Creativity is sky high and marketers are more inspired thanks to a Marketing Excellence Programme that’s already seeing more effective work. Sky’s Dave Stratton talks Laura Swinton through the journey and shares tips for marketers hoping to follow suit
When Sky’s vast marketing team came back to the office after more than a year of working remotely due to covid, it quickly became apparent that they needed to do something to knit everyone back together. That time at home had also given the leadership a bit of space to think about where they really wanted to be heading and what sort of marketing the brand needed to be doing, and they started to think about reinvesting in training and really inspiring the teams to reach higher.
“Our ethos and mantra has always been ‘Believe in Better’ and we wanted to take that internally with our marketing,” says Dave Stratton marketing director for broadband and connectivity at the broadcaster and telecomms behemoth.
And so, the Marketing Excellence Programme was born. It’s a top-to-bottom initiative for everyone from fresh-faced grads to seasoned marketeers, and combines training, inspiration and a clear mandate to do braver work.
To get a flavour of what’s been happening, marketers have been heading out on field trips to the likes of Google and Meta for inspiration sessions that have left the team ‘buzzing about what they can do’. Sky is also putting some people on Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA and getting juniors on Chartered institute of Marketing courses. All that new knowledge and skills is being put into action with deliberate and considered push for bolder, more innovative work.
But the tentpole of the programme is a three day face-to-face training scheme that covers everything from brief writing to how to assess creative work as well as best practice in media and digital marketing. Industry leaders like Karen Blackett and Cilla Snowball and Mark Ritson have been invited to speak. What makes this training scheme unique, though, is that it has been created for everyone - last year 150 people went through it and another 150 people went through it in January.
“It goes all the way through the marketing organisation, and it makes sure that we're all working off the same foundations, and we're all talking the same language, because even for the marketing directors, it's great to go back to the basics,” says Dave. He reveals that within weeks of the first cohort completing the training, they had noticed a difference in terms of the briefs being written and the feedback given to agencies.
The programme is underpinned by a clearly articulated ambition and sense of purpose.
“I suppose the core of the Marketing Excellence Programme is around being bold, being restless, and being together. So, when we built it, we had those three words at the heart of it,” says Dave.
And of those three words, Dave says that the ‘together’ element is the key to the whole exercise. “We’ve got a huge marketing team - one of the biggest in the UK and we have the biggest in-house creative agency in Europe. So, it’s really important that those individuals don’t feel siloed and that they feel part of that bigger team. I think that is really inspirational but it also allows them to share learnings with each other. The chances are, if you’re looking to do something, there’s someone across our business who knows something or has done it before.”
And that sense of togetherness also creates a sense of safety in which ambitious creative risk-taking can thrive. Dave explains that Sky’s marketing is working along a principle he calls “70-20-10”. 70% of the marketing the team does is in the ‘now’ - that is to say the tried and true channels and approaches that they know will work. 20% is the ‘new’ - playing around with ideas, techniques and spaces that are either new to Sky or new full stop. 10% is the ‘next’, experimenting and investing in the tech and realities of the future. Most of the investment goes in the ‘70’, of course, but it gives the marketers and their creative collaborators permission to push boundaries and take risks. And, says Dave, the whole of the Sky business buys into the need to ‘do more to stay ahead’.
“We've ensured that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet and everybody's bought into ‘bold, restless and together’. Then as we go forward into those strategy and planning meetings or creative reviews, that language is naturally starting to come through in those strategic and creative conversations,” says Dave of the emerging change in creative culture. “Once you get that flywheel moving, that starts to expand throughout the whole organisation, and it really creates a sense of possibility, which we’re starting to see now across the teams.”
And it’s not just the culture that’s changing internally - it is having an impact on the work. There’s been a flurry of quirky, playful activations. For example, the unsettling horror The Midwich Cuckoos got a sardonically funny OOH installation of creepy children escaping from a poster and causing havoc in the real world. The chaotic Minions were launched into the world with a g-force-stretched bus shelter to demonstrate the speed of Sky Broadband - and they transformed a shopping mall escalator into a slide, so that shoppers could experience the thrill of high speeds for themselves. That sense of humour has emerged thanks to the principles of boldness and restlessness, yes, but it’s also the result, says Dave, of marketing teams really enjoying what they’re doing.
The team has also been dabbling in emerging spaces like NFTs, the metaverse and eSports. And far from being faddish indulgences, Dave says these more experimental campaigns have been yielding surprisingly positive results. Take last year’s Fortnite collaboration. Deathrun saw Sky create a unique speed running course on the popular shooting game where players could compete to win a £5000 GAME voucher or a head-to-head with popular Youtube streamer Ali-A. It’s success has blown Dave away and boosted the team’s belief in the value of trying new things.
“What's really surprised me so far is how well that's performed,” he says. “Looking at the results of the metaverse campaign, it over-achieved all of the targets that we set. When we got the return on investment numbers back recently, that's one of our best performing campaigns of the year. So it gives us the confidence that actually, that's worked really, really well for us. And we want to look to do more of that going forward.”
When it comes to experimenting in emerging spaces, Dave is clear that this isn’t a free-for-all. Neither is it an attempt to dazzle marketing award judges with novelty. While teams are encouraged to take risks, these are calculated risks and the basic principles of marketing still apply.
“I think you've always got to be aware of what your objectives are and what you're looking to achieve,” he says. “So for us, an award is a great outcome from an effective campaign. And that's what we're really focused on - effective campaigns and making sure that our marketing budgets go further. So if we take what we did on the metaverse, for example, yeah, we went into an existing platform and space in Fortnight. We did something that we knew was gonna get an audience because we were fishing where the fish were.”
The programme has only been in play for a few months and already the team is seeing concrete, measurable results. Most immediately, says Dave, they saw an uptick in happiness amongst the marketers. Their regular engagement survey saw a leap in marketers believing that Sky was investing in them in the future.
In terms of overall effectiveness of the campaigns, Dave says that there are pockets of activity where they can point to a real improvement in ROI. It’s too early for the overall tangible results but ‘we’re seeing some real green shoots across the business at the moment’.
If all that sounds too good to be true, when asked about the challenges and difficulties in implementing the Marketing Excellence Programme, Dave is genuinely stumped. He takes a few moments to wrack his brain. If anything, he's been amazed to see the speed at which is has been embraced across an organisation as large and complex as Sky.
“I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t say it’s been hard. Everybody’s embraced it really well. There’s a real openness at Sky across everybody, from top-down and across our marketing teams to really live the ‘believe in better’ ethos,” he reflects.
While Sky is a unique business operating in a very specific context, leaders across all sorts of sectors may be thinking about doing their own version of this Marketing Excellence Programme. Dave has advice for anyone hoping to go down this route.
For one thing, it needs buy-in from the top of the business. At Sky UK and Europe, CEO Stephen van Rooyen is an ex-marketer and understands the power of brands and creativity as a competitive advantage and Karl Holmes, the chief consumer revenue officer, supports the scheme as a valuable investment that will drive more revenue.
But ultimately it’s about giving your marketers a sense of clarity and safety. “Being clear with your marketing teams, in terms of what brilliant looks like, is, first and foremost, giving them a clear mandate to go and do great work, to take some risks and [letting them] feel like they're working in a psychologically safe environment, where they are supported, to take these risks and to learn.”