Digital Marketing? Today it also features inclusion and diversity

28 July 2021

by Andrea Pia

Andrea Pia is an expert in Digital Marketing, VP Client Services and an AKQA Italy board member. He was the co-founder of H-ART (now AKQA), one of the most successful start-ups, born within H-FARM in 2005 and sold to the WPP Group in 2009. He’s Executive Director of the International Executive MBA at BBS. In this article he writes about Digital Transformation in the post-pandemic stage, envisioning a scenario where diversity and inclusion will be the keywords for companies that truly want to transform themselves, getting ready to face an exciting and challenging future. 

One of the effects of the pandemic has been to make digital marketing strategies even more central and a priority. In this context also the concept of diversity and inclusion, extended to its extreme consequences, has become a key factor for growth for more than just the individual. The way I want to live my life makes me different from everyone else and being able to interpret who I am and consequently activate a transformation in the methods and tools of communication becomes a strong point for brands. 

Some brands were already in the process of listening and changing and found themselves experiencing an unexpected, but nonetheless anticipated, acceleration that provided additional energy in moving forward. The listening phase, which is always necessary to introduce change, was already underway to some extent and so it was easier to implement new ways of relating and responding to changing needs. E-commerce integrations have come into being, and retail ones as well, showing a remarkable acceleration in the search for a change in the way of creating sales experiences. Certainly the needs were there and were already taken into consideration: queues, for example, were a problem even before, but if before users experienced them with annoyance, in the pandemic and post-pandemic scenario they began to avoid them decisively. Thus, what before was a factor of innovation becomes a question of survival.

The difference is, therefore, between those who were already observing these changes and were, in some way, prepared for them and those who were not attentive enough or were simply not focused enough on these issues of innovation, not considering them central to their strategy, and found themselves having to chase after them. In terms of communication, just look at how commercials have changed. I give this example by deliberately taking the most traditional means of communication of all, the TV commercial, which is often the last point of contact to be updated, and I link this to the topic of diversity and inclusion. We went from a pre-pandemic phase in which we talked about a world that doesn’t exist, an idealized image of us and the context in which we live, to a phase in which, of course, we talked almost only about the pandemic. It was a reality check, it forced us to dive into real life, it even led to TV commercials having to give a real picture of people’s lives. Once again, a difficult event turned out to be an opportunity because now we realize that the variety of the world, of families, of couples is much more represented than before. 

Brands have understood that they have to talk about the real world, about what people experience. And here too there are those who have been subjected to this process and those who have led it: for some brands it has come almost naturally, for others it is more forced, but what is certain is that today those who do not interpret reality are out of the picture. 

Why is digital central to this? Because digital is not a technology, it’s not a platform: it’s the era we live in. The interpretation of change, the way we use content, the way we communicate, are all aspects that have evolved first for mobile applications, since we all started to have a smartphone with us all the time, and then because all communication and social relations have started to be mediated by a series of media that, inevitably, shape the way we not only communicate, but also the way we are. In this case, the tool makes the person and recognizing that is crucial. Spending more than a year working via Zoom, just to give an example, can’t not have changed us

With regard to brands, I am optimistic because I am seeing a concrete change, carried out with care. What remains a question mark is how many of these will be able to bring this change to the center, to the heart of their purpose and then to the processes and services, i.e. to the way they do business, and for how many it will remain a mere facade. This will determine winners and losers. 

In this epochal transition, there are two dimensions to consider. The first is that of skills, which is very broad and, for our point of view in particular, it involves first of all those who design. Specifically, we’re talking about product designers, but also about services. There is an awareness that it is necessary to rethink not only communication, not only brands, but that the redefinition of the purpose of the brand must also be applied to the product, the experience or the service. 

Going back to skills, the search for people who can interpret and read data is continuing. This is the theme of the future, it’s not a search that everyone is undertaking, but the most innovative companies are undoubtedly looking for people capable of intercepting and understanding weak signals, future drivers of innovation. It’s not about catching seasonal trends, it’s about developing the necessary capabilities within a company to anticipate and prepare the response to what will happen in terms of the real scenario, from the next disruption from a technological and sociological point of view, to the next pandemic. 

The other dimension is related, instead, to profiles intended more horizontally, beyond skills. One certainty is that companies are looking for more entrepreneurial profiles. In order to interpret change, a mentality capable of breaking the status quo is needed. Today, companies know that they cannot be the ones to completely direct the new generations, but they expect them to contribute to identifying and growing new solutions. They must therefore become a source not only of energy, but also of social knowledge, which is essential in the scenario outlined above. 

This scenario collides with another reality in flux: working practices. After the experience of smart or remote working, made necessary by the pandemic, many companies have recognized the appropriateness of certain choices and do not plan to go back to square one. There is some fear of not being able to integrate and train people remotely without being able to place them alongside more senior figures capable of transmitting not only skills and processes, but also values and a sense of belonging. Once again, the soft skills that a more entrepreneurial profile naturally brings with it become fundamental, in a context where processes are constantly evolving.

Then there are a whole host of more technical elements that become critical. For example, the ability to use advanced collaboration tools. It’s no coincidence that many companies, Zoom to name the most famous, have grown so rapidly: this new collaboration scenario requires new tools and those who work are called upon to know how to use them for an efficient management of online collaboration. In these terms, we talk about the digitization of people, which must take place in every field, even in the most unlikely ones, such as the commercial one, which has traditionally been based on direct contact. 

Talking about Digital Transformation today means putting the human being back at the center. Each person, as perhaps never before, is on a quest for balance and it is, of course, an individual quest. The pandemic has forced many of us to make a major change and building the next phase of our lives is a domain in which everyone has different needs and that challenges organizations and businesses to contribute to their satisfaction by finding new ways, increasingly tailored to the individual, in his or her uniqueness. 

The search for new ways of professional development, personal fulfillment and a new family and community dimension was already a trend before the pandemic, but the tsunami caused by Covid 19 has forced everyone to accelerate. Smart working, distance learning, new technologies that are now in daily use have led many people to stop and ask themselves questions about how and with whom they really want to build their future, about what are the right ways to create a sustainable working environment that meets their deepest needs, including social ones. 

The theme of inclusivity then becomes an important business dimension: in order to be or remain relevant, it is necessary to be able to redesign processes, products and experiences taking into account all individual variables. These are often not the ones we expect, and this is where the importance of listening comes to the fore to understand which experiences to redesign and for whom. No one, in any case, wants to be categorized into a cluster, so we’re not just talking about redesigning experiences to include every type of target with particular characteristics, but about not making people feel that they are pigeonholed into a standard. 

As far as training is concerned, the first thing institutions must focus on, and where I would say BBS is a leader, is critical thinking. Since all patterns were disrupted, it is a matter of questioning how and why things are done and asking from where to start in order to rebuild. This way of thinking in BBS is found throughout all the courses, it permeates everything the School does and derives from an all-round vision of business and people, from the economic and social side to the human side and values, all the way to innovation, embedded in a territory and a productive context that is a leader in many applications. 

The second is the ability to teach and cultivate entrepreneurship. This is in response not only to the changing needs of businesses, as mentioned above, but also to the need to develop managers and entrepreneurs who are concretely oriented towards innovation in a world that will have an ever-increasing need to deal with constant changes.

Another fundamental element, and here too the reference to BBS is direct, is the ability of training providers to “multiply opportunities“. At a time when patterns are disrupted, in addition to skills, what counts is the ability to reinvent oneself, to leverage one’s own resources, but also one’ s own network and community of reference. In terms of training offerings, it is important to always be able to count on courses that provide basic crossfunctional skills for the business world. That’s because in the absence of rules, it’s important to get back to the business fundamentals that are always valid. Giving the basic rules, teaching an approach and providing tools on which to build and build oneself becomes crucial because a recipe, a framework, a training based on facts, could prove inadequate to meet the challenges of change, which always remains the only certainty. Of course, generalist training must be complemented by specialized elements, from innovation to Sales and Marketing, it is necessary to start from the basics in order to be able to deepen the factors that are drivers of our economy, such as Automotive, Food or the world of luxury. In this way, open-mindedness and specific skills meet, shaping leaders who will be able to manage the company of the future in different sectors and disciplines. This allows the individual to build his or her own path, becoming the catalyst for their own professional success. I have already spoken about the importance of the community in finding one’s own references, including work references, but I would like to conclude by mentioning the BBS Community specifically, which is a spur to cultivate critical thinking useful for training and growth, but also a tangible support for the realization of one’s own projects.


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