Organizing for Growth in a Digital Age


Marc de Swaan Arons, Contributor

March 20, 2015

In today’s digital world, what marketers do has changed almost beyond recognition; the tactics used to drive brand awareness, interest and loyalty are completely different from the marketing mix of just a few years ago. But interestingly, how the marketing function is organized has not changed much since the discipline of brand management was first developed over fifty years ago. Looking forward to the year 2020, many global business leaders are asking themselves how to best prepare their organizations to effectively connect and interact with customers and consumers to drive business growth.

To tackle this question, MB Vermeer and Google partnered to identify what it takes to win, specifically how to align the marketing organization structure and capability with the strategy for success in a digital age. Leveraging the findings of the Marketing2020 global marketing leadership initiative, we identified key opportunities and challenges of organizing for a digital age, determined which organizational characteristics differentiate over-achievers, and designed a holistic framework encompassing structure, people, processes and tools – the organizational building blocks for tomorrow’s winning marketing organizations.

Changing Marketing Landscape

New consumer touch points, solutions, brand experiences, and redefined categories are forcing us to rethink the role of marketing in the digital age. Think of Bank of America’s mobile banking solution – depositing checks using our phone’s camera wasn’t even imaginable three years ago. Brands are leveraging digital technology to design total experiences for their consumers that go beyond traditional product or service solutions. For instance, Nike is not just about selling running shoes anymore; from wearable technologies to mobile apps, the athletic apparel and footwear giant has engaged many of the new digital marketing channels to interact with consumers in a holistic fashion and deliver on the brand’s purpose of “unleashing the athlete within.” A full suite of digital devices, including the Fuel Band and the Nike+ mobile apps, makes the Nike purpose accessible to consumers anytime, anywhere. Then there are the disruptors: heavily digitized startups such as Uber and AirBnB that are entering mature categories and unabashedly breaking the rules of the game and stealing market share.

This rapidly changing marketing landscape is driving an urgency for marketers to also develop new ways of working within the company and within marketing. New expectations of speed and transparency are driving brand leaders to evolve their strategies and organizations at a blistering pace. Many of these changes are being fueled by digital, and crafting a winning strategy has sparked debate all the way to the top of the command chain. Digital began as simply a new media channel choice, and then over the years quickly transformed into a marketing mix element. Today, with new disruptors leveraging digital technology to reshape category rules, digital has become a strategy tool, a constant topic in board rooms around the world.

Fundamental questions

Winning CEOs and CMOs are taking a holistic approach, addressing fundamental questions about what business they are in, why they exist, and how to build their organization together. Historically, brands only addressed these questions once a generation, but they are now being revisited much more frequently. There are some key differences between the approach of the over-achievers and the rest:

  • Overachievers have smooth exchanges between internal departments and external agencies – they operate seamlessly, with integrated and continuous collaboration.
  • Overachievers worry less about the new organigram and the titles of each role. Instead, they take a more holistic approach.


The right people must be in place to successfully create a total consumer experience and integrated solutions. “Right people” embrace the company culture, values, behaviors, and competencies required to deliver the brand strategy. In over-performing organizations, leaders ignite change and lead from the start. They think differently about talent and advocate learning, partnering with HR to recruit and train. They empower employees, moving away from “command and control.” Further, they create future leaders by motivating millennial employees. Practical initiatives you can implement in your organization:

  • Assess your company culture to determine your readiness to embrace and build a culture of innovation, curiosity, risk taking and empowerment – capitalize on quick wins and close gaps
  • Form pilot teams to think and act outside “corporate”; invite new partners in to help solve business issues
  • Work with HR to ensure job specs and hiring profiles push beyond the usual candidate pool
  • Create programs that appeal to millennials (e.g., mentorship, flex time for personal passions)
  • Tie rewards and PDPs to shared KPIs


Structure isn’t just about the org chart: it’s one networked organization collaborating to achieve an aligned strategy. Marketers must embrace a more fluid and integrated organization capable of delivering a total consumer experience around their brand’s positioning. The organization must be networked across functions, teams and partners. The structure that supports such strategic success requires marketing leaders to break down silos, orchestrate a team of specialists, build communities of excellence, refine decision-making flows, and clearly establish business KPIs. Practical initiatives you can implement in your organization:

  • Break down organizational silos that dilute brand experience or hamper collaboration; make sure that legal and HR are closely connected with your change process.
  • Bring together teams with a balance of data & analytics (THINK), consumer engagement (FEEL), content production (DO). Determine the balance based on the task at hand
  • Assess and balance the digital specialist capabilities you bring in-house with those for which you lean on agency partners, ensuring you treat both as true partners
  • Create communities of digital expertise across your business and begin paving the road to enterprise wide digital excellence


In addition to having the right structure and people in place to support the company’s strategy, marketers must define how the actual work happens in the organization. Well-defined processes lead to predictability, stability and higher quality while reducing inefficiencies. The key is to prioritize the most critical processes to define – those that differentiate your company from competitors and allow your company to excel. Once the processes are defined, marketing leaders need to activate and embed throughout the organization. Over-performing organizations create strategic clarity with simple guardrails and push decision making rights down to the right levels. They also ensure interdependencies between functions to dramatically shorten approval times – befriending legal is a prime example of such an interdependency. Practical initiatives you can implement in your organization:

  • Create simple guardrails for your brands to guide real time decision making
  • Make sure accountability and decision making rights are at the right levels. No power plays.
  • Establish an approval process that honors effective community and social management. Try the 24-hour clock model: if approval is not given in 24 hours, then the content can be pushed
  • Sync decision-making bio-rhythms and meeting cadences to your activities


In today’s digital world, decisions must be based and dealt with in real-time. Over-performers recognize the need for iterative improvement, capturing what works and hardcoding collaboration, investing in excellence programs, and ensuring communication and connectivity within the organization. The best tools allow you to answer Yes to questions such as: “does it increase responsiveness?”, “does it feel organic to how we work?”, “does it help us share and codify best practices?”, “does it foster collaboration?” and “does it equip my team to win and serve as brand ambassadors to the outside world?” Practical initiatives you can implement in your organization:

  • Remove barriers in the office and internal communication tools to help employees connect and collaborate across functions
  • Assess digital competencies; develop on-demand learning programs to upskill


Re-engineering an organization’s operating model for marketing in a digital age requires a holistic approach across structure, people, process and tools. Over-achievers focus on bringing in the right talent and capabilities to think about marketing in a digital age (not digital marketing), push for integration (not hand-offs), and organize within a holistic operating model (not just with organigrams). The time to act is now. Whether you chose to tackle the entire operating model at once, or implement practical initiatives across people, structure, process and tools one-by-one, as long as you take the holistic perspective you’ll be ahead of the game.

This article was written by Marc de Swaan Arons from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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