Putting people first: The path to building a digital center of excellence

by | Jan 6, 2022 | General Marketing, Leadership, Marketing News, Uncategorized | 0 comments

30-second summary:

  • A digital center of excellence is, at its core, all about people.
  • The centers can take on many forms depending on the size and needs of your organization.
  • Getting buy-in requires strong relationship building and clear communication, keeping in mind that success will benefit the entire business.

Sabrina RodriguezWe sat down with Sabrina Rodriguez, a digital marketing leader and strategist with 10+ years of experience working in digital transformation programs and currently Global Head of Digital Marketing at Ericsson. Having spent the past seven years building Global Centres of Excellence within global enterprise businesses, we wanted to understand a little more about how to go about building one, and why it’s important for an increasing number of businesses today. We discuss how to gain company buy-in, what data can do to better inform decisions, what some of the biggest challenges are and why investing in people is so critical.

Q: What is a digital center of excellence?

Sabrina: In its essence, centers of excellence are all about people – from recruiting and connecting to upskilling and empowering. And while there are numerous ways of designing these centers depending on the company’s needs, their level of digital maturity, available resources, budgeting, etc., the one mission they all share is the need to accelerate their digital marketing capabilities to fuel long-term business growth.

“Digital transformation in the context of marketing transformation isn’t just about marketing. It impacts the whole business.” Sabrina Rodriguez

Q: What forms can these centers take?

Sabrina: So that might involve thinking about a central team or multiple central teams depending on regional set up, hub and spoke models can work well in the right structural context, or perhaps it is simply the need for a peer-to-peer community – or of course, the business might require all three of those things. Whichever structure you opt for, you need to ensure the model is scalable. Efficiency is after all one of the key missions of any center of excellence.

To support those scaling efforts and accelerate the mission for excellence globally, you will also need to think about upskilling programs supported by playbooks, toolkits, community, and horizontal best practice exchange. There is so much activity already happening in any business, so it’s important as a center of excellence to be tapped into that, and to give a platform to those areas of best practice to share, iterate and scale.

Another key mission is to drive innovation at scale to set yourselves apart from the competition, so it’s key that you are embedding an innovation mindset, allowing teams the space to play and fail quickly while making sure your established business processes and Mar tech stack are continually optimized for growth.

Investing in high-impact strategic partnerships will also be crucial to enable all the above, from upskilling to innovation, whether those are agencies, media partners or tech platforms.

Q: Why and how are these centers beneficial for those in digital marketing?

Sabrina: As we have discussed, every center of excellence is different depending on the business needs and context, however, there are several core value drivers that are worth highlighting. Primarily, a Centre of Excellence should provide clear strategic direction and support. This is important not just to galvanize the business around a collective long-term ambition, but to provide a valuable compass for decision-making for all teams across the business working with digital day-to-day. Another key value driver, and one of the most common requests I’ve received building Centres of Excellence, is the need for more standardized best practices, processes, and governance. This often goes hand in hand with some form of scaled upskilling program, academy and/or community. When it comes to embedding more digital fluency across the business, everyone should benefit, not just those working with digital every day. It’s therefore important to include activities appropriate for a wider audience, from social media training to industry trends, always with the view to translating digital marketing into real, jargon-free business impact.

CZ: You’ve just started at Ericsson with the mission of setting up a digital marketing center of excellence – how are you going about that?

Sabrina: In an enterprise business as large and complex as Ericsson, it’s crucial to spend as much time listening and observing before coming to any sort of solution, so I’ve spent the first couple of months sitting down with as many people across the business as possible. Throughout this mini auditing process, I’m also looking at things like resourcing processes, team structures, current and planned projects, our tech stack, our current ways of working with markets and business areas and any low-hanging fruit we can address right now, as well as the longer-term strategic opportunities. Slowly but surely, I start to pull a plan together, while continually seeking input from key stakeholders.

Q: You’ve worked in several complex organizations. How do you go about getting buy-in? Is that typically quite challenging?

Sabrina: It is always a challenge. But it’s doable. Getting buy-in requires sitting down with as many stakeholders as possible and building trust in your strategy by actively listening and iterating while staying true to your long-term ambition. It’s a long road of conversations, presentations, workshops, and focus groups, but it’s worth it. Without investing that time, you will struggle to maintain buy-in on a long-term basis and will only encounter more blockers as you push ahead. It’s also important to sit down with teams outside of marketing, particularly those working closely with the customer, whether that’s sales, product, or customer service. Their insights, collaboration, and feedback are invaluable, and in my experience, this has often led to much more customer-centric innovation. Company “veterans” are also a fantastic source of knowledge, with many years of historic knowledge, connections, and insights to help inform your strategy and approach, as well as identifying exciting opportunities we have not yet grasped or succeeded in driving forwards yet.

Q: It sounds like building relationships is key to this. Would that be correct?

Sabrina: Absolutely. It’s all about building relationships and bringing as many people along with you as possible. I’m a big believer in co-creation and collaborative strategic planning. While I might put some initial thoughts on a page and a high-level vision, really my second round of meetings and interviews with everyone is about stress testing that and getting their collective input and builds. Am I on the right track? Is there anything else we’re missing here? Where do our teams need to work more closely? What are some of the existing workstreams I plug into? Building a strategy and roadmap is very much a collaborative and insight-led process.

Q: Does data play a role in shaping your strategy?

Sabrina: As a marketer, data is your friend. When you are trying to paint a picture and galvanize teams and leaders around a vision, for example, using big data can be helpful in landing an exciting story or a scary story, depending on how the business decides to proceed. While the process of sitting down with stakeholders across the business is an important part of shaping the strategy, I always start from the outside-in, identifying the key long-term digital trends in the industry that present an incredible growth opportunity for the business but equally paint a potentially gloomy future if we standstill.

​​Q: You talk about customer-centric innovation – how do you leverage data to achieve that exactly?

Sabrina: When it comes to the customer, having a strong identity strategy is crucial and this is a challenge many businesses are still tackling right now. Why? Because to achieve that, you need many different building blocks that need to fit together, from having a clear data strategy and joined-up tech stack to leveraging behavioral persona research and integrated reporting workflows. By building a more holistic picture of your customer and joining the dots between these initiatives, you can slowly start to test and iterate with your paid media, apply the learnings to the UX of your website, design more effective nurture programs and user journeys… the list goes on. But it requires a lot of foundational work to get there, and it’s not something achieved overnight.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you typically face as a center of excellence?

Sabrina: I would say one of the biggest challenges for digital marketing teams anywhere is our obsession with completely inaccessible jargon! You lose non-digital audiences quickly if you don’t spend time translating digital metrics into real business impact, and that hinders your ability as a Centre of Excellence to embed digital fluency across the broader business. We also have a bit of a problem with the allure of vanity metrics because as we all know, the more zeros on the page, the better it sounds. When we talk about metrics, we need to be asking the right questions, like ‘what did that mean for audience x and audience y?’ ‘What did we learn about the format and frequency?’ ‘What are we going to do differently next week?’ We need to apply an agile mindset to our results and test, iterate then scale. Data should be used as an optimization tool more than anything else. That’s what matters most to digital marketers.

Q: What does success look like for you overall?

Sabrina: In the short term, it is all about having a strong network with trusted relationships across key areas of the business. In the long term, I want us to be able to power long-term sustainable business growth through the smart use of digital. I want the best people in the business working with us. And I want us to continue to set new standards of innovation and excellence in the industry through best-in-class digital marketing.

Q: Do you have any parting words? What takeaway would you offer our readers?

Sabrina: Digital transformation in the context of marketing transformation isn’t just about marketing. It impacts the whole business. I think that is still something companies are learning. You are also going to get the highest return if you invest in people; while technology and data are of course important, it’s the people who will drive real change for your business.


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