Biz Tips: Ask The CMO: Diana O’Brien On Marketing As A Vehicle Of Empathic-Driven Transformation

Biz Tips: Ask The CMO: Diana O’Brien On Marketing As A Vehicle Of Empathic-Driven Transformation


Ask The CMO: Diana O’Brien On Marketing As A Vehicle Of Empathic-Driven Transformation

For my most recent piece, I had the pleasure of speaking with Diana O’Brien, a Deloitte veteran with over thirty years of experience across consulting, client service, and talent management. In 2015, she became Deloitte’s first-ever CMO. The following is a recap of our conversation nearly three years into her role:

Billee: So, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about the state of the marketing function and I thought with you, as the first ever CMO of Deloitte, it would be great to start with your thoughts on the changing face of marketing and how that has factored into your journey?

Diana: Our CEO recognized that digital wasn’t just changing the people side, it was changing everything and that included marketing. She was very clear about our directive, mobilize the power of our organization with one clear brand.

I had been with Deloitte thirty years and never really worked in marketing. I grew up in client service and on the consulting side. I then went on to take some talent management roles, and helped create Deloitte University, our leadership center. When appointed CMO, I was leading our global client portfolio. I realized early on that I had great people around me who understood marketing but we were so dispersed, we weren’t really using marketing as a unifying force in the organization. I now realize that everyone is a marketer , but I didn’t see it that way at the time. I looked at us as a client services business, and it was all about your personal relationship. I didn’t see that as aided by marketing, and I really didn’t have an appreciation for how marketing might promote that relationship.

We also weren’t looking at the customer the same way and the customer experience became extremely fragmented, so we began pulling everything together to create a unified structure. I realized early on that I had to work with my peers in the business and say “let’s unify all of our disparate campaigns under one umbrella” so we can stop being dilutive with our messaging. We are two years into a multi-year true transformation, because we are still building and the process has been iterative.

Billee: When you are talking about transformation, are you talking about business transformation, brand transformation or both?

Diana: Both. On the brand side, we worked to clarify what marketing’s job was. It was a function that needed to drive growth and improve our ability to get more consideration and create more influencers. We made it our mission to really understand the customer to make sure that 1) our businesses all viewed the customer holistically and 2) the brand was aligned in the way we went to market. A lot of things came together at that point and allowed us to take steps toward getting clear on our purpose statement globally. We began to be able to embed our purpose into our campaigns in a really holistic way.

If you look back three years, we were not a very socially-savvy organization. I think we’ve absolutely turned the dial on social, as we now see it as everyone’s responsibility to be out there advocating on behalf of our brand, creating what it is we want to be in the marketplace. Everyone at Deloitte is a brand ambassador. In the past, I think if you asked any of our C-suite executives who was responsible for the brand, the answer would have been marketing. Now that answer is all of us.

Billee: That’s really amazing, particularly as people in your space especially find it very difficult to let up the reigns enough for people to actually share and advocate on behalf of the brand. Can you talk about how you were able to instigate this type of culture shift?

Diana: That’s such a great comment because I believe that’s absolutely true. First, one-on-one conversations needed to take place with our executives because part of their initial response was, “Hey, we shouldn’t talk about that or put that out there.” My job was to get people to understand that everything we are on the inside will in fact show up on the outside. So, let’s try to make those two experiences the same. We’re not perfect, but let’s at least have some aspirations about where we want to go and why we want to go there.

One example is related to our inclusion efforts and, in particular, our Family Leave Program. Twenty-two years ago, I was going to leave the company and didn’t think I could have a career. I was thirty days from signing my partner papers when my kids were diagnosed with autism. I went to the partners and I said I have to leave. And they said, don’t leave, you earned this. I listened to them, took a leave of absence, and the organization was so supportive of me and showed me what our culture was about.

We have evolved even further today, to a culture where this type of behavior has been operationalized and institutionalized. Just this past year, we put in place a new Family Leave Program which says that anyone, for any reason, can take sixteen weeks off, without explanation. To me, we weren’t perfect back when I needed a flexible work arrangement, but we were trying to be. And, that’s where I believe we are today as a brand: we are not perfect, but we are really trying to institutionalize a culture of empathy. I think that shines through inside and out, in all we do. We needed to make our brand be about our people and our culture of knowledge, and resources needed to align to actually drive true creativity and innovation into the marketplace. The model is so different. It’s working and I’m so proud of it.

Billee: You should be. That’s very interesting. I think that you know many people are trying to identify their purpose and use it as an aspirational theme with which to engage externally. Many however don’t understand that they have to first start at home. What are your thoughts?

Diana: Our purpose is grounded in making an impact that matters. That’s how we define it. Making an impact that matters for our clients, our people and our community. So, our people can be the example I just mentioned. We’ve always cared about people during their moments of need, but we’re actively trying each and every day to make it who we are as a brand.

Thinking about it in reference to our communities, we look at it this way — if we have some sort of skillset that might be helpful to the marketplace in solving some type of societal issue, we want to help. Most recently we have thought about education and created WorldClass — an organization-wide initiative aligning Deloitte’s efforts on a local scale, around a global ambition, to empower 50 million futures. Our entire approach is focused on working with our people to apply their skillsets to an area of need. In this case, helping close the gap for people in need to get into college — people that might have otherwise not had that opportunity.

Translated to our client work, if the work is good work, it matters. If you’re changing the way a business shows up in the marketplace, finds a cure for a type of cancer, creates a new way to do something, it makes you want to get up and do it. It gives you energy and makes your blood flow. That’s what we want our people to feel in the work. We are no longer solving for siloed activities. Today the issues are viewed more holistically, and are all geared toward making an impact.

Billee: The role of HR and people seems to be spilling over into the CMO bailiwick. So how do you approach that at Deloitte?

Diana: Marketing today is as much an internal job as an external job. I have a great relationship with our Chief Talent Officer and we spend a lot of time talking about our culture. Our CEO is also very passionate about our culture. She describes us as having a culture of courage. We encourage our people to test ideas to learn, and to also speak up so we can act quickly. To us, failure is not bad, it’s about finding something unexpected that we can then do something with. I just love that. I think that we can try things and then learn something from it, but you have to learn fast. We have an environment that says “let’s try things.” I think it is probably the biggest directive that comes from our CEO, and we embrace this wholeheartedly.

Billee: In today’s market, everyone be they employee or client is a customer. What are your thoughts on how to approach shaping uniform experiences that are empathic and drive engagement?

Diana: What I absolutely know is that we have to keep winning over the hearts and minds of our clients in every interaction and that we’re always working to do something to that end. So, I need to be able to empower all of what I’m going to call my “field and customer services,” to bring these types of experiences to life all the time. People are still working to figure out how to best use new and emerging technologies, and I feel that as the CMO, I should take the lead and help all of our people, two hundred and fifty thousand globally, empower themselves with new things. I believe it is marketing’s role to push further.

But you can’t get distracted by technology. When I first started, I was so overwhelmed with all the technology in the marketing stack, and was worried that I would need to be a technologist. What I realize today, is that whether it’s with our clients or our people, first and foremost, it still needs to be all about the human connection.

As you suggest, the roles of customer, employee and ambassador have merged. A customer can either be a great brand ambassador or a bad brand ambassador, and their influence is very high because people will listen to what another customer has to say first. And everyone expects to have a great experience. An employee needs to be treated the same way as our clients because if they’re not, they’re not going to be able to advocate out there for us. So, the ecosystem has changed. At any moment, you can be a customer, an ambassador for the brand or an employee and all of those things need to come together. That’s why I feel the idea of collaboration has never been so important. True collaboration, being connected to your core purpose and your core values, will deliver value.

Billee: I’d love to hear how you find the right mix between creativity and technology to help you in your role.

Diana: I get concerned when people say, “well there’s the data and the creativity”. Everyone was born with both and while everyone may have a different starting point or a natural disposition everyone can learn. We went to school and learned math as well as how to read a book. The idea that your whole mind doesn’t need to come to work is very strange to me.

When you combine the two, interesting things happen. I’m super proud of how we’ve used AI to disrupt the entire audit process. We have utilized the technology to reimagine what is possible, automating previously manual tasks and freeing auditors to create insight. When we look at what we have been able to accomplish I am confident about the innovation we are driving and enabling.

Smart cities are another example. When you look at how cities could function and what needs to happen for the betterment of our world, it brings together all the things that are going to be interconnected and what we can learn from the data.

I think there is so much data and lots of new technologies that are going to help us use data to be better, and be smarter, but it’s really the coming together of the creative and the technology that makes things happen. What’s the key to success for a really great marriage? You need the love, but you also need the commitment too, and it’s together that they make a great pair. It just doesn’t work any other way. Marrying creativity and technology is the same.

Billee: That’s a great way of looking at it. I think lot of people in your peer group are struggling because they’re either too focused on the science side or the art side and don’t know how to blend both. What are your thought on tips for successful integration?

Diana: Marketing to me is about the whole brain. Someone once said to me Deloitte can never really be creative. I said that’s not true, you’re missing the point. Being creative comes down to an ability to reframe questions in a way they have never been asked before. A great professor from Stanford has a very cool and simple way of describing this. She says if you say, “5+5 =?” Everyone knows the answer is ten. Everyone knows it as there is only one correct answer to that, but if you ask “what+what? =10”, how many answers can you come up with for that? So, reframing questions challenges our assumptions and that’s what I love about Deloitte. We hire lots of smart people, but one of the first things we have them do is walk in someone else’s shoes to help them think about how to frame things differently. That concept makes it clear that we consider empathy to be one of our core anchors as a brand.

People often make the mistake of viewing consistency as being about rules and processes. We think of it differently and believe that uniformity needs to come from a set of behaviors. There needs to be a real consistency around the culture and core values, but creativity and innovation in the approach to challenges. We created a Leadership Center at Deloitte and it’s not just for senior people, it’s for everyone throughout the organization. We want to be an organization that encourages people to stand up and speak out. We want our people to know that anyone here can be called upon at any time. To speak up. To say what needs to be said. I get goose bumps when I think of our values that way.

We’re going to take a lot of what we’ve done here to our global operations. The rest of the organization is excited to take part in much of what we have built and I’m excited about it. The core opportunity is that we need to be great at purpose and the content and insights that drive it.

Billee: Do you want to close with some general thoughts on marketing in the year ahead?

Diana: It’s the best possible time to be a marketer. I have had a wonderful thirty-year career at Deloitte doing so many different things, and I feel like I’m lucky to have this as likely my last job. The opportunity in marketing has never been greater and I’m excited by all that I’m able to do with the function. I’m very proud of what we’ve done here to change the way people see marketing in the organization, and I feel that leaving that is my legacy and will perhaps be one of my greatest achievements.

Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.

Originally published at on June 14, 2018.

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