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Marketing Post-Covid: Jon Ewing, Chief Marketing Officer at Fitch Group, Inc.

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world, which hopefully with the vaccine rollout will be quite soon. So, today’s guest is Jon Ewing, the Chief Marketing Officer of the Fitch Group, a financial services firm that provides credit ratings, risk forecasting, and training and development to businesses around the world. Jon, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jon Ewing:
My pleasure. Great to be here.

Brian Erickson:
So, let’s talk a little bit about weathering the storm and not the cold front in Texas or in the middle of the country that’s going on right now, but the-

Jon Ewing:
The impending snow in New York.

Brian Erickson:
Yes, the impending massive remaining snowfall that’s yet to hit this week in New York, COVID-19 has been an ongoing thing for over a year at this point and greatly affected many industries and financial services has been on a wild roller coaster. So, I’m sure going into the pandemic, you had certain expectations about how this would affect your marketing strategy. Now that we’re 10, 12, 14 months in whatever it is officially, what’s the biggest surprise for you in terms of how COVID has impacted your marketing efforts?

Jon Ewing:
That we’re still here, I think is the main one. That we’re still at home and that we’re still working remotely. I mean, I think if we all roll the clock back 12 months, none of us would’ve thought that we’d still be here still doing this. I mean, to answer the question first and foremost, I’m amazed how seamless the transition to everyone working remotely has been. We were lucky enough to have a team of about a 100 people around the world in marketing, after a short hiatus as we kind of adapted to new ways of communicating and new ways of staying in touch with each other pretty much just carried on as they were certainly in the first instance.

Over the last three or four years, I guess we’ve been on a journey to standardize the tools we use across the organization. Most of those are cloud-based tools and that’s really kind of paid off in the last year that we have been broadly able to carry on most of the activities we would have been doing, we were doing anyway. Not all obviously and I’m sure we’ll get into that, but in terms of the actual impact of COVID on our ability to market, it’s been, yes, disruptive, but not fatal by any means.

Brian Erickson:
Well, that is certainly good. And I don’t think anybody thought that we would be here at this point. I saw a meme during the Super Bowl, it’s of the year is 2024. You’re wearing eight masks. Tom Brady is heading to the Super Bowl and Mark is your president. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility or any of those things.

Jon Ewing:
I know. One out of four ain’t bad.

Brian Erickson:
Exactly. So, let’s say that that is the case in 2024. Adaptation is definitely a key pillar that I’ve heard a lot of people talk about in the way that they’re approaching their marketing and setting themselves up for longer-term success and structure. And I guess, how have you viewed your CMO role as an advocate for change and what sort of process have you instituted or was it already in place to kind of stay nimble and to adapt?

Jon Ewing:
Yeah, really interesting question. Several different ways into that thing. I think in a large part, it’s accelerated the change journey we were already on, right? And we’ve been kind of adapting and evolving the marketing strategy across the Fitch Group over the last few years. And this has definitely kind of pushed a couple of aspects of that much harder than we thought we were going to have to. So, the first of those, I think in a big way has been simplification of our messaging. I mean, one of the things I’m acutely aware of in this day and age is the attention spans are shorter than they were and distractions are more prevalent than they were. I was talking to someone the other day, we were laughing about how the fact that if you’re sitting in a physical in-person event in an auditorium somewhere, at least you try and hide your phone behind the chair in front of you when you’re kind of bored and reading it.

Whereas here, if I’m just on a Zoom call, I can open up a browser right next to it. No one knows the difference. So, all pretense that we’re focused on what people are talking about has vanished. So, having clear simple messaging is absolutely vital because you really have a very short amount of time to get your core messages across. So, it’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot. We have a fairly complicated mix of businesses and trying to really help get the message across quickly, simply and easily. I think COVID has accelerated that. The other one, which has been a really interesting over the last year, it’s something I really enjoyed actually, is splitting our focus a lot more onto internal messaging, internal marketing and employee communications. Something we’ve been doing, we have an employee communications function, pre-COVID. But I think one of the things that became absolutely paramount very quickly was replacing the water cooler, right, with ways of getting information.

I think we’ve learned how much information was spread around an organization simply by virtue of people being together, right? And when that goes, you have to replace those routes on those paths. And so, we’ve really dedicated a lot of time this year to thinking about internal communications, internal branding, internal messaging, how that influences the culture of the business and how that keeps people together. And I think a big chunk of what I feel our responsibility has been this year is as much as anything about kind of nurturing that culture while we’re all spread out. So, that’s been really interesting. I think it’s been a big learning curve. I think certainly my background in marketing, it didn’t start with employee communications, it started with the digital world and so we’ve learned a lot. I’ve been very lucky to have experts. Head of employee communications has really kind of led us on that journey.

Brian Erickson:
Nice. That is certainly, I mean, it’s its own whole world, right? And I think you want to make sure that your message is not just, you have the internal culture component, right? But as the CMO, I imagine ultimately everything comes back to how your customer facing messages is being received, right? And your employees are a medium for that message.

Jon Ewing:
Absolutely. That’s spot on. And I think for us, we’ve done a lot of work on our brand messaging and our brand positioning over the last few years. And one of the things that’s come out sort of very strongly from the research we’ve done. And I guess this is true of a lot of kind of B2B services businesses is really the differentiator between us and other people in our sector or our people. We pride ourselves on having people who will go the extra mile, who will work harder, all those kinds of areas and it’s really paid off. And so, there’s a quid pro quo with that, that you need to focus on your people. You need to really make sure your people are engaged and motivated. And in this context we’ve just been through in the last 12 months are happy and are not going slowly insane and are not lonely and all those other things which has an employer, we have a responsibility to try and help with.

Brian Erickson:
So, you mentioned you’ve done a lot of work on your brand and positioning in recent years. Do you think that that was critical and set you up to be nimble in the face of a crisis?

Jon Ewing:
It’s helped us be very clear on what our core priorities have been. It’s helped us, I mean, pre-COVID, but then certainly again, accelerated in COVID. It’s helped us really understand where we want to go, given limited ability to access people, given lower budgets, all those kinds of things. It’s really helped us prioritize the important areas. Again, I think over the course of this year that has included our people and making sure our people are as engaged and as motivated as they ever could be. And so, yes, in that sense, I think it’s really helped us very quickly kind of say, “Okay, fine. This is the world now. Boom. These are the three things we now need to really focus on all four things or five things.” And it’s certainly helped us kind of stick to that strategy.

Brian Erickson:
No, exactly. And you can’t plan for everything. You can’t have a set of language guidelines or messaging guidelines for every conceivable situation, right? And I think that’s where your brand or what a brand is in the modern world is almost decision-making framework having pillars or principles of your brand, allow you to look through whatever lens the world has given to you today and allow you to react to it through what’s going to be consistent with your values and your brand. So, I’m glad that you guys have had that.

Jon Ewing:
I absolutely agree. And I guess the counterpoint to that is this would be the worst possible time to start kind of trying to change your brand and change your positioning and change your values. Because, I mean, how hard is it are the best of times, but in this circumstance, absolutely not. So, stick to who you are.

Brian Erickson:
You need some stability.

Jon Ewing:
Yeah, right. Something.

Brian Erickson:
So, in terms of what comes next, I think I can accurately predict that nobody can predict what’s going to come next, but for marketers and strategists in the financial services round, which aspects do you see of your current marketing strategy persisting into a new normal, and which do you think will revert to a pre-COVID-19?

Jon Ewing:
We’re in the business of financial prediction, fortunately not marketing prediction. So, I can use that as an excuse to say why this might play out, but I guess I’m a firm believer in the fact that the cost strategy remains the same. Nothing’s fundamentally changed about the strategy. Our goal in our business is really to get the core messaging in front of the relevant people and invite them to learn more about what we do. So, the core strategy hasn’t really deviated a great deal. It’s the tactics is how we go after that strategy that has really changed. How we find those people, how we get in front of them. And a lot of this had already begun to transition to digital channels. Again, I think this is going to be a repeated point in this discussion, but COVID has accelerated that. But I think we were already on that journey.

So, I think a lot of the things we’ve been doing, we’ve just kind of doubled down on. For us, I mean, in terms of where we used to spend our time and effort and money, the big thing that’s changed has been events. A significant chunk of our marketing budget historically has gone into in-person events, either sponsorship and certainly attendance and then having speakers and then flying people in and out of events. And so the big question for us really remains what’s going to happen to the events industry and the kind of way we handle events over the next few years. I’m sure we can talk more about that. But I think, yeah. That for me is looking into my crystal ball. I can see a number of different stresses and strains on that potentially all pulling in different directions and so exactly where it will end up we’ll see.

Brian Erickson:
Let’s unpack the events portion of things a little bit more and tactically, have you had any discoveries in that realm that have been a pleasant surprise that you’re going to carry forward? Have there been any kind of longer-term views on events being more relevant, less relevant, equally relevant? Do you think that’s budget-wise going to become a bigger emphasis or—

Jon Ewing:
There’s an awful lot to unpack in this. So, let me start at the top and kind of work that through. Pleasant surprises, in terms of our core measures and our core KPIs of how we look at events, we’ve had better success virtually than we’ve had in-person, let me start with that. Our core metric is, are we getting in front of the core audience that we care about? And we are getting in front of more people than we care about than we used to and we’re doing it for a lot less money than we used to. So, in that sense, very positive. As always, lifetime license statistics, there’s a lot hidden away in that, that doesn’t necessarily always translate to exactly what… So for example, what we are finding is we’re getting in front of more people, but those people are staying for less of the events than they would have done historically.

So, people come and dip in and out of events. Now in a way that may be a good thing. I mean, the bar of asking someone to kind of step out of their office, get on the subway, travel across New York, or travel across London or travel across Hong Kong and go to an auditorium and then sit in a room for four hours listening to you speak is a pretty high bar. I mean, not a lot of people do that and the ability for someone to sit at their desk and then kind of flick to 20 minutes of what you’re talking about or half an hour or the one session or the one plenary, which is the thing they wanted to attend. I mean, in a way that’s great. That’s very good. We’re still getting our message across to the people we care about. But you need to kind of adjust your KPIs to be able to look at that.

So, that’s part one. I mean the money part is an interesting one. I think one of the things we’re looking at now is how the kind of major industry events that we’ve always attended and we’ve always sponsored are going to play out over the next little while. So, this is again, one of the stresses and strains I was talking about earlier, a lot of these events are run by organizations for whom the event is their flagship of the year and a big revenue driver. So, there’s definitely a pull towards in-person events still happening and going back to where they were. I also think, interestingly, that events are a perk for employees. People like to go to events. They like the social aspects of it. They like the travel. They often enjoy the getting together with their colleagues and their peers and spending time with them.

And I think that’s not going to go away. So, that’s definitely something we’ve lost in this virtual process. But then lastly, I think there’s a lot of room to grow and our virtual presence in the virtual event industry. And one of the things I was talking to someone the other day, and this kind of came up that if you think back to the beginnings of television in the 1950s, right? Television was really just radio with a camera, right? It was people sitting behind desks, kind of doing what they’d always done on radio, but now being filmed and not being broadcast. And if you roll the clock forward 70 years to where we are today, our television is this rich medium, constantly groundbreaking new things the whole time. We never would have imagined that back 70 years ago.

And I think, as we think about webinars today, I mean, as much as there is innovation going on, a lot of webinars, most webinars are still PowerPoint slides that we would have used in an auditorium, or we would have used in a meeting room and someone voicing over them. There’s an awful lot of evolution that can happen in online events to actually make them more engaging, more interesting, more exciting, more useful to the attendees. And I think that’s a space we’re really kind of focused on looking at and then kind of understanding where that’s going.

Brian Erickson:
And I think, even listening to you talk about your experience with just the level of engagement you’re reaching a wider audience, and they might not be engaged for the same length of time and the bar has been lowered in terms of the commitment to attend an event. It makes me think that maybe that bar had kind of increased the depth someone had to be in your marketing or sales funnel to attend that event and that you’re really serving a convoluted or more mixed funnel now with the same sort of content now, as you’re talking through it, and that’s just kind of a fundamental shift that needs to be made across the board, as you have this potentially larger, but maybe less engaged overall sort of audience. How do you segment content for them? So, that’s an interesting piece of the mix as well.

Jon Ewing:
I think that’s certainly true. I think, like every business, there’s some vagaries in terms of how Fitch kind of approaches that in terms of the content we have. But I think, again, the other aspect of it is that the technology allows us to hold more rooms, more streams, kind of more concurrent speakers. And so having that mix of different content as possible if you can get the speakers and if you can have you have the content available. So, I think you’re absolutely right. I think it does changes the mix.

But I think if you know the core audience you want to go after, our experience has been anyway that if you know the core audience you want to go after and you are able to identify whether that core audience is arrived or not, we are still seeing a net increase in the number of that core audience. We are getting to engage with us during our event. Again, I think the other aspect of this though, and this is something we touched on earlier, in a physical event, you would often then follow up with that person. You’d meet them afterwards, you’d have a coffee, you would discuss something. Whereas in a virtual event you don’t, you lose it. So, it really has to be the content that shines, right? It has to be that which is getting your across, not the, let’s go and have a discussion afterwards.

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Definitely agree with that. Yeah. Quite a lot of factors, certainly not one dimension to that aspect or that tactic at all. So, that sounds like a big opportunity and complex problems to solve, but it sounds like you guys are working through it.

Jon Ewing:
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s a really exciting one though. I really do. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. And I think the other part, which we haven’t touched on, there’s going to be really interesting in this space is hybrid events and how that’s going to work because you run the risk with hybrid events, you’ve got to really figure out your pricing if you’re the event organizer, what does the pricing look like in-person versus hybrid? Again, I think there’s going to be a lot of learning over the next 12, 24 months in that and that whole area.

Brian Erickson:
I think personally that’s the most exciting piece from my perspective, because there are so many different ways that you could structure that sort of thing. And I think it can be really exciting. And I love the analogy of TV 70 years ago versus TV today.

Jon Ewing:
Uh-huh.

Brian Erickson:
And I do think that’s one of the areas where you just have a totally different sort of opportunity with things, but I guess pulling to a wider view of marketing as a whole in the financial services industry. Obviously we’re very digital forward right now, just universally in terms of marketing. How do you think this will change tactical mixes over the longer term? Or are there shifts that you’ve already seen that have been what appear to be longstanding?

Jon Ewing:
Yeah, I think exactly that. I think the shift to longstanding changes. I think in a way we were well-placed to handle that because, again, with the exception of events, I think nearly everything we were doing had moved to digital over the last three or four years. The important part here is not digital for digital sake. It’s digital because that’s where the audience is these days. And so we are moving where our audiences and they had already moved broadly digital. So, therefore, I think it’s kind of a journey we’ve been on.

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm. And I liked that framing, even as you mentioned, your strategy hasn’t changed at all, right? Meet people where they are. So, I like when you look at it from that perspective, that you’re totally consistent with the strategy you had previously, it’s just the audience is elsewhere and it’s devoting time elsewhere.

Jon Ewing:
Yeah, absolutely. And more spread out. I think it’s finding the places. I mean, again, part of whether this is COVID or whether this is just natural evolution is hard to tell, but audiences are splintering and therefore your ability to be able to kind of approach multiple different channels is the key here. So, good platforms that allow you to kind of multiplex a message out to different platforms is a very useful thing to be able to do. And then geographically is the other area for us. That’s been sort of pre-COVID certainly. And continuing in the last year, the thing we’ve been looking at is we know where we find our core audiences in London and New York, but I don’t necessarily think we necessarily know where we find them in Shanghai or Beijing or Singapore or wherever it might be. So, we’re constantly exploring that as well.

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm. You’re going to have to learn some more languages it sounds like. But do the research in those markets. So, I guess given all of these trends that you’re seeing in the way that we’re assuming that the world is going to evolve, at least at this given point, what advice would you give to brand side marketers at financial services firms right now?

Jon Ewing:
I sound like a broken record so forgive me, but it’s stick with the basics. It really is stick with the basics. Whenever we’re struggling with, what should we be doing at any given time, the thing I always advise my team is go back to the core business KPIs, get back to the go-to-market strategy that supports those KPIs. What part does marketing play in that strategy? And what’s changed, right? Therefore, why do we need to do anything different? But my experience as a marketer has been the marketing plans never stay the same very long because the market never stays the same very long, right? And COVID has changed a lot of things very quickly, but those things would have changed eventually anyway. And so, as marketers, I think we always need to have a radar that spots when things that have worked previously are beginning not to work or we’re beginning to see our audience drifting away, or we’re beginning to see conversion rates drop or we’re beginning to see engagement dip, and then understand it and act early.
And sure COVID has done that, has caused that to happen many different places at the same time, which has caused stresses of strains just in terms of our own head space to think about it. But fundamentally I think if you have the structure that says, “We do things to hit a particular business plan, we are able to spot when things are changing and our performance is beginning to dip and we’re able to adapt,” then you are in a really good place.

Brian Erickson:
That’s definitely some great advice. And obviously unemployment is not where it once was. It’s not hopefully where it’ll be long-term, but we do have quite a number of folks in our professions who are on the job market right now. And I guess, given what you just said in terms of advice for brand side and marketers, how can folks who find themselves as free agents position their skillsets to meet the moment and to be successful with that advice that you just gave on brand side?

Jon Ewing:
Sure. I think it’s a good question and a difficult question to answer. My advice to people always is, focus on what’s unique about your experience, focus on what’s unique about your story. You never really know what a company is looking for, what an employer is looking for. So, just tell the story that you want to tell. Be honest, be authentic, but tell that story. And at this stage, persevere, we’re not out of the woods yet, but the economy is starting to pick up. Hiring will pick up sure as night follows day, whether the companies will begin to hire again. And so, persevere and good luck. I think that’s the best thing I can offer, I’m afraid, it’s just good luck.

Brian Erickson:
And that does tie back to basics, right? In terms of being unique and standing out, I mean, differentiation 101, right? Don’t try to be better than everybody else, try to be different. And that’s what’s going to get you notice.

Jon Ewing:
I think that’s right. Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I think we’ve all, I guess, looked at a lot of resumes in our careers. You got a lot of sort of carbon copy resumes, of people who have an interesting story, who’ve done something a bit different and can really create a narrative about how that plays into who they are. I think those are the ones that do stand out.

Brian Erickson:
Mm-hmm. Right down to the formatting. Right? Write it in all caps?

Jon Ewing:
Right down to the formatting, absolutely. But it’s more than that.

Brian Erickson:
Might not be easy on the eyes, but it’ll stand out.

Jon Ewing:
It’ll stand out. It certainly will. But ultimately when you’re hiring someone into joining the team, they’re going to be there for a while. So, you want to have someone who fits in people who have a story to tell always seem to fit in better.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. And you probably want someone with a little bit more of an eye for design than writing in all caps. So, maybe don’t take advise but stand out nonetheless.

Jon Ewing:
Tell me what that job is? Yeah, exactly.

Brian Erickson:
Exactly. Very nice. Well, Jon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I really appreciate it.

Jon Ewing:
My pleasure.

Brian Erickson:
Awesome. Well, this is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening and please make sure to check back for more senior marketers like Jon.

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