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How to build an effective regional B2B marketing team

Four senior APAC marketers explain the best way to think globally, act locally.

John Antos was given an imposing challenge when he moved from New York to Singapore for ADP, one of the world’s biggest payroll providers. The task set by his old marketing boss was to create a much larger presence for ADP in Asia-Pacific.

“He sent me out here with no people and no budget,” Antos told the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum audience in Singapore. “He said ‘make it happen’.”

[caption id="attachment_2024" align="alignleft" width="400"]B2B marketing Marketorium Pamela Cass VMware John Antos ADP VC John Accenture Susan Jain IBM localisation Clockwise from top: VMware's Pamela Cass, ADP's John Antos, IBM's Susan Jain, Accenture's VC John[/caption]

Antos, ADP’s Vice President Strategy & Marketing APAC, needed to grow the company’s footprint across the region. It was never going to a simple process, of course, even if he had the luxury of a large staff and a budget to match.

“In payroll, there are no gold stars for doing a good job,” he said. “You buy [the service] expecting it to be perfect every time.”

Despite having the same product available in most markets, ADP had to allow for various complex payroll laws and compliance rules, as well as different national holidays.

Moving to a regional marketing approach without building teams in each country was going to be a massive task. ADP's existing hubs in Singapore, China, India and Australia ranged from two to eight people and had various operating models – for example, one did all of its jobs in-house, another outsourced everything.

"How to do we balance relevance and efficiency? Market relevance at a local level is very important," Antos said. "We realised there's a benefit of scale and we needed to get some consistency with the brand, but we also didn't want to lose that local touch."

Find a common purpose

“In the same way that there is no country called ‘Asia’, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that you can take in terms of marketing strategies across Asia-Pacific and Japan,” says Pamela Cass, regional Vice President of Marketing for software company VMware.

"Each country has its own market dynamics and maturity in where they are in their overall IT lifecycle. For example, Australia and Japan are very sophisticated in their take-up of cloud and cloud-related technologies while India and China are still laying the groundwork for modernising their data centres and then moving to the cloud."

Cass says that aside from the challenges of managing a virtual team across a vast geographic area, it's essential marketing leaders ensure it operates harmoniously and productively in every country.

“My management team and I spend a lot of time making sure we communicate effectively and regularly – at a group and individual level” – Pamela Cass

“I have a sports background, so when I think about how teams are motivated and engaged to do their best work, it relates to everyone having a common purpose and clear goals and defined objectives aligned to the business – at a regional and country level, not just at a global level,” Cass says.

“It’s the clear focus on business outcomes that drive a team and make all their work worthwhile. Making it clear to my team what our marketing strategy is, the desired outcomes from it and how it impacts our business are key to enabling a high-performance team.”

Cass says good communication is a vital ingredient. “My management team and I spend a lot of time making sure we communicate effectively and regularly – at a group and individual level – to make sure everyone is on the same page. We’re also operating to make sure we deliver clear outcomes to our business and sales stakeholder teams at a country level.”

She says they use technology, such as VMware’s digital workspace solution Workplace ONE, to facilitate productivity and communications.

Make no assumptions

Susan Jain knows all about the power of well-run regional teams. IBM’s CMO for the Middle East, Africa, Turkey and Pakistan was formerly APAC CMO and has been based in Singapore, Bangalore and Shanghai.

Now in Dubai, Jain believes regional marketers confront many challenges not faced by those who work in global roles or at company headquarters.

“There’s a whole realm of things we have to think about and deliver on as marketers,” Jain said in Singapore. “I believe being in a regional marketing role is the most fascinating and demanding one in the entire world.”

“Assumptions may be that ink spot on your shirt or the shark following you in the water” – Susan Jain

Much of the complexity comes from having to balance the needs of different markets and audiences without falling back on natural assumptions and biases of what works and what doesn’t. “Assumptions may be that ink spot on your shirt or the shark following you in the water,” she said.

Finding success requires curiosity and having “both your left and your right brains working at the same time – the yin and yang of marketing all coming together”, she said. It’s also about being a “tradigital” marketer – having expertise with traditional marketing tactics, such as physical events, and those in the digital world.

“We find webinars are increasingly effective, even in places where we believe people need to get together to have a sales and marketing experience – India, for example,” Jain said. “But if it’s monsoon season in Mumbai, you don’t want to try to convince people to drive across town or have an event experience that relies on people showing up when the roads may flood. To me, that illustrates the beauty and creativity of the roles we have.”

Take chances

Accenture’s VC John is another senior marketer who discovered the importance of finding the right tactic to reach a specific audience.

John, the financial services marketing lead for Accenture in Asia-Pacific, Japan, Middle East and Africa, and his team discovered Japanese executives find promotional business emails extremely intrusive.

“If you're thinking of running an email campaign in Japan, forget it,” John said on a panel discussion at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum. “They don't even allow for their official email to be on business cards.”

John said Accenture eventually tried to reach its Japanese customers using the webinar platform, something it hadn’t previously considered doing.

"We didn't know how it was going to work," he said. "Against all the odds, it was a massive success. We actually had people join the webinar in droves, to the point where we had to do newer or repeat broadcasts of those webinars in Japan.

"Each market context deserves its own toolbox because the operation required is unique in each” – VC John

“The Japanese are not comfortable sitting in a room with their peers in the industry, talking about their problems and challenges. They are far more comfortable sitting in the comfort of their cubicle, or their office, watching content on the screen and typing questions one-on-one with the person who is presenting. You won't believe the amount of insight we got purely from that interaction webinar session.”

John said many regional cultural nuances come into play when managing customer experience across a region as diverse as Asia-Pacific. "It really boils down to horses for courses – fit-for-purpose campaign design – and working closely with the market for what the market needs," he said.

"As an industry marketer, I'm in a slightly more defined situation because I only market to 36 customers across the region. We're marketing to people and organisations that we already have relationships with. In this context, the whole marketing role becomes about deepening, strengthening and broadening the context of the relationship within those businesses in those regions.

"Each market context deserves its own toolbox because the operation required is unique in each. As a regional marketer, you have to be that much more sensitive to what the reality is, on a daily basis.”

Invest in the right skills

ADP’s John Antos set about his task of building a substantial APAC presence by concentrating on four areas.

The first was finding a common language for ADP’s marketing teams. With the help of Sirius Decisions, ADP got its marketers in different countries speaking about the same things using the same terms. It also put in common ROI measures and matched those with Salesforce data.

“At some point,” Antos said, “these ROI dashboards had to convert to opportunity cost so that we [marketing] could be accountable for delivering one-third of sales output.”

ADP then moved all offices to an “in-house” model, building teams to scale its digital footprint. “We went from two websites to six websites, and two blogs to five blogs plus WeChat in China,” Antos said.

“We’re investing in specialist skills on key elements” – John Antos

To build this digital infrastructure, it created “buddy teams” – writers and web experts working together to create content for websites and social media. It meant, too, it “could be responsive to sales in the same way we were in a local team”.

The fourth and most significant change, he said, was building the team's cultural awareness. Antos brought the entire team to Singapore for a three-hour workshop with the Human Capital Leadership Institute, which presented research on regional cultural preferences – how people buy, work and connect.

“What was interesting was the people in the room – whether they came from China, India or Australia – all learned something about themselves,” Antos said. “More importantly, our Indian team could understand our China team, and the Australia team could understand the Singapore team.”

Antos said the next step has been to increase the use of automation to reduce overall staffing numbers and help increase ADP’s regional presence. “We’ve been doing a series of pilots in each country to try to get as local as we can using technology,” Antos said.

ADP has also been using its own research into human resources issues and preferences “to craft employee experience for each country – to keep them engaged and have a successful career”.

Antos admitted ADP is still building a fully functioning regional team with room to scale. He has introduced a "centre of excellence" approach to developing teams with interchangeable abilities.

“We’re investing in specialist skills on key elements,” Antos said. Reducing office headcount has allowed ADP management to invest in more people working on their ground in the company’s emerging markets – to be as “local” as possible.

Most importantly, Antos has encouraged his team to adopt a regional mindset. "I was really surprised coming to Asia that if you came from a big country, you put the big country first," Antos said. "It's really hard to break people out of that mindset. How do you live in Australia and think about Singapore? It's the same thing in China or India.

“What we’re looking for are people [who] have worked in regional companies. They come with a certain mindset to try to drive equality and sales in every market.”

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Further reading: 12 memorable quotes from the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum Asia 2018