s something that agencies would offer as an insight but you guys obviously spend a lot of time, money, and effort in actually realising that on an always on basis.

Sharon:

Yeah, so we could straddle between insight for informing current campaigns and that’s like working with marketing directors. And the fact of the matter is brand teams as we know it get rotated off their brands or their teams and move on what every 24 months?

So, we provide the insights for the team but I don’t know whether providing foresight for that team is going to be all that relevant. So, that’s where we work with the C-Suite or the R&D to provide the other end of the spectrum of foresight so within the organisation they can make change of the now bit but certainly of the future as well.

Darren:

So, a lot of this is about data and technology. A lot of the ways you observe and spot trends and what did you call them, macro?

Sharon:

I call them the small, medium, and large.

Darren:

Much like going to Starbucks; grande, venti…

Sharon:

That’s so confusing it still confuses me. It’s not different from buying a t-shirt at GAP I suppose; it’s small, medium, and large. So, we call it micro, macro and mega.

Darren:

Mega trends.

Sharon:

Mega trends, epic trends.

Darren:

But culture is primarily about people so is there a combination of qual and quant in this?

Sharon:

I love that question.

Darren:

Because a lot of people think of data as purely numbers. How do you go from behaviour and quantity into insight and understanding?

Sharon:

It wasn’t too long ago that data is numbers, right? At Sparks and Honey, we often say to clients and even amongst ourselves when tackling a challenge that it’s about man and machine.

So, it’s one thing to have the machine aspect of what we do and we have a tool set of 26 tools that we refresh every 90 days to make sure that these tools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing; they’re giving us the right, accurate, bad-ass data that we’re supposed to get, that we want to get. So, that’s all the data, data, data.

And then on the flip side it’s one thing to live in the world of algorithms and numbers but I think it’s also important to overlay that with humans and that’s the man part of the man and machine. And the man part of Sparks and Honey is the human network.

The human network itself is a fascinating melting pot of different types of people. So, on one hand you have your influencer, advisory board so that’s 34 different acts but leaders, thought leaders, CEOs that are just achingly successful in their respective verticals.

Then on the other hand when we work with the likes of international companies like Pepsi Co where they come over and say to us, help me understand what’s going on in my top 5 to ten different markets then we have what we call ‘global scouts’ and these are your boots on the ground from Mexico to India to China to the U.K to tell us what’s going on on ground level and they feed it back to us here in the hub so that we don’t live in our own bubble.

Darren:

So, there is a qual and quant aspect that brings this together?

Sharon:

Yeah, 100% but even the qual itself is a mixture of experts, corporate people to subject matters, observers, influencers, and boots on the ground. So, I think it’s good to marry that level within qual itself but certainly overlay that with the quant.

The role of both data and intuition in identifying cultural trends

Darren:

The reason I wanted to highlight that with you and get you to clarify it is because I don’t know if you’ve seen in the industry, the marketing world people argue about whether it should be data or it should be intuition and I think it’s such a ridiculous discussion because the two actually work together.

Data is actually such a great way of informing intuition and intuition is such a great way of being able to interpret data. So why do you think people have this idea that it has to be one or the other?

Sharon:

I don’t know and that’s not a very sexy response to your question because I think you’ve answered your own question because I don’t think you have you give up one or the other. I think you should have your cake and eat it.

I can’t imagine just leaning on numbers in the absence of people who are contributing to the numbers so to speak. And you also need numbers to make sure that you are doing your due diligence of understanding the reach, people that you can impact, the prediction of whether or not this trend is going to last for 24 or 48 months to just the energy.

Are people still talking about it with absolute passion or are people still talking about it and we know we need to fix it and the energy level is a lot lower. So that is the algorithm that we have in our elements of culture where we use that algorithm of prediction, energy, and reach to help us separate the noise versus the signals.

Because we have the culture briefing every day so it can get overwhelming but what we do is to look at unstructured data and then structure them, a) by separating the noise and the signals and then putting the signals into specific buckets and then after that separating them at the three different levels of small, medium, and large (your micro, macro, and mega) to give it some sense.

Darren:

To identify where those trends are happening and at what level.

Sharon:

Exactly and to your point earlier; it’s about framing. It’s always about framing. Framing is such a big catch-all word. Give it context and it makes sense.

Darren:

The actual skill of framing is so important and in fact most people use it intuitively. In their daily conversations, they’ll frame their life experiences differently depending on who they’re talking to. You know they’ll play things down or… So, I wonder sometimes whether it’s 1) a general lack of personal insight that they know what framing is.

Sharon:

On a very intimately personal level?

Darren:

So they know what it is on a personal level but they have trouble bringing that to bear in a professional way. And the other thing I struggle with is I see a lot of people when faced with the complexity of life want to simplify things all the time. But whether people struggle with the fact that both intuition and data actually have important roles, they want to pick one or the other because that’s simple.

When we’re overwhelmed with complexity or maybe it’s just a construct to get some controversy going.

Sharon:

Interesting. It’s really just two options, isn’t it? First of all, we should always simplify because if anything I think sometimes we are a solution looking for a problem. Because I think it’s actually more difficult to simplify than it is to complicate a simple situation.

Darren:

There’s a good Einstein quote that I love. He said, ‘genius is taking complex and making it simpler but not simple’. The danger of taking something complex and coming up with a simple solution is that if you make it simple it could be that you’ve actually overlooked the fact that it’s not a solution.

And I’ll give you an example; we’re faced with huge social issues, clearly, and I’m sure you guys have mapped lots of trends. Why is it that politicians that come up and go, ‘do this, like build a wall’ or ‘I’m going to do this’—people are attracted to the simple even though it’s not actually going to address the conflicts?

Sharon:

People are lazy.

Darren:

Yeah, they’re overwhelmed with complexity

Sharon:

People are either not questioning it enough or they don’t want to have to think it, question, it or challenge it or perhaps it’s just a very simple construct, it’s a simple narrative of what seems to be one plus one=two, not even three anymore.

O.K that’s easy to understand; build a wall therefore bad people out, good people in.

Darren:

I saw a terrific thing online; a man going around, which had the Great Wall of China and they said that was built 5,000, 4,000 years ago and there are no Mexicans in China so clearly the wall worked.

Sharon:

I love that. I have to spin that now. I’m going to recycle that for a different conversation.

The importance of diversity in interpreting cultural trends

Darren:

That brings up the next point I wanted to discuss with you, which is the incredible importance of diversity as a way of being able to get the insights that you get. Would you say that working here at Sparks and Honey –just walking though the place there seems to be an incredible diversity of people and ideas and thoughts?

Sharon:

It’s a real real passion point for me because this very bastardised accent that I have comes from a melting pot of being from Singapore, studied in Australia, lived and worked in London, Hong Kong and now I find myself here.

So I have lived in international cities, I have worked in multinational agencies of all sorts but I have never ever been so blown away by the diversity at Sparks and Honey and I say that not because I’ve drunk the Cool Aid but what you see is what you see and what you see is what you get.

And what I see over here it’s Americans and non-Americans, blacks, whites, Asians and everything in between. What I see here is straight/gay. What I see here is somebody who’s 25 to somebody who’s 55. And what I see here in culture is the answer that is always right.

Brands can be right and brands can be wrong. The agency can be right and sometimes we are wrong. I guess what I’m saying is the only thing that keeps all of us on is the clients on us because clients make mistakes as well.

Darren:

We’re only human.

Sharon:

We’re only human. You look at culture and you make your best guess, judgements and decisions based on the data that you have. The data not just being numbers but data based on what you get from speaking to people, to the numbers that you get from your tool stack, all your search survey listening tools.

Darren:

There’s been a lot of talk, especially after the election in America here, that one of the problems with social media for a lot of people is that they connect to like-minded people that basically reflect their values. And so, social media for them becomes an echo chamber where they’re just talking to themselves and they hear back what they want to hear, right?

And I wonder sometimes whether that’s one of the dangers because we see in so many organisations and it’s interesting for me because we’ve got quite a number of clients that have diversity directors but in actual fact it’s about gender diversity.

And what I loved about your answer a minute ago was that here it’s all sorts of diversity. It’s not just gender, it’s race, it’s age, it’s sexuality. It’s all sorts of diversity.

Sharon:

Depending on who you speak to some people think that diversity is just men and women and that’s it. And maybe that’s the one that rises to the top but to me coming from Singapore, not being American, diversity is so much richer than that and when you get a whole bunch of people in a room that keeps each other honest and I suppose call bullshit to a certain point of view. It’s a healthy debate.

When I say ‘bullshit’ I say that with the most strategic polarising point of view. And that’s where you provoke the richness of thought.

Darren:

Well, you’ve come from a country that’s incredibly diverse. Singapore is such a small physical island and yet could you think of anywhere that has so many different racial backgrounds, groups, language, it’s an incredible melting pot, isn’t it?

Sharon:

It is.

Darren:

You probably didn’t appreciate it until you left.

Sharon:

I was just about to say that. The fact that I see signs that are in three languages, the fact that I grew up, in an all-girls catholic school where I was flanked by my Indian friend, my Malay friend, my Chinese friend, my Eurasian friend to me that’s my norm. That’s my universe.

Darren:

That’s your default setting.

Sharon:

That’s my default setting and I don’t know anything else that is not diverse, which makes me biased or not? I don’t know.

Darren:

That’s a norm for you. So, you either maintain the norm or you constantly challenge it. But the reason diversity has become so important is because this idea (and I think we’ve discussed this), which is observer bias.

When you’re working in an area that’s data-informed people will interpret the data based on their particular perspective. When you have a diverse group of people with many different perspectives they actually work towards keeping each other in check. Because you can look at a set of data points and three different people could have three different interpretations of the underlying cause and effect or insight that comes out of that.

Sharon:

I feel like you’re a fly on the wall here at Sparks and Honey, Darren, because the one thing that we talk about quite often as we look to reduce the level of manual input and balance that with automated input of the signal capturing and scanning is that we will never be able to eliminate bias. But what we could certainly do is balance the bias, right?

And that’s what it is so that there is a place for different points of view within reason that’s not bigotry or racism—your usual suspects there – but when it’s a point of view that has been informed by sense and sensibility then it provides a fair point of view that might be different but certainly one that is worth considering.

Darren:

Look, thank you very much for your time, thanks for sharing, and thank you very much for having me here.

Sharon:

You’re so very kind.

 

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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