Adidas CIO Plays to Win at Digital Marketing

Jan Brecht describes how a unified tech-marketing team scored a victory at the 2014 World Cup.

jan brecht keep
Courtesy of Adidas Group

Forget the territorial battles being fought at other companies between marketing and technology executives. At renowned athletic gear maker Adidas Group, the digital marketing approach is built on a real alliance between the two disciplines.

Compared to the same sporting event eight years ago, the 2014 World Cup marked a big difference in where companies in the sports arena focus their marketing efforts, said CIO Jan Brecht, speaking to us from Adidas global headquarters in Herzogenaurac, Bavaria. “In 2006, it was almost entirely television and print media spend; if you look at 2014 Brazil, the vast majority is digital. So what needs to happen to be as successful in the digital world as we were in the analog world?”

In a conversation with Elizabeth Heichler, vice president and editorial director of the IDG News Service, Brecht talked about how to build a successful digital marketing effort, as well as how he’s using IT to help drive other parts of the business forward. Here’s an edited transcript.

What do you see as the most important factors in IT’s involvement in digital marketing?

Brecht: I would say there are three areas. One is the team. The second one is the way you talk to consumers, which has shifted from the monologue you were having in television or print. It’s a very fundamental shift in the way you interact. And the third area is in fact technology, which has also come a very long way. If you go back to World Cup 2006, the iPhone didn’t exist, or any smartphone, and today’s world is almost unthinkable without them.

How were things different at the 2014 World Cup?

Brecht: We set up an entire social media hub in one of the hot spots of soccer, which is the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. We not only put our people in there, but we co-located a newsroom with Google people, we had a very close cooperation with them. We played on every relevant social media platform, certainly not just Facebook and Twitter, but anything we can do to connect, and we didn’t just send messages, but we listened.

Every day we had a social media sensing report, telling us what the feedback was on social media. Every day we measured the retweets of our messages, measured Facebook posts, through scanning thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of messages, every day getting consolidated feedback through social media sensing. So all of a sudden, your entire conversation changes from a monologue to dialogue.

We definitely won that World Cup from a marketing perspective. We had 22 percent higher share of voice than any other [sports] company in the World Cup. The ball was tweeting! Our soccer ball was tweeting. That thing had millions of followers. Through that social media hub, which was truly interacting with the consumer, we won that World Cup from a marketing perspective.

Talk about the team. How has your technology group worked with the marketing group?

Brecht: We were pretty honest with ourselves. The IT guys realized, we probably do not have the creativity it takes to run a successful marketing campaign from a creative perspective, and the marketing guys were equally honest in saying, we probably don’t have the technical skills to put our creativity into something which is scalable and secure. After quite a bit of discussion, we decided to fully integrate. We call it the digital experience team, with digital creative perspective and digital technology perspective.

The team is led by one person, reporting to both the CMO and the CIO. And that team cannot distinguish whether they are marketing or IT. We made that change effective as of Nov. 1, 2013, and I think that was probably the most significant step to being successful. Because that lays the foundation of not having all the finger-pointing: ‘oh the IT guys don’t get the creative stuff, the marketing guys don’t get it scalable, it breaks down.’ The theme is: One accountability, end-to-end responsibility, whether it’s the creative piece or the technology piece.

Today everything is based on technology, everything is on social media. It’s why you cannot do without IT, but certainly you cannot do without creative. So that’s No. 1, team, very important.

That’s a challenging role for the head of the team, to report to two executives. How do you resolve conflicts with the CMO?

Brecht: By talking to him. I think the structure makes sense but it always depends on the people who fill it. It took some time to make expectations realistic on both sides. We’ve also put a much more structured process around the campaigns. For example, the IT guys of the joint team are now part of the selection of the creative agencies, so from the very beginning there’s a quality gate, which makes things a little more strict in the beginning, but then you’re much faster toward the end, because in former times, the implementation was only considered once the creative work was done. That’s considered a lot earlier, and the structured process makes it a lot easier for marketing and IT to work together. That requires a lot less conflict and debate between CIO and CMO. And we get along well, so that helps.

What are the most important areas of change in technology that you see?

Brecht: The picture I always use with my internal team, not only IT but also the board, is the famous genie in the bottle. For decades IT was managed in a way that as CIO, you would have a nice bottle, your data center and applications, put a plug on it, and try to keep it under control as much as you can. That’s scalability, that’s reliability, that’s security. Well guess what, that game has entirely changed. If I look at how we run IT today, if I look at the smartphones of our Adidas consumers, [in total] they probably have a million times or trillion times more computing power, sheer technology, than anything I can ever have in my internal data centers. That genie has left the bottle.

So how do I not just make sure that I keep my applications and data centers under control, but how do I actually leverage the technology that is in the hands of the consumer to engage them for the brand. And that’s something IT needs to fundamentally unlearn and relearn, because, again, this is technology we do not have under control. It’s not in the bottle, yet we need to connect to it.

Just to give you two examples of that: No. 1 is the ZX Flux, which is a shoe, and there’s an app, you can find it in the Apple iTunes store, or on the Android store. Take a picture with your smartphone, any picture you want -- it should be appropriate content -- and then you can project it on your shoe. We make that shoe for you, and you will have the picture you took with your smartphone on your shoes.

Another example, called Snapshot, you can kick or throw a ball, and your smartphone will measure the speed with which you’ve thrown or kicked the ball. And again, that’s interaction, that’s not just sending trivial marketing messages, but you engage people with the brand through technology, which is not technology that we have bought, but technology that is in the consumer’s hands anyway.

Another area of challenge for CIOs working with CMOs is navigating the vast array of tools sold for digital marketing. Are you developing in-house or buying externally, and who are the interesting vendors?

Brecht: It’s mostly external. The pace at which these startups move is very difficult to match internally. So you do go to tools on the market, social media sensing and data analysis in particular. There are new tools every quarter, so in terms of social media sensing, we’ve probably tried at least eight or ten. We’ve always had the best tool at the time, but there’s another even better tool six months later, so that is changing rather significantly.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
7 secrets of successful remote IT teams