I had the privilege over the last couple of months to interview 19 senior digital and marketing leaders from some of the UK's great brands, including John Lewis, Wiggle and BT at our 2016 CMO Council, held at the beautiful Hotel Royal in London.

This elite group of influencers and Salesforce customers will meet regularly to discuss the major topics, trends, challenges and controversies that impact how we market and manage the customer journey in a digital world. Together with Salesforce, the mission for the CMO Council is simple: 'to provide an open forum to help digital and marketing leaders improve how they run their business in the age of the customer’.

Ahead of the event, we spoke with all CMO Council members and asked them five questions around their vision, their current capabilities, where they need to improve, what is disrupting them and what opportunities are ahead of them. Here are the highlights of what the folk in leadership positions care about, think about, and often lose sleep about today.

1. Digital transformation is a (speedy) journey and data is at its heart

Every digital leader we spoke to believed they still had a long way to go on their digital transformation journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are yet to raise their hands and say ‘We’ve done it. We’ve transformed. We’re a truly digital and customer-centric organization that has a single view of our customer’.

Despite this, they remain bullish with a clear vision for digital. Many now think in the mindset of ‘digital strategy is corporate strategy’ or ‘marketing in a digital world, not digital marketing'. For the CMO Council members, it all starts with the fundamentals: the customer and the data. The questions they are asking themselves are ‘how do I use data (behavoriual, CRM, analytics, 1st party, 3rd party, commerce etc.) to understand the context of my business and my customers in order to build a meaningful, profitable and loyal relationship with them across channels and touchpoints?’ ‘How do I do that as fast as possible?’ And ‘where do I place my bets first?’. The general consensus is those that can answer these questions clearly and execute against them fast are those that will win the race to digital transformation.

2. The Disruptors & The Disrupted - who wins?

The CMO Council gives members a unique perspective in that the Salesforce customers and members involved are from all walks of business and industries: the smaller, nimbler, disruptor businesses and the traditional, complex and grandiose businesses dealing with transformation. This CMO council offered both perspectives, with presentations from The Gym Group - an incredible company disrupting the gym business - as well as the perspective of one of the largest CPG companies in the world, who are transforming business models and driving a closer relationship with customers. It was a great insight into how organizations are approaching digital and data as both ‘the disruptor' and 'the disrupted’. On the one hand, the nimbler disruptor is able to take a data-first, mobile-first approach and use data a strategic differentiator built on a platform around the customer, but has to deal with fierce competition and 100-mile-an-hour pace. On the other hand, the complex businesses dealing with transformation have the resources, heritage and maturity to manoeuvre big strategic and technology movements that make significant waves in their industry in one fell swoop. It will be fascinating to see this 'disruptor-disrupted' paradigm pan out in 2016. Certainly, our own Jeremy Waite believes this year may be the year that ‘traditional businesses fight back’.

3. Cross-industry subscription economies transform customer engagement

Today, we can subscribe to cars (Zipcar), video (Netflix), fashion (Rent The Runway), flowers (Bloom & Wild), craft beer (beer52.com), turning our every-day products into services and subscriptions. The concept of the subscription economy isn’t new, but it’s fast becoming a viable consideration for every industry, especially where disintermediation and direct to consumer models are taking hold and businesses aim to shift from an ‘unknown' transactional model to a ‘known' subscription and loyalty model.

In our interviews and during the CMO Council we discussed such models for everything from everyday products (water, dishwasher tablets ) to high end supercars and then to the more traditional subscription products in newspapers and gaming. The questions we deliberated here were 'how do you deal with the inevitable impact of changing the way you engage with customers in such a model? A world where the customer expects constant attention and value, in exchange for their continued renewal?'. And from a technology and digital capability perspective, how does that impact mobile, social, email marketing and automation across channels at scale? The general consensus in the group was that it’s a mindset shift and a technology shift all-in-one. Technology needs to support an always-on, omnichannel communication model which is grounded in customer or CRM data, and the team mindset needs to shift to a model that can support the customer beyond just the conversion or the transaction - towards loyalty and constant servicing.

4. Marketing in 'Digital Spaces’ and an IoT World - will it spawn new collaborations?

No doubt, the IoT world is truly upon us, especially if you were at CES this year or at Dreamforce in 2015, where Salesforce announced our IoT Cloud. Depending on which source you look at, we’re in the realm of the tens of billions of connected devices in the next 4 years.

No digital marketing discussion would be complete without deliberating over the impact of connected devices on digital marketing this year. Our CMO Council members discussed the concept of marketing within ‘digital spaces’ and around ‘digital moments’ where connected devices and products play an important role, but are not the focal point of the experience. This is an important point to muse upon for marketers - don’t get hung up on the device and the next shiny object - think about the experience first. 

Within the framework of a ‘digital spaces and moments’ discussion, the obvious next step was - how we deal with connected experiences and the data flows? If we’re in the home, how does the dishwasher trigger a replenishment order of dishwasher tablets? How does my lightbulb network remind me via push notification while I’m at the supermarket that I need to buy more lightbulbs? And there’s an offer on especially for me if I buy today? These types of use cases ignited discussion around sharing of data beyond your organization - to partners and other brands that are players in the ecosystem of a ‘digital moment’. What does that mean for technology and how data and signals trigger those types of interactions in real-time? It’s a discussion that’s sure to go on and on as the industry figures out digital marketing in an IoT world.

5. The never-ending quest of the Single Customer View

When it comes to data, the holy grail for every CMO, CDO or Chief Customer Officer is the single customer view. For our CMO Council, the was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Again, this is not a new concept, and an ever-evolving and expanding discipline that encompasses data from any and every source. The CMO Council members acknowledged that the SCV goal-post is constantly moving, but that significant strides are being made as technology enables them to collect, analyse and act upon multichannel data to predict outcomes and create unique customer experiences.  

Ticketmaster and LiveNation being great examples of what can be done so far. However, there remains a general unease or frustration that with all the data being captured, many organizations are yet to truly unlock the full value that inherently exists in a single customer view. Of course, with IoT beginning to contribute to another source of ‘big data’ and the fact that the volume and pace at which new data is created will never be as low or as slow as it is today, it's certain that this will continue as a hot topic for our CMO Council next time. For Salesforce, this is an exciting opportunity to work together with these brands as they seek to know more about who their customers are and unlock the insights and value from the ever-evolving single customer view.

For our next CMO Council, I’ll report back on how these topics have evolved and what’s next on the agenda. In the meantime, we’ll be inviting the world’s marketers to our Connections conference in Atlanta, US in May. We’d love to see you there…