The Customer is King: Why the CMO Must Become the Customer Expert

M&T Bank's Francesco Lagutaine says the modern CMO must become the customer expert in their organization. That means truly listening to customers, simplifying experiences, and consistently representing the customer voice in the C-suite. Lagutaine also shares lessons from his experience driving marketing innovation in Asia.

The podcast: Why the Role of the Marketer is that of the Customer Expert

Source: Vya Marketing

Why we picked it: Perhaps the most valuable mentors industry experts can look to are their peers  — particularly the ones at the top of their game. The Financial Brand team found this podcast from Vya Marketing, a marketing technology company based in Ohio, and thought it had plenty of nuggets of wisdom that marketers from both large and small firms could learn from.

The role of the CMO is transforming. No longer just the steward of advertising campaigns and brand messaging, today’s CMO must become the customer expert and champion within their organization.

Someone who has lived this evolution is Francesco Lagutaine, chief marketing and communications officer at M&T Bank.

(6/28/24 Editor’s Note: Lagutaine is now the chief marketing officer at USAA. At the time the podcast was published, he was the CMO at M&T.)

Having worked across the world from Europe to Asia to the U.S., and across industries from advertising to financial services, Lagutaine brings a wealth of insight on modern marketing. In his interview with Vya Marketing, he shares his perspective on why listening to customers, simplifying experiences and building the right teams and structures are critical for marketers to drive growth.

Key Takeaways:

  • Listening to customers with empathy is the foundation of effective marketing. It’s not just about collecting data, but having an attitude of truly wanting to understand customer needs.
  • Simplicity is key. Customers respond best when you provide exactly what they need, without overcomplicating things. To illustrate his point, Lagutaine gives the example of innovations like digital signatures and appointment setting that removed friction for M&T Bank customers during the pandemic.
  • Asia is a hotbed of marketing innovation, thanks to its growth mindset, agility and leaner teams. Lagutaine spent a decade leading marketing in the APAC region and brought back valuable lessons on moving fast, taking smart risks and connecting the dots across the organization.
  • To deliver sustainable impact, marketing capabilities need to be approached with more discipline and consistency, not as shiny objects that change focus every year. The CMO must have a clear remit and “a seat at the CEO’s table” to represent the customer.

Empathy and Simplicity: The Foundations of Customer-Centric Marketing

Having started his career in advertising, working with big global brands, Lagutaine was attracted to the financial industry because of the opportunity to drive change in a sector primed for fresh, customer-centric thinking. He joined Citibank just before the 2008 financial crisis, which proved to be a baptism by fire, but also a defining experience.

“It was a time when we had to really focus on what mattered most to customers,” he recalls. “We couldn’t afford to get distracted by the noise.” This lesson in empathy and simplicity has stayed with Lagutaine as a marketing North Star ever since.

He gives a recent example from M&T Bank’s pandemic response. With branches closed, they quickly launched digital innovations like online appointment booking and remote document signing, both of which were significant game changers, says Lagutaine. “Not because of the sophistication of the technology, but because of how they simplified the experience at a time when people really needed it.”

Lagutaine believes marketers often overcomplicate things in an attempt to demonstrate value. “We’re proud of everything we do, so we want to tell customers about all of it. But the reality is, they just want the one thing that’s relevant to their need at that moment. Anything more than that just gets in the way.”

Leaner, Faster, Smarter: Lessons from Asian Marketing Innovation

Having spent over a decade leading marketing for Citibank and Manulife in Asia, Lagutaine gained firsthand experience of why the region has become a locus of marketing innovation. He attributes it to a combination of three factors:

A growth mindset: With many Asian economies expanding rapidly, marketers there spend less time over-analyzing risk and more time seizing opportunities. “There’s a greater openness to experimentation, to trying new things without endless modelling of the what-ifs,” says Lagutaine.

Agile teams: Asian marketing teams tend to be leaner, which Lagutaine sees as an advantage. He explains that while the expertise in the U.S. is unmatched, the challenge of “doing more with less” forced his teams to be scrappy and innovate from pressure of limited resources.  ]

A mobile-first consumer: With many Asian consumers leapfrogging straight to mobile, it has spurred waves of marketing innovation around things like QR codes, super-apps and contactless payments that are now spreading globally.

Making Marketing a C-Suite Priority

Perhaps the biggest challenge — and opportunity — that Lagutaine sees for bank marketers today is earning a consistent “seat at the table” in the C-suite and boardroom, a role that often isn’t understood or empowered in many financial institutions.

Too often, marketing is seen as a cost center rather than a growth driver, or gets distracted by chasing the latest trends. The tendency to be enamored by the flashiest and newest hits can hinder actual growth.

Lagutaine’s advice for aspiring CMOs is to focus on building credibility as the customer expert in the organization. “Don’t just be a mouthpiece for what marketing is doing. Be the voice of the customer in every conversation about products, channels, policies. Ground everything in deep customer insight and clear business outcomes. He also emphasizes the importance of talent, and empowering teams to innovate without the fear of failure. That, coupled with listening to customers and focusing on the trends that matter, will make all the difference.

Editor’s note: This article was prepared with AI language software and edited for clarity and accuracy by The Financial Brand editorial team.

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