How SunTrust Bank’s CMO Uses Data To Start A Movement

Agency execs who grumble about marketing chiefs not understanding technology have likely not met SunTrust Bank’s CMO Susan Somersille Johnson.

Johnson, who has a B.S. in engineering from Harvard and an MBA from the Wharton School, spent the early ’90s at Apple, where she helped develop the PowerBook product and the pricing strategy for Japan.

From there, she went to other tech companies – Fujitsu, Nuance and Nokia – where she did both product management and marketing. But at SunTrust Banks, Johnson is working in a different world, and her latest campaign – onUp, which seeks to instill in consumers a sense of financial confidence – isn’t so much a campaign as it is a movement.

The ads for onUp, Johnson noted, don’t even showcase a product, but the company is bulling ahead. In April, SunTrust launched the second phase of the onUp campaign, at the same time the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium SunTrust Park opened.

Johnson, visiting Cannes for the first time, sat down with AdExchanger to discuss the data needed to start a movement, how to justify doing so when you’ve got a bottom line to meet and her preferred method of working with agencies.

AdExchanger: The audience you want to hit are people who need help with their finances. How do you find them?

SUSAN SOMERSILLE JOHNSON: Native advertising is very helpful, where people are going to learn about money and they find us. We try to get to people through different channels. This is all new to us. When we talk about onUp, we don’t talk about products at all, just changing the way to think about money. So, we have, which is a site developed by millennials for millennials.

We also have a lot of nonprofit partners like Operation HOPE, United Way or Goodwill. We built a site with the United Way, a one-stop shop for information about money.

The Cannes crowd talks a lot about purpose-driven marketing. When did that start?

It’s been around a while. The challenge has been the authenticity. It’s taken our whole organization to turn us into a purpose-driven company. The tendency is to start with the marketing, but you need to start with the operations and technology teams.

That’s a huge effort. How do you justify it? The benefits of cause-driven marketing are pretty soft. And at the end of the day, you’re a business.

Saying we’re purpose-driven isn’t realistic. You have to figure out how it will impact your business. What are the tradeoffs of doing this? There’s no easy answer.

We started small. That’s the only way you can do it. We didn’t invest nearly as much as we do now, but we saw three things happen: employee engagement, retention and pride increased. We know from research those things all help revenue.

What technology changes did you make?

The most important technology changes to lead with purpose is in analytics and insights. We do a lot of work to understand the needs of our clients. Let’s take a small business, for example. We can tell when a business is going to have cash flow problems, so we can offer solutions in advance.

Did you have to hire data scientists within SunTrust, or did you rely on an agency?

We have data scientists and modelers within marketing. There are lots of analytics resources we outsource to agencies. But there’s a critical mass of talent that’s your competitive advantage, and you want to keep that in-house.

Is it hard to recruit data scientists to work at a bank? You’re competing with Facebook and Google in that situation.

Well, that talent is always hard [to recruit] for everybody. But a lot of the best analytics minds are in banks because of the credit and risk analyses.

How do you decide which tech to upgrade?

I hope this doesn’t sound too simplistic of an answer, but our purpose gave us crystal clarity on what we needed. Lighting the way to financial well-being means you need to understand your clients better than anyone, so we will invest in that any day, more than any other type of investment.

How do you work with your agency?

I believe in best in class. I will always have a small set of external agencies that are the best at what they do. I don’t want one external agency. It seems like more agencies are trying to have a wider breadth of marketing to be all things to all people. I prefer to have a few best in class because they bring new thinking.

I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I want a wide range of views.

That’s interesting, because if you’re a promising, independent agency, a holding company will likely swoop in. And the holding company’s argument is that they can provide any service, but with the benefit of, say, better media buying power.

Yeah, I know. But I’ll give you an example: Our lead agency is StrawberryFrog out of New York. They specialize in cultural movements. We wanted to launch a movement, and they’re the best in the world. I don’t need breadth. Breadth is good – it can make life simple, but I need someone who’s going to be the best in movements.

In terms of [bigger] agencies, they fail to connect to your business outcomes. It’s not often where agencies will say, “I know you have this annual target, and this is how I’m going to help you get there.” They’re still talking about number of impressions, views, shares – and not linking to business outcomes.

We’ve heard a lot of agencies claim they link to business outcomes.

So, they’re saying that? Interesting. Maybe they’re doing that for online sales. But not for things you can’t measure like offline sales – though we’re getting better there.

Here’s my perspective: Let’s say a campaign contributes 10% to offline sales. There’s a hesitation to say that because it’s not a lot. So, they use other metrics.

Impressions and views?

Yup. But most executives realize measuring isn’t an exact science. We’d rather take the 10% of what you can measure rather than a vaguer [metric].

What questions do you ask when you’re assessing a potential partner?

If your business interests are aligned and there’s no mixed objectives, there’ll be a good impact.

What are your challenges over the next two years?

Marketers need to make technology their friend. That means challenging ourselves to use both the left and right sides of our brains every day. Because it’s hard to keep switching between the two.

I come from a tech background. When I went to Apple, I switched from engineering to marketing. When I’m sitting with the analytics team, I ask the why-why-why. You ask “why” three times to dig deep. Most people give up after one question, but when you’re speaking different languages, it’s important to really burrow down.

That’s when I get the insights for the creative sides of my brain.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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