Q&A with Joris Merks-Benjaminsen | Straight Talk


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Google’s Head of Digital Transformation in Northern Europe on making the shift to digital

From his base in Amsterdam, Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, Head of Digital Transformation for Google in Northern Europe, helps companies embed digital thinking into their strategies. Merks- Benjaminsen’s work has won the Dialogue Marketer of the Year award in 2012 and his book Online Brand Identity won an award for best marketing book of 2015. In his workshops, Merks-Benjaminsen brings together marketers, brand managers, strategists, creatives, data experts, digital specialists, and other company leaders to jointly craft their digital transformation and brand strategy.

Merks-Benjaminsen joined Google in 2010 as Head of Research, Benelux. Before that he has worked as media specialist and advertising consultant. His career trajectory is an ongoing digital transformation, as he observes: “I made a crossover from media to creative and then a crossover from the offline world to the online world and then a crossover from data to strategy.  I’m slightly too old to be a millennial, so I remember a world without the Internet, and I can bridge the old world and the new digital one. That background has been a good preparation for my current position.”

The following is an edited transcript of Merks-Benjaminsen recent phone conversation with Straight Talk editors.

How do you define digital transformation?

Digital transformation is the process of getting to digital-first thinking. By digital-first, I mean reaching a state in which digital capabilities and technology are embedded in everything you do. It’s making the most out of all the opportunities that digital provides you. Many companies today still use digital in a very old-fashioned way.  In the case of advertising, for example, they take a TV commercial and put it online. But online, you are not limited to 30 seconds of linear video. In addition, you have lots of different and new ways of targeting the demographic you want to reach, so you are missing a lot of opportunities if you only repeat what you are used to doing in TV advertising. 

If digital transformation is a process, what’s the first step?

It starts with small experiments that help you to break out of your old ways of working.  You should gradually extend these experiments so they start shaping how the company thinks about digital. Some companies see digital transformation as a re-org.  I prefer to start with the end-state and say, “Well, if I want to do things a little bit different, what would I change tomorrow?”  Then, if there is a mini-success, find ways to extend the experiment a little bit further. Soon you will see how the organization starts to change around these experiments.  I think that’s an easier way to start the process of digital transformation then a complete re-org.

Is it advisable to centralize digital activities in one function or do you think it’s better to distribute digital activities across business units?

I think it depends on where you are in the process of digital transformation.  When digital is new to a company, it usually starts as a separate skill set and only later it becomes embedded in all ways of doing the work.  Typically, digital work starts at the department that creates the company’s website, then it moves to the department that develops e-commerce capabilities and gradually, it becomes bigger and bigger. At this point, you may see the online half of the company and the offline half of the company competing for resources.  But once the company makes the switch to digital-first thinking, the senior executive who leads the digital department, sometimes called the Chief Digital Officer [CDO], has the opportunity to become the Chief Marketing Officer [CMO].   

What is the relationship between the Chief Digital Officer and the CIO, who is often the one investing in the new digital technologies?

If you think about this merging of the CMO and CDO roles, there are two ways it can play out.  It could either be that the CMO takes some extra steps and becomes more digital-savvy, or it could be that the CDO becomes more strategic.  I think the challenge for the people that come from a digital background – including the CIO – is that they have to shift, at some point, from a technology focus and a specialist focus toward a strategic focus.  If the CIO is someone who can move out of technology into strategy, than the CIO could actually own all the strategic aspects of digital.

What are the key challenges of digital transformation?

The biggest challenge is that we still use measurement systems that were suitable in the past but no longer work with the new digital realities. There are measurement systems that are based on e-commerce, moving from a click to a direct purchase.  There are also measurement systems that are used with traditional media, measuring the reach and impact of mass communication. But now you have something in between, a new media mix where you can use personalized messages for both e-commerce and branding. There is no measurement system yet that can predict what will happen. People feel it is risky to move into this new territory because they’re used to very easy quantification of what will happen.  But not moving into this new territory is even more risky.

What about internal challenges?

Establishing a new way of working is always more work than limiting yourself to an existing process.  People are only willing to take on more work if they think it’s going to be rewarding for them.  Because you don’t have the right measurement system, it means they also take on more risk.  If you do something new and you find it hard to quantify success because the old measurement systems don’t work, then there’s always someone ready to say that it was a really bad idea and stab you in the back.  The people that guide digital change are always in the risk zone. 

In your consulting engagements, how do you prepare companies to embark on this journey of digital transformation?

I invite between 20 and 30 people from the same company to a one-day workshop. It’s quite an extensive list—the CMO, the Digital Director, the Search Specialist, the Brand Manager, people that are the key stakeholders across the organization. One of the key objectives of the workshop is to make sure that they all agree on how to move forward and that they know what things are holding them back. I have them work in subgroups, each with a mix of skills and experiences.  Most of the senior people are strategic but lack digital knowledge and the junior people have a lot of digital knowledge but they lack the strategic insight.  I also try to mix people that know the technology well and the people that know the brand and the content. The workshop is often the first occasion where digital people and brand people define strategy together or that senior and junior people work together.  That’s already a very big step change for most companies. 

The first half of the workshop is designed to help the participants break out of the old way of working.  The second half of the workshop is about replacing it with something new, developing marketing strategies that include all the possible digital capabilities.

At the center of the digital shift that you describe is customization, using digital technologies to target specific needs at a specific moment in time.

Companies today understand how to use personalized messaging but they only apply it to e-commerce most of the time.  When they try to apply the same way of thinking to branding, they don’t really see how you would create personalized, one-on-one branding.  This is because they go too far in terms of personalization. What’s important is that the message feels a little bit more personal but it doesn’t mean that every individual gets their own ad.  Think of product customization – for example, the Adidas shoe. You can customize a few colors here and there to make it feel like your personal shoe. But you don’t customize the entire shoe.  I think that’s how you should think about the personalization of brand advertising.  It’s just one step more personal, so it feels personal.

I try to apply this thinking in my workshops by having advertisers define two types of people that are complete opposites but that are both important to their brand. If you do this, suddenly it becomes very strange that everybody gets the same brand message at the same moment. For example, a company selling smartphones may want to define one possible target as the person who is a tech geek, interested in all details of a new smartphone and wants to learn about them even before the phone comes out, at the moment the information is leaked out. As an opposite target for brand messaging they could define a person that just buys a phone because it looks great and because the camera is good. Those two types of people would need different messages at different moments in time. If you offer these types of messages, advertising starts to feel more personal even if it is not personalized one-on-one.

What’s your favorite example of a company that “gets it,” that has successfully shifted to digital-first thinking?

I discuss a lot of examples in my book. Digital-first thinking has a lot of components.  You have the smart use of data and targeting.  You have elegant content strategies.  You have creative use of the technology of a smart phone.  There are lots of ways you can do digital-first stuff. 

One of my favorite examples is L’Oreal Makeup Genius.  It’s an augmented reality app that you can download to your phone. Look at it through your phone’s camera and it will plot makeup on your face in real-time.  You can swipe, see multiple makeup styles.  You can try makeup products and you can click on famous women and you get their makeup style.  And you can also buy the products in the app.  What I like about that one is that, within the app, it’s more or less a whole customer journey – inspiration to purchase – and it’s also a very creative use of technology. 

Digital transformation relies a lot on the collection and analysis of data. This raises privacy concerns that could slow down the shift to digital-first thinking.

The core of my thinking about privacy is that a world without data is not beneficial to anyone. Without data, the only thing you can do is blast the same message to everybody, which means there is very little relevance.  You get very irrelevant advertising and you get lots of it; that’s what you have on traditional TV and that’s why consumers increasingly install ad blockers in their web browsers. But if everybody had ad blockers, then consumers would need to start paying for the web services they get for free today—search, YouTube, etc.

I think the two key elements are transparency and control, so that consumers should always be able to see what they share, and have complete control if and when they want to change what they share.  This way any company that uses data in some kind of way is forced to be more meaningful and relevant to the consumer. At some point, there’s going to be a balance between what consumers want and what companies need, where everybody’s happy. Transparency and control are the levers that can make it happen.