IBM’s Agency Pitch Goes Straight To The C-Suite

Unlike at a traditional agency, which typically services the brand marketer, IBM Interactive Experience (iX) has a direct inroad to CEOs.

Clients undergoing massive transformation will often hire IBM to rethink commerce or marketing – and those conversations trickle down to IMB iX to put into practice, said Robert Schwartz, global head of agency services at IBM iX.

But Schwartz, who served for years as a global managing director at WPP and marketing director for AT&T, says tactics around cognitive, AI and design thinking are increasingly entering media discussions.

Schwartz spoke with AdExchanger about how IBM iX’s pitch has evolved over the years.

AdExchanger: What does the agency services team at IBM iX focus on?

ROBERT SCHWARTZ: I lead a team of strategists, designers and everyone who does our experience transformation work, as well as manage the day-in and day-out competitive intersection with global digital agencies.

Just within my practice, there are about 3,900 people with about 35 studios around the world. One of the things we’re working on now, which we haven’t rolled out yet, is figuring out what the IBM and iX approach to creativity is and how we replicate it around the world. 

Are you investing more in creative?

We just recently made a global chief creative officer hire, but the main thing we’re thinking about is how are we performing, whether it’s for existing clients or winning new business. We’re thinking about how we expand our capabilities in new practice areas to grow revenue and then how the overall practice is performing from a P&L perspective.

IBM design thinking is a fundamental approach across the whole business, but we do have a slightly different take from some of our competitors.

What’s your approach?

There are populations, particularly under 40, for whom doing traditional brand development or marketing communications is no longer sufficient for building brand value.

It is inauthentic, it doesn’t feel right and that means that brand value – the Millward Brown measured tenets of brand attributes and value – will be built through experience.

I think the best marketers in the world are starting to realize that advertising has to be participatory. Candidly, it’s a huge advantage for us versus some of the other holding company agencies in that it makes the deployment of creativity a much more horizontal practice.

How so?

It’s not just deploying creativity through marketing communications, but customer service, product development, the way you build internal process.

We engage at the C-suite level because we have relationships that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in other areas of our business. And so that gives us opportunities and access to the C-suite that perhaps others don’t have. In discussions with CEOs, in particular, the dialogue is around transforming business models.

It’s product development, which almost any brand is required to do these days because almost everyone has an asymmetrical competitor now that’s nontraditional. If I’m a bank, maybe I’m competing with a [tech startup]. If I’m a food store, I’m competing with my CPG brethren.

Although IBM’s made investments into digital, like with Resource/Ammirati, you’ve steered clear of media. Is this going to hold?

If you’re just talking about the current manifestation of media planning and buying, I view that like traditional long-distance [telephony]. I don’t want to build that business. I want to go straight to building a cellular, mobile business.

Where we intersect with the question of media is programmatic: How do I organize and approach programmatic and what are the technical platforms I need? How should I insource vs. outsource my talent? What should a media agency handle and what capability should I have in my marketing organization?

It’s strategic, as well as advising on what role cognitive and AI play over time – that’s where we’re increasingly being involved in the media conversation. We don’t have the capability nor are we looking to build capability around display buying.

Where are you finding overlap between media and programmatic and your core tenets like AI, cognitive and design thinking?

We continue to get a lot of interest from folks around our cognitive business, and we’ve gotten more outreach from the search community about how can they talk to CMOs.

We’re doing almost an educational assist to help search consultancies understand the marketing role and how the CMO growth agenda is changing and how they need to change how they’re thinking about traditional search.

We’re also getting more questions about, what can the next phase of media do for me? How can media unite CRM or first- and third-party data? How does that get deployed programmatically and how does cognitive technology and AI work with it? Those are absolutely new requests we’re getting.

Interview condensed.

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