Sprint’s CMO, Roger Solé, has a lot on his plate. He leads all the mobile service provider’s products, services, advertising and branding initiatives, customer acquisition and customer retention. Solé came to the company from TIM Brasil, where he served as a chief marketing officer. His list of accomplishments at Sprint includes the launch of several innovative programs such as “Switch And Save 50 Percent,” the $1 iPhone promotion and “Sprint Open World.” 

Solé sat down with AList to discuss innovation in telecom industry and beyond, and meditate on the challenges CMOs face in today’s reality. 

People have been talking about 5G for quite a while already. What else is important to add? 

I don’t think a lot has actually been [said] yet. Because remember, the first objective of 5G is to enable all the IoT, the Internet of Things world. Maybe it’s not advertising, in the common sense, but the fact that anything can be connected to the [internet] means that an ad can be on anything. You could have real-time, AI-based, personalized machine learning that’s everywhere. I don’t think it’s been thought of like that. What IoT brings is a new kind of the digitalization of all the economy. It’s not just a few sectors, but it really brings a revolution to everything connected. Everything online, all the time, with everything. And working in parallel to that that is AI and automated devices. This brings an absolutely new world, and advertising is going to be part of this revolution. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily specific of advertising, but all the companies that lead you there [to the connected world] are already in development. Digital advertising is already influenced by AI, by microtargeting. So just imagine if you bring it everywhere. I think it’s going to be more personalized and, therefore, more relevant. 

And maybe it’s not going to be seen as advertising. It’s going to be seen more like a service. That is definitely a little bit like paid search has been. Because people don’t really hate paid search. It provides you a value, and, non-intrusively, you have all of those alternatives that the vendor has [sponsored]. But they’re not, necessarily, seen as traditional advertising.  

Is there any marketing technology that you’re specifically investing your time or money in?

Obviously, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Because now, we’re talking as enablers of the industry. I think we’re going to enable amazing new experiences with organic targeted advertising—everywhere. As users of advertising, there’s nothing specific that we’re all thinking about 5G, but what we are doing is leaning in to see what makes sense. 

One of the most relevant goals is to translate the logic that we have today in digital advertising into traditional advertising. That is still very relevant. Especially upper funnel brand building, which all companies really need. We have these lower funnel customers (that are usually more price sensitive) who are ready to switch, and these customers are easier to target because they are already aware.

The top of the funnel is more challenging—and right now harder to measure. For these people, you need to capture their interest and their imagination through upper funnel brand-building exercises. The problem with this kind of advertising is the old saying of, “Hey, I know my advertising works, but I don’t know which half.” And the other half is rubbish. That’s the part we need to change. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of seeing this as traditional TV or radio, we need to see this as just one more upper funnel media that’s connected, just like any other digital, to the same stack, where you can understand who is actually looking at this, watching this and what’s the actual reaction.

There’s been always this problem in putting too much attention on attribution at the end of the funnel. We are building these multi-touch attribution models where we are able to understand what is the real effect of each beat; and that’s digital only. But how do you integrate upper funnel digital into traditional media? Because when people are watching the Super Bowl, and there’s an ad and, maybe, it’s relevant–for brand building purposes. But today, you don’t really know, and that’s what’s been bothering the industry. 

As a CMO, I’m not really focused on just doing brand advertising, I need to deliver the business results. And I also run pricing offers, promotions. Things are connected, and, actually, I don’t care about building branding, unless it has effects on the other side. 

For traditional media, what we’re working on right now is trying to connect them and plug them into this mentality of multi-touch attribution, and there are promising tools. We’re experimenting with closed-loop models. The outcome of that model is that we’ll know if a specific ad generated traffic in a store. And then from the store, we already more or less know from the traffic how we come back. So you actually get sales per ad. That’s the goal. 

For that kind of granular information you need integration with either [HTV] cable companies or smart TV. You get the information of who sees what, and then you need some geolocation capabilities to connect that same audience with where they are. It’s a complex method, but ultimately, I absolutely need this. I need to show  our CEO, “Hey, I’ve invested $100 million, and [these are] the customers we brought.” Because every time I tell him, “I need more money,” he says, “Okay, but what results are you going to bring?” I, and other CMOs, cannot just say, “I don’t know,” forever.

Do you think that as customers realize more about where their data is going, they will want to take back their data? 

We are totally concerned with that. Because the marketer will always find a way. No matter what the public allows, some marketers find other ways. The [disclosure of] what Facebook was doing, for us, was a shocking surprise. That’s where it all started. Internally, they [Facebook] have that saying of, “Do it first, even if we break things.” So now they broke a few things and they understood that, and need to re-approach it. Now they are trying to be ultra-compliant, which makes sense. But they were a startup. 

Now, they are a big company and they need to behave like [one]. Being multinational, one of the biggest in the world, the world is going to ask them for responsibility and compliance in how they use data, especially if that data is misused by political groups.  If companies don’t comply with what the customers expect from [them], they need to rearrange things. 

Can you talk about the CMO’s accountability to the board and the CEO? You are responsible for the budget and data. And often today, CMOs are replaced with chief revenue officers, what’s that trend?

There’s a huge pressure on the CMO, and you have to justify the budget, which is huge, usually. But honestly, once you get your budget, then you are held accountable to a lot of things in the company outside [of your direct] control. Somehow, you are seen as a chief revenue officer, meaning you are the first person after the CEO who needs to be responsible for bringing the revenue home, and this is a huge responsibility. The budget piece, ultimately, concerns me last because it’s an OpEx. It’s an expenditure that I actually control. What [primarily] concerns me is showing results. Traditional media is the big offender there because it’s sometimes so difficult to show how it works. That’s why I’m so obsessed about being able to performance-manage all the media. When you can show results, then you are in a good place with the board or the CEO about how you’re using the resources. 

Where most of the pressure comes is not there [showing marketing campaign results], actually. It’s the pressure on sales. Meaning bringing new customers and losing less of our base. In other industries that might be, literally, sales of products. But, in telecom, because you have subscriptions, it’s really how many subscriptions you bring (meaning new customers or new families) and how many you lose. And then how you manage the existing ones, and everything together gives you the revenue. 

Revenue of new customers, revenue of customers that you lose, and then, the revenue of those who stay and how much it all grows. And this is difficult because revenue is not something that you can 100 percent manage. You do things to get better, but ultimately, someone spends wherever they want. And if someone wants to leave–they leave, and if someone doesn’t buy an add-on, they just don’t. And it depends, sometimes, on many factors, like what your competitors are doing exactly,  disposable income, how the economy is going. There are other substitutive products that are happening and the new business models are being created. 

You cannot manage the world. I cannot really control revenue in the way that the board or the CEO usually wants, which is with [more] certainty. Revenue is always so uncertain; it depends on so many things that are not necessarily in your control. And that’s the tough part of the CMO [job].  They are asking so many things [over which] you don’t really have total control. And that’s why a lot of [CMOs] get fired very quickly because, “We don’t know why. It must be you,” [is often an easy excuse]. It’s easy to fire the CMO. But it’s not easy to grow revenues. Maybe the next one is going to give you more. And that’s why you see that some of them are replaced by chief revenue officers. I think that shows that those companies associate the CMO with revenue, and that’s always a super hard spot to be in. 

How have you gone through your career as a marketer, especially as you’ve moved up? And how do you recommend letting go of micromanaging things and looking at the bigger picture, instead? 

Because of the huge expectations, unfortunately, you are not able to give up on [all] micromanagement, especially with the CEOs that we have had at Sprint. They are micromanagers themselves and they expect you to know everything and you generally don’t. There are certain things you still need to know. 

Maybe once a month, I do a full report on what’s going on, summing up several different key pieces. I try to help connect the dots and keep everything moving forward. There are key projects you need to be very involved in to ensure they are done right, because you know that others, like the CEO, are watching carefully. Then there are other projects that might really excite you that you want to be part of. You have to balance it all out. 

That’s also why the CMO job is complex because you need to go through the execution while also never losing sight of the big picture strategy. If you lose that, you are not a CMO. You need to know where the industry is going, where your company is going, and then what are the things that actually demand your critical attention. And you need to be creative while also leaning on your team and the rest of the organization because [marketing] is in the middle of so many interactions. You also need to think about how to bring the other areas [of the organization] that support the company, like IT, to the big picture vision.

What do you think is the key issue facing marketers in 2019?

Going back to my concerns, it is that it should be consistent. Understanding the relevant performance metrics and performance management in digital. It’s an area where there’s still a lot of dark spaces. I think it was Procter & Gamble CMO saying that, “I also don’t understand what happens with 30 percent of my digital advertisers.” There’s been a lot of criticism about some of the way it’s being measured. 

Performance in digital. You’ve got the Google stack, a Facebook stack. These aren’t connected. And there are vanity metrics, too. That’s why it’s difficult to have the multi-touch integration because things don’t talk to each other. And then you’ve got all of this display world, where  you are unsure of how many people really see them. That puts a lot of questions about performance in digital advertising. And then on traditional, it’s always been difficult to measure, and that is how we really get into performance management. 

If we could connect all of this, then you would be able to show [the value of] what you do, what it brings to the company in terms of revenue. That’s how you would be able to connect it to the aspiration or what people expect from you, in terms of bringing revenue. 

The other concern is really integrating this strategy with tactics It’s critical to always have a vision and then turn that into specific tactics and initiatives. These are the two things CMOs need to be the most concerned about.