Customers First, Company Needs Next, Individual Agendas Last

joannaoconnelrevised“Marketer’s Note” is a weekly column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem. It is written by Joanna O’Connell, Director of Research, AdExchanger Research.  

I had a wonderful conversation with Renee Horne, AVP, Social Business at USAA, at last week’s Merkle CRM Summit, in which she noted something that could make a great guiding principle for us all – she said, “We focus relentlessly on always putting the member first. We are mission-based: it’s about serving our members.”

“I like to use this framework to think about it: think about the member first, then think about the company’s (e.g. USAA’s) needs, then it’s about the individual teams – all the individual agendas come last,” said Ms. Horne  But here’s where the rubber meets the road when companies follow that model – as she puts it, “There is not an option other than to work collaboratively, which we do very well at USAA. We have to bring enterprise-level stakeholders together to make it all happen.”

As David Williams, Merkle Chairman and CEO, aptly bemoaned while speaking to the broader group (there were several hundred of us in attendance – mostly marketers), “This industry needs to stop buying capabilities. There’s too much focus on capability, capability, capability. Everyone is getting bombarded by ‘capability’ companies. In reality, it’s not a capability game anymore. The capabilities are there. [The real issue is] people not creating real operating leverage from all the capabilities they have – the operating model of the organization needs to change.”*

In other words, companies need to stop leading with functional expertise in their decision-making (“I need the very best DMP for display and that’s all I care about.”) and allow functional expertise to extend from a larger, more integrated company mission (“We’d be well served to choose a DMP that effectively leverages our first party data across a wide range of relevant applications” – connecting the on-site experience to display, as an obvious example).

Easier said than done, I bet. And it’s always a balancing act when making “best of breed” versus “meeting the needs of the many” decisions.

In fact, I am not arguing that there are very real instances where a specific technology company with a specific capability is the best choice to meet a given business need (“This is the best Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) display technology I’ve ever seen!”).  Rather, I am saying that if every decision is made this way, organizations will be awash in “best of breed” capabilities that have no connection to one another – which gets companies no closer to delivering connected experiences.  It’s about broader organizational conversations and a commitment to thinking beyond one’s own cube walls (or, I suspect, for many of you, being given real permission to act beyond your own cube walls!).

As Ms. Horne put it to me, “Cross-functional leadership alignment will be a key differentiator going forward.”

Thoughts, comments, send them through!


*As a noteworthy aside, the whole thrust of the conference was focused on the idea of “the platform marketer”, who “embodies the collective competencies needed to operate in an addressable world at scale,” according to Mr. Williams. Yep, I’m into that. But also interesting was Merkle’s heavy focus on key “audience platforms” with which deep relationships are critical to deliver on that: Google, Facebook and Twitter were all conference presenters.  So the archetypal “platform marketer” is one who both understands and is facile with technology and can work with the major audience owners to deliver 1:1 experiences.  It’s an interesting angle.

Follow Joanna O’Connell (@joannaoconnell ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

Enjoying this content?

Sign up to be an AdExchanger Member today and get unlimited access to articles like this, plus proprietary data and research, conference discounts, on-demand access to event content, and more!

Join Today!


  1. David Williams is correct. The capabilities are there. One DSP or data supplier are more-or-less the same as the others. The price is about the same, the API is about the same and the improvement in performance is about the same.

    And you don’t differentiate by any internal, executive-level decisions. For example, I’ve never heard a customer say “I bought your product because your cross-functional leadership alignment is best-in-class.” Sorry Ms. Horne.

    For those reasons I suggest we place our employees FIRST. Our employees–who are people , after all–have the same right to be respected, trusted and helped to succeed as our customers and other stakeholders. By starting with those closest to us–our own team–we will be able to radiate confidence, trust and respect to our customers. And that, I believe, creates differentiation.

    Sounds radical. You mean the customer isn’t first? Sounds positively Marxist. But it works. The customer doesn’t get shafted in that model. Instead, they’ll flock to you because you’re different than many other companies that treat the employee as a disposable asset.

    • Joanna

      Fair point, Mark, it is certainly important to have happy, empowered employees. I’m with you there! But I disagree on the point you make about the importance (or lack thereof) of cross functional alignment – the customer who has a great experience may have no idea that the cross functional alignment was there, but I can almost guarantee that to deliver that customer a great (and ideally consistent) experience it was. That said, to clarify, when Ms. Horne made the comment about cross functional alignment, it was within the context of a discussion we were having about ownership and oversight of bringing many key pieces together – the data, analytics, technology, digital, social, and the like. It was not in reference to a customer specific experience.

  2. Thanks Joanna. Don’t get me wrong–having the team in the company working on the same goals is important. It’s necessary, but not sufficient and therefore not a differentiatior.

    Further, I think we’ve all worked in and with organizations where the senior leadership is very well aligned and knew exactly what the goals were, yet failed to deliver a differentiated product to the customer.

  3. Joanna

    Necessary but not sufficient. Exactly! We agree, Mark!