Interviews

“What is expected of a CMO nowadays is verging on unfair”

Rob Pierre, CEO of Jellyfish on why the future of marketing transformation requires marketers to recognise they don’t have all the answers.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Digital transformation. Two words which have perhaps eclipsed even ‘mobile first’ as a marketing buzzword that has generated infinitely more headlines than tangible actions. It’s an action gap highlighted by the scramble to digital platforms and ecommerce driven by necessity in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. A state of panic which made it increasingly clear for many brands and agencies that the rhetoric surrounding ‘digital first’ had not always equated to meaningful change.

It’s an ecosystem which put new economy brands from Netflix and Amazon to Peloton and Google in prime position to thrive. A digital head start that was also achieved by Jellyfish, a digital business which has had its tentacles across both understanding and driving the digital transformation for over a decade.

For Rob Pierre, the Co-Founder and CEO of Jellyfish, the fundamental nature of this shift has been clear since the brand’s inception in 2005, where pandemics were the stuff of movie screens rather than panic-laden Zoom meetings. Of course, like all fast-growth businesses in the marketing sphere it doesn’t define itself as an agency. He describes the business instead as “a new kind of digital business partner” where agency services are combined with consultancy, training and technology. It’s an approach which means that the agency’s client list reads as a who’s who of new economy brands, including Google, Samsung, Uber, Nestlé, Orange, Netflix and Nike.

Jellyfish is an agency brand that perhaps still has a way to go when it comes to brand awareness, but the business has been on the leading-edge of digital-first marketing agencies. Old school industry commentators might still associate industry innovation with Soho, rather than Surrey but the agency’s impressive track record and unique approach is increasingly impossible to ignore.

You have to have the right infrastructure in place, but you also need the right attitude.

Rob Pierre

The fallacy of digital first

As an industry, marketing may have been talking about being ‘digital first’ for over a decade but the truth is, the pandemic left many brands scrambling and immediately exposed the fundamental flaws in the all or nothing, unnecessarily binary ‘brand or performance’ debate. Pierre is articulate on the need to shift from this somewhat blunt debate. Instead, he points to the way that digital is shifting from awareness and a purely transactional approach to one that is firmly rooted in advocacy.

“We have had this situation in businesses where you had one person whose job title was digital, and that was the solution. But the truth is digital transformation is just table stakes for brands today and is about far more than one person,” he explains.

So too is it more about the binary debate of in-housing as if it is diametrically opposed to hiring an agency; no one solution, or one person can be all things to all people. “What is expected of a CMO nowadays is verging on unfair. So, you need to think harder about how you give them access to the very best talent,” he explains, pointing to the fact that the notion that one person can be an expert at everything is setting leaders up to fail.

Pierre points to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a hypothetical cognitive bias, which states that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. “The less you know the more confident you are. The mindset should accept that it's complicated and that no one individual should have all the answers,” he says.

Beyond the theatre of adland

So, what does this need for deep digital expertise mean for the future of agencies? “It’s less about the theatre,” he explains. “It's less about the charismatic individual and it's more about understanding use cases and the granular experiences.”

Yet this doesn’t automatically mean that what might be perceived as ‘traditional’ marketing skill sets are outdated. As Pierre notes: “We get the fundamentals from storytellers and we engage with them on an ongoing basis.” Nor is it about the process above people. “You have to have the right infrastructure in place, but you also need the right attitude,” he adds.

For marketers the challenge is clear: you need to know what you need and how to access it. “You might need a specialist skill for three days,” he explains. “This notion you can build an in-house team means that for the bit you go deep with, you need true expertise to meet that granular need.”

It’s this expertise that Jellyfish leans on heavily with Pierre highlighting the “2,000 experts across the company”, which he describes as ‘T shaped’ in that they have broad marketing skills but are true experts in one specific field. Understandably, he believes that brands should “embrace the fact you need to lean on a partner to understand the challenges.”

The agency's approach to in-housing is nuanced; training is a large part of the agency’s offering. “In the last 12 months we have trained 20,000 delegates in digital marketing expertise,” he says.

Infinite tasks, the challenge for marketers today

This expertise is increasingly crucial for marketers struggling to thrive in the midst of so much change. “Digital transformation has bought with it a big shift for clients into an uncertain world,” he says, going on to explain the challenges for brands existing in the feedback loop of our digital driven culture: “If you tell a brilliant story, if you respond to reviews and feedback you can scale at speed. But if you are not satisfying the algorithms you are shouting at the world and no one is listening.”

So, how can brands rise to this challenge? Pierre is clear on the approach being rooted in taking a more multi-disciplined approach to marketing. As he explains, what’s key is “having the ability to execute on so many platforms and with so much technology when you have been working with agencies who produce in one format.”  He points to the fact that in the new digital economy there are less traditional media outlets, but at the same time infinite tasks to create all the time, powered by the rise of platforms such as TikTok. The notion of ‘always on’ marketing might feel outdated yet conversely it has essentially become a state of being for new economy brands, creators and digital partners.

Whether this shift means brands need to be platform first or customer first is a matter of debate. “The first person you have to impress is the algorithm,” he notes. Yet he underlines that this is about audience segmentation and using platforms as a conduit to understand human behaviour. “I’m not talking about gaming the system with organic SEO. It’s about creating a great experience, of having great reviews and still being media and platform focused.”

If you are not satisfying the algorithms you are shouting at the world and no one is listening.

Rob Pierre

Scaling in the age of change

As marketers and agencies alike get their heads up as we collectively emerge from the worst ravages of the crisis, what has Pierre learned from scaling up in the midst of the pandemic? With 2,000 employees in 40 offices across the globe he points to the need to create a robust structure to empower individuals to be both flexible and autonomous.

In place of the usual hierarchies of agency networks comes what Pierre calls “distributed autonomy”. It’s an approach Pierre says strikes against the “factory settings” of business. Gone are the big job titles and hierarchies and in its place are steering groups for each discipline, a set up that he believes allows the company to leverage individual experience at scale.

Pointing to the shortcomings of legacy systems he explains: “Exposure and knowledge is what gives people power in organisations. So, what they do is hold on to that. Often you have to displace someone senior in order to get ahead.” He believes that Jellyfish’s open system drives diversity and brings through talent to the decision-making process, allowing individuals to take both accountability and receive credit for moving forward. 

The CEO influencer

Jellyfish’s approach elevates the business from line-management to leadership, but it also creates an interesting ecosystem for the CEO. As he jokes: “The CEO is the hippo in the room.” The biggest learning from these steering groups is a fundamentally levelling one. As he explains: “I learnt I can only do my job not by being at the top of a hierarchy but by being part of a team.” Within the steering groups, far from his tenure or job title being the levers by which he could gain respect, it all came down to expertise. “You have to earn the right to be an influencer,” he adds.

This leadership approach ensured Pierre didn’t face the disconnect with the reality of the lived experiences of the Jellyfish employees that have blighted many agencies in the midst of the pandemic. Instead, he moved quickly to create a support fund for employees who needed it. People with caring responsibilities were supported by a vacation donation system in which team members donated 1,000 days of holiday to their colleagues with caring responsibilities.

Pierre is clear on the need to “hold onto the best of everything” that has come out of the pandemic. “I want flexible working for the wellbeing of everyone,” he notes. He points to the fact that effective meetings and pitching have happened seamlessly, although the benefits of collaborating and being around people remain. While hybrid working brings with it some complexities, Pierre is focused on doing everything he can to level the playing field for every employee. He talks passionately about the success the agency has had in eradicating outdated appraisal systems which exacerbated unconscious bias.

The evolution of Jellyfish from a six-person band in Reigate to one of the most innovative marketing partners across the globe is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Not just because of the agency’s deep expertise in digital transformation and scale, but because Pierre’s ‘we not me’ leadership approach empowers employees to think beyond the traditional confines of a job title. Jellyfish’s scale up story is people powered.

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