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Tech in check: Peoplewave founder & CEO Damien Cummings

As a digital disruptor and change agent, industry veteran Damien Cummings boasts over two decades of experience in marketing and digital transformation.

Before founding Peoplewave, he was global head of digital marketing at Standard Chartered Bank and chief marketing officer at Philips APAC. He has also worked at major global brands such as Samsung, Dell, Ogilvy & Mather, Citibank, Coca-Cola, NRMA and McKinsey & Company.

Today, he is founder and CEO of Peoplewave, a cloud-based software company which looks to revolutionise people management and HR. In this role, he is tasked with leading the company’s vision and strategy of bringing fairness to work through transparency and data-driven decision-making. This includes building and managing an investment community, driving sales, setting marketing objectives and recruiting.

In this rendition of #TechInCheck, we sit down with Cummings to talk about his journey to championing digital transformation and road to entrepreneurship. In this interview, he gets candid about the state of the industry and what it means to be a digital marketer today.

Marketing: What was your first digital role like?

Well, I’ve been in digital (marketing) for over 20 years so my memory is increasingly foggy. My first real digital role was my own agency – the very ominously named “Dark Horizon” (I used to say “anything is possible in a dark horizon!” but this included insolvency, as I found out years later…).

We built websites for SMEs and corporates back in the original dotcom boom days of the 1990s. I was managing director, mainly because my other two founders didn’t want to do sales and I needed a fancy title to be taken somewhat seriously.

Marketing: What was your biggest tech blunder?

I haven’t made any real tech mistakes, and I honestly don’t think you can.

For example, choosing the wrong tech vendor can be frustrating but that’s life. I’ve made many career and relationship mistakes. I’ve learned from painful experience that these are the ones that impact your job and future career prospects.

When you get to the CMO or top role in marketing (or in business), your job is no longer about doing great work or even hitting the company targets. It’s about managing risk. Not rocking the boat.

CMOs have the shortest tenure in the C-suite for many reasons.

One of the biggest reasons I’ve seen is that the fundamental role of marketing (growth, pushing the envelope with ideas, being customer-first, etc.) can be incompatible with managing risk in a company. I’ve also found honesty is a casualty of this. Senior leaders become guarded, shrouded in “spin” and unwilling to be genuine and honest. This is where I’ve made my biggest mistake(s) and learned from my failures.

I’ve painfully learned that large corporations do not want you to have an opinion, don’t want to debate nor do they want their ideas challenged. Many big companies and managers don’t want great, innovative or cutting edge, they want safe, tried-and-true and managed. Employees that use social media or actively engage in communities are seen as rouge and uncontrollable. My biggest mistakes have been in not realising this earlier.

Marketing: How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

My mistakes have been in engaging in social media or in unpopular opinions going public through digital platforms. I’ve learned that a good corporate marketing career is a trade-off. Toe the line, keep your head down and don’t rock the boat and you’ll have a comfortable long-term career. If you challenge, strive to transform (rather than simply go-with-the-flow or slowly evolve) or share ideas on digital platforms then perhaps big companies are not the right environment.

There’s not a lot of genuine thought leadership from big brand marketers but there’s a lot of content and content marketing. It can be interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. Do we really need another listicle of the top 10 digital marketing trends of 2018? Or (for example) do we need a robust discussion on why marketing is facing an identity and existential crisis in the C-suite?

Marketing: What are some of the common challenges you face with digital today?

The two significant challenges are first, keeping up. Second is finding strong digital talent that isn’t burnt out. The challenge of keeping up is straightforward – there’s just so much going on in consumer tech, changing consumer needs and in marketing that you need to spend hours (Three hours every week at a minimum) learning. Modern marketers don’t often have this luxury, so they are falling behind.

Continuous learning, reading and networking is the answer but this needs to be integrated into one’s busy schedule.

The second challenge is fair harder. I’ve found that good digital talent is hard to come by. The main reason for this is that they quickly burn out and have only limited career prospects (at senior levels). In the CMO’s team, digital people are seen as implementers. For example, you hire a search marketer for PPC and SEO. But will they be considered for a marketing leadership role? Hell, no! They are worked until they get burnt out or find something better. There’s a large industry debate that needs to be had about marketing career advancement and how to nurture talent. This won’t be an easy fix.

Marketing: Are there any digital trends which excite you or that you are wary of?

I’m really excited about big but slow evolutionary leaps. One great example is robotics and it’s application (such as having “Iron Man”-like exoskeletons to help the impaired and elderly live active and fulfilling lives. Closer to home in the marketing world, digital analytics are the most exciting thing to happen to brands and marketers.

Analytics have busted open myths around media and advertising, allowed brands to become closer to their employees and customers and presents unparalleled transparency that’s changing the world. I strongly believe that marketers need to be more numerate than ever, more data-scientist than creative director.

It’s finally coming true that digital marketing (and data) is just becoming marketing.

Marketing: Any top tips for marketers and brands embracing digital?

Digital isn’t hard but it is time-consuming. Everything is (or at least should be) measured with analytics and there’s software for pretty much any aspect of marketing. The challenge is spending the time keeping up with current and future trends, understanding which technology platforms to align you to and in generally keeping up. It can be exhausting.

The other advice I can offer is to get out there and do something in your personal life in the digital world – write a blog, start an e-commerce store, create an app or do something similar. This gives you very practical hands-on experience with how consumers think and making tech and digital marketing decisions around your project. In corporate marketing roles, it’s easy to get stuck in your ivory tower. Doing your own project takes you out of the tower and into the weeds of how digital is done.

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