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Graeme Simpson

Edology recently spoke to Graeme Simpson, Chief Marketing Officer at Global University Systems (GUS), an international group of leading universities, colleges and business schools. Graeme shared his insights into what it takes to go from entry-level marketing positions to leading an organisation’s global marketing strategy. Graeme also shared his thoughts on the future of digital marketing, and the four crucial questions every CMO needs to think about daily.

Graeme, what led you to becoming a CMO at GUS?

After leaving school I started working for a large company called Dixons Stores Group, which at the time was a FTSE 100 company in the retail sector in the UK. When I first joined the company, internet retailing as we know it today didn’t exist, and the direct selling method at the time was to contact customers over the phone.

After a few months I knew this was the future for retail and I wanted to understand every element and work in as many areas as I could to really understand the future potential for online marketing and e-commerce.

A few months into my career there I joined a new department which had been created to focus on online shopping. Our budget for the first year was so small compared to the tradition retail arm in store, we really had to make every penny count. After a few months I knew this was the future for retail and I wanted to understand every element and work in as many areas as I could to really understand the future potential for online marketing and e-commerce.

… the roles that I stayed were always growing, as was my skill set and management style.

I think getting into digital marketing really helped me progress in my career, as at the time skill base in this area was so niche. After 8 years at Dixons I joined a much smaller company called ADVFN, which at the time had only 30 employees, and this role would eventually help me understand how a smaller business operates, whilst also giving me a better understanding of how to create a bigger impact on revenue and building a long-term growth strategy on a much smaller scale.

I was at ADVFN for 8 years before I joined Global University Systems, so I didn't move around a lot and the roles that I stayed were always growing, as was my skillset and management style.

What behavioural attributes do you think make a good CMO?

I think it’s essential to have a strong foundation in multiple areas of the business, such as IT, customer service, finance, and legal requirements. To get to be a CMO you really need to be able to understand all areas of the business. Ultimately, the number one thing that I tell everyone is: know your numbers. For example, I always ask myself these same questions every morning:

1. What was our Marketing Spend yesterday?

2. How many leads did we generate?

3. What are the conversion rates by channel - can I move the budget to increase sales?

4. What is the current top selling programme or product - can I generate more leads, sales?

The bottom line is, if you want to support your manager, know your numbers. You will be surprised how much more value you can add to meetings you if you know your numbers thoroughly. So, the simple number one rule is know your numbers better than you manager if you want to move ahead and ensure that you have a plan in place to continuously improve the bottom line.

Has the role of a CMO changed over the years in light of changing practices?

The biggest impact in the last few years in Europe has been the introduction of GDPR, which is a new law in Europe that deals with how we handle data and private information held on our students and those who have enquired with us. This has changed how and which channels we use to market our educational programmes, and how we use personal data.

I’d also say that compared to a few years ago, marketing roles are not so much about being creative, they are more about being able to process data and create small wins to drive bigger returns for your organisation.

What do you enjoy most about your role as CMO?

As you move up an organisation, you realise that it’s vital to have a strong team around you to support both yourself and the company, and this team should all have an aligned midset.

Getting the right hire into the organisation is sometimes one of the hardest parts of my job, but also one of the most rewarding. Having the right senior team around me gives me time to focus on growth and performance.

Which CMO’s do you most admire, and why?

I think it would be easy to name CMOs from some of the biggest brands in the world, Apple, McDonalds, Coke, etc., but the CMOs who I admire the most are sometimes the ones working for the smaller startups, people who are building something up from nothing with small budgets over a very short period of time.

The other CMOs I admire are the ones who come in to an organisation and establish a new brand, thereby bringing the company back into the mainstream. As an example, look at the sporting goods company Champion; they didn’t have the budget of giants like Nike and Adidas, but nevertheless they tried to re-establish themselves in very tough market environment.

Champion didn’t go through the traditional sponsorship route (Beckham, Ronaldo, etc.) as they couldn’t afford this option. Cleverly, they went influencers on Youtube and Instagram, and through small sponsorships they’ve brought the brand back into the urban mainstream with huge success.

Finally Graeme, how do you keep yourself current in light of rapid technological advancement?

At Global University systems we are growing at a fast pace with multiple new brands joining the group every year. This makes the company more complex and we need to control the complexity of such accelerated growth.

We make sure that 5% of our marketing budget is spent on looking for new technology or channels that we can test in order to better understand the digital marketing landscape. I always have a weekly meeting with all the individual teams in the GUS group to talk through channels and performance, so when we do find a channel or tech that works, the whole group benefits.

If you’d like to know more about accelerating your pathway to becoming a CMO by studying a marketing degree online, take a look at Edology’s full range of marketing programmes here.

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