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Secrets to Deploying a Digital Center of Excellence

Olin Hyde

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Siara Nazir is the head of digital marketing for Autodesk.  She’s is currently embarking on a very interesting journey of transformation. Specifically, she’s setting up a Digital Center of Excellence. She has set such operations up at previous companies like Symantec and I thought you might enjoy learning about the insights she has from this experience.


  • The reason businesses need a digital center of optimization excellence
  • The key stakeholders involved in a digital center of optimization excellence
  • The need to balance stakeholder input with business agility
  • The growth of customer expectations regarding digital access
  • The challenge of specialization in smaller regions globally
  • The expectations to set with leadership, especially timelines



[0:00:07.2] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the B2B Marketing Jukebox by LeadCrunch. Help us start a movement to make B2B marketers the maestros of shareholder value.

On our website, leadcrunch.com, you can find timestamped transcripts of these podcasts and info about the guests. Subscribe to these podcasts on all major platforms, like iTunes. Send topic or guest suggestions to the host at david.green@leadcrunch.ai.

Here’s Dave.


 [0:00:33.9] DG: I am here today with Siara Nazir. Siara is the head of digital marketing for Autodesk, and she has a absolutely fantastic set of things she wants to share around digital centers of excellence and how you set those up. Siara has been at Symantec, before she joined Autodesk late last year, where she was the director of online acquisition and Global Paid Media since 2009 and has won awards for excellence in media and quality impact award for breaking barriers and changing her industry for the better.

She’s pioneered a lot of new approaches in digital marketing that have been covered in publications like the DM News and by Forrester, the analyst group. She’ll be speaking this year at the MarTech conference in 2018 in Boston. It covers artificial intelligence, a very hot topic and one near and dear to our hearts here at LeadCrunch.

She’s also been building digital centers of excellence for over a decade now. She has a lot of hard-earned war scars from that that she wants to help other people who might be thinking about embarking on a similar journey, helping them understand the kinds of things that she learned along the way. Siara, thank you so much for joining us today.

[0:01:51.1] SN: Hi Dave. Thank you for having me.

[0:01:53.6] DG: You’re very welcome. Let’s start at the very beginning. Just in case there are people out there where this idea of a center of excellence, a digital center of excellence might be new or a little bit fuzzy, can you describe what that actually means in terms of the charter and the typical core services that you’re delivering and the mission that you have?

[0:02:15.6] SN: Yeah, absolutely. I think before we get into that, we probably do want to acknowledge that more and more customers are learning and transacting about brands online. Whether that’s through the company’s website, or that customer journey is intertwined with other online channels or social media channels, it’s clear that online is becoming more and more a part of all of our lives in every way.

It’s becoming critical for companies to understand this space and ensure that their businesses are built up to offer services and values of any kind in the space and to expose the analytics around that journey to help inform marketing strategy. This digital marketing center of excellence basically involves all of that; understanding the shift in the consumer journey and how consumers are consuming information and purchasing products and services, as well as ensuring that we have the platforms and processes to not only garner insights from those journeys, but also be able to track and expose analytics that help inform our spending and strategy.

[0:03:29.8] DG: Excellent. Yeah, it is changing so rapidly. I think if someone isn’t really focused on this and a team, it’s hard to keep up. I totally get that. Let’s take a step back and answer the question why companies embark on a big and bold initiative around setting up a digital center of excellence the way you’ve done multiple times.

[0:03:53.7] SN: Yeah. I think that’s a really great question, Dave. I think it comes out of a need to grow your business, a need to understand your consumer more deeply. A lot of it could be also rooted in competition. Your competitors may understand their customers a lot more deeply, and as a result, they’re growing double digits but you’re lagging behind. I think, back to the earlier point of customer journey becoming more and more digitized no matter what product or service they’re interacting with, there are companies who know this and have built processes around it, but then there are many more companies who are still evolving. That they have been around for a while and they need to evolve all of their processes to be able to be up to standard for this new world order. Frankly, doing that will help them grow their bottom line, as well as understand their customers better.

[0:04:52.0] DG: Interesting. Who are the typical stakeholders in this type of an initiative?

[0:04:57.9] SN: Yeah. I think that’s really interesting, because I think that I’ve seen it evolve. At Symantec and at Autodesk, I’ve been in the process and I am currently in the process of setting up this digital center of excellence. I’ve noticed, because I’ve had a long career in marketing that in the early days, it was just marketing.

Marketing would just begin to understand what they need to do in terms of org design and structure and what new tools they needed. Now, what we’re seeing is there are a lot of other orgs involved in this decision-making that probably were never involved before; the business intelligence team, analytics teams, IT teams that are getting involved in some of these processes that include not only procurement, but understanding which vendor to go with.

It’s almost like there are many more people at the table now making this decision. One of the things that I’ve noticed is throughout this journey that I’ve had over these two companies, that because of the involvement of many more people and the shift from a more directive approach to a more, an approach based on consensus, it is slowing down the progress and it is slowing down the evolution that companies need to go to to get to this level. It is a really great point you bring up and I’m beginning to notice that and I’m sure a lot of other companies are as well.

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[0:06:29.2] DG: What would be your advice to people about this? How many stakeholders? Is it a good thing? Because I hear it’s slowing things down. Is there a right number, a right set of stakeholders in your mind, or is it good to have broad, broad consensus?

[0:06:44.7] SN: I think it really depends. I think the organization must balance all of these with agility. You do want to be fast to market, but you want to make sure that you have the best experience for your customers and you’re utilizing the most innovative techniques and approaches to offer that best experience.

How much is too much? I think a couple of positions ago, we were in a process similar to this, and what we found is there were so many stakeholders, including legal, including the platform team that dealt with credit card payments and things like that.

It’s great because I think everybody has their own expertise and they bring something to the table that makes the project whole, and there definitely would be gaps without that. What ends up happening is you have to introduce things like a daisy process; who is the driver, who is the approver, who is the contributor, and who is the informed?

The roles and responsibilities that the stakeholders play within that project rollout becomes really an important step outline upfront so everybody understands what role they play and you are also moving through the process quickly.

I think in the end, it really depends on the product service and the company and what you want to achieve. There’s a definite need to have this daisy process in place now that wasn’t before.

[0:08:11.9] DG: That’s interesting how it’s evolving. For those people that are out there that don’t have a digital center of excellence and they’re wondering how you know when you’re ready and the time is right and it really makes good business sense, what would be your counsel to them, what are the telltale signs?

[0:08:29.7] SN: I think that’s a great question. In the companies I’ve worked for, I think as more and more customers are transacting, or expecting the transaction, or the service to be online, in relation to having it be more out of convenience, or an easier flow or just getting to your data, or getting to your account faster, I think when companies begin to notice that shift that customers are demanding this, or competition is beginning to create some of that in their portfolio or their offerings, it’s probably that the time is right for them to understand it.

I think it actually goes a little bit beyond that. As companies evolve, we’re going to see things like what you mentioned earlier, AI come up, or blockchain becomes a large part of marketing strategy. I think if companies are noticing their competition, or noticing their customers, it might even be too late at that point. The best counsel I could give executives or leaders of other companies is to understand technology and how it can be applied in the future, let’s say two, three, four years down the line, to your business.

If it can be applied in any way, it probably is something you should flag today. Begin to understand one, how you change your processes; two, what tools you need to absorb that technology, what skillsets you need to create in your team to have the experts run that technology and help inform spending in strategy decisions.

Then what infrastructure do you need? What do you need to watch out for? How do you need to alter your data warehouses, for example, to accommodate the inclusion of new tracking parameters, or new data sources? I think an eye on the future and the horizon and what’s coming up and how it can impact you today would be really important for executives to keep an eye out for.

[0:10:34.2] DG: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the things that I’ve noticed in my career as companies start to scale, it becomes a best-practice to very quickly step away from the marketing generalist row and start to look at marketing specialists, because of the enormous amount of knowledge and expertise that’s required to capitalize on technologies, whether it’s social or e-mail, you name it, much less the emerging ones like AI where people really need to figure out exactly how to apply it.

I think this digital center of excellence is a practice that people need to adopt as soon as they can, in my opinion.

[0:11:14.3] SN: Yeah. For the last couple of decades or so, the companies I have been part of are international companies. I think one of the things that struck me in what you were just saying is the need to realize the evolution. For US-based companies, I think it’s great. I think we are the leader in a lot of this innovation and application of it back into the business world, but what I’m finding is a lot of the international companies may have strong skillsets for the US, but international branches of those companies are still struggling. While there is a shift to move from generalist to a highly skilled workforce, it’s still not catching up in the international market.

When I had an international team, it is really difficult to find granular expertise, let’s say in Europe, or sitting in Japan, to the level that we had here in the United States. That goes back to again, some of the things that leadership needs to think about in terms of evolution. If you have an international brand, you’re selling internationally, understanding how countries and country skillsets evolve and how that shapes your workforce is really important as well.

[0:12:30.5] DG: My experience with the international side of it is that it – it’s just a very tough tradeoff, because you want to have some level of localized knowledge of the culture and the language, yet it’s hard to do that at scale because of all the different kinds of expertise that you need. It’s a real challenge. Let’s just say somebody is thinking, “Yep, I am ready to embark on this journey of putting together a digital center of excellence.” What are the key steps in your mind that typically occur?

I realize it’s always going to depend a little bit on the scale of the organization and the specific situation, but can you paint a little bit of a picture about the typical big steps that companies take when they go down this journey?

[0:13:13.3] SN: What a lot of companies may do is just go out and start getting some of the shiny tools out there, the new platform, the new tool that helps them do this and that, and they can begin to say that they’ve incorporated that into their workflows. Before that, that needs to happen, I think there needs to be one, an understanding of your customer.

At Autodesk, what we’re seeing is our demographics and the people that are purchasing is getting younger. More and more people – we are seeing more purchasers in the ages of 18 to 24 than we have ever before. Previously in our business, we have seen a lot of the purchases happening for the media and entertainment products in the 24 to 35-year-old age range. Now, the 18 to 23, 24-year-old age range is coming up as a very close second.

Beginning to understand this shift is the first realization that there is a whole new generation of up-and-coming buyers that will probably be interacting with your brand and purchasing and consuming information in a whole different way. Understanding how they are doing that is a very critical part of understanding what tools and platforms you need to begin to onboard and how you need to involve your processes and infrastructure to be able to expose that.

For example, social media is very much a part of consumer’s journeys today. If you don’t have those tools to monitor some of the social chatter that’s happening, or to consumer journey that comes in and out of some of these social media channels, you will miss a whole part of how that customer’s interacting, and so your strategy will as well. I think yeah, before we dive into infrastructure, we would definitely have to understand our customers.

Then two, do an internal audit to see how clean our data is. I think data cleanliness is really important. Can the infrastructures we have, the data warehouses, absorb more tracking data? Do you need a more robust data warehouse? Then, we can begin to progress on adding more tools and platforms to help us expose more data about the customer and more insights.

[0:15:38.4] DG: Wow, what an interesting topic and a great answer. Let’s say that somebody is starting today, and obviously, it’s a journey that never ends. In terms of just getting something in place that is functional, what are the time horizons that people should be thinking about?

[0:15:56.8] SN: That is a great question, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how long a process like this takes. I think especially with leadership who may or may not be as familiar with digital marketing and centers of excellence, it’s a learning experience for them to understand how long it actually takes, which is contrary to the whole idea of online, which is everything is fast and you get to do everything very quickly.

In my experience, I would honestly give it a year and a half to really get a strong foundation in place. That would include auditing your data. It would include doing persona research or looking at your customers’ behavior online and how the demographics are changing. It would also include analyzing and evaluating what additional tools you would need and integrating them into your current system. I think that would be probably at least that time period would be what executives and leadership need to keep in mind.

[0:17:00.9] DG: That is fascinating, and I am sure a lot of people would have like to have had that before they got right in the middle of this. The expectations are completely unrealistic. Apart from the timeline expectation, are there other expectations that are key for leadership to understand about embarking on this journey?

[0:17:20.3] SN: Yeah, I think skillset. I think when you onboard a lot of these processes and infrastructures, you create this center, a lot of times what happens is the skillsets of the people in your organization don’t end up matching what your future state is. Really understanding the skillset gap and what new talent you need to pull in to make sure you can leverage and use the technologies you’re spending so much time onboarding is going to be a critical aspect. It’s like the hardware, software and the workforce that you basically need to keep an eye on.

[0:17:56.8] DG: This has been fascinating to me. I’ve participated in one of these journeys a while back. It’s an exciting journey for anybody that hasn’t tried it. I think if done properly, it delivers an enormous amount of value to the business. Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to share, Siara, about undertaking this kind of journey?

[0:18:18.0] SN: I think it’s been a fascinating journey for me as well. I have learned a tremendous amount through these two companies, and each one was unique and both aimed at the same sort of destination. In each one, I learned a lot. I think that if I had a thought or two that I would probably want to close out on, it would be the misconception of online and becoming more of an online company or digitizing your company.

I think many leaders feel that it is a quick process, because they end up thinking of online in terms of very fast and granular tractability and everything is instant and real-time. Those thoughts end up being transferred to the process of becoming that. I think actually the process is actually very different. You can’t really expect things to happen overnight, especially when standardized tools and platforms are integrated with companies that have completely unique and different structure and track data differently and have all kinds of different data warehouses.

I really becomes a very unique experience, even though your tools are very standardized. Some of that gets lost in that translation. I would definitely just give some advice being cautious about the timelines involved in setting up centers like this along with the importance of the skillset.

[0:19:49.6] DG: Siara, this has been a great conversation. I really appreciate you joining us today and sharing the knowledge that you have. I think this is a journey that any viable business that gets into any kind of scale is going to be embarking on all over the world. I think we’re all going to learn a lot about it over the next five years or so as more and more companies go down this path. Thank you again.


[0:20:14.4] ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to the B2B Marketing Jukebox by LeadCrunch. On our website, leadcrunch.com, you can find timestamp transcripts and info about the guests. You can send topic or guests suggestions to david.green@leadcrunch.ai. Subscribe to these podcast on all the major platforms like iTunes.

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