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Dell’s CMO Allison Dew talks about how the company was ahead on the direct-to-consumer trend, why dedicated agency units fail, and why advertising may enter ‘Mad Men Era 2.0’

  • Most marketers are freaking out about data regulation, but Dell Chief Marketing Officer Allison Dew is not one of them.
  • Dew told Business Insider that the company's first-party data gave it an advantage.
  • She said increased regulation would make it harder for advertisers to target, though.
  • She also reflected on the creation of Dell's ill-fated dedicated ad agency called Enfatico, saying that the premise was right, but it needed more time to grow.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Allison Dew took over marketing at Dell Technologies in 2018, right before the computer giant returned to the stock market, as tech companies themselves were starting to come under increased regulatory scrutiny. 

Business Insider talked to Dew recently about the marketing challenges the company faced through its different phases, why Dell has an edge when it comes to data, and why advertising may be heading into what she called "Mad Men Era 2.0."

The following interview has been condensed for clarity.

Tanya Dua: Dell recently got relisted after being private. How do you translate that change into marketing?

Allison Dew: After the EMC acquisition, the focus was on bringing together two very large companies with reasonably entrenched cultures. There aren't that many brands that go from the everyday consumer to being enterprise. Microsoft is one; Intel is one. Adobe, maybe. So in many ways, we're in uncharted territory. It's important to have this core of who we are as a company and our values, where we believe that technology is about enabling human potential. We're talking to all of our customers about digital transformation. It just means very different things for a small business than it can mean for, say, Citibank. We tell customers your data is one of your biggest assets, and you need to think about how to store, protect, manage, utilize, and unlock the power of your data. 

Dua: What does your media mix look like? 

Dew: Three years ago, we introduced the idea of Dell Technologies that featured Jeffrey Wright around marquee moments, particularly sports and golf. That was a pretty traditional media approach. Now we are rolling out new work around markets where we drive a direct-to-consumer business, around the relevance in the data center and that type of enterprise. So we're very focused on getting more individualized and more targeted, which is why even a lot of our TV and consumer small business is addressable. I am a complete believer in TV; it's just that I'm a believer in a different type of TV. About 65% of your media spend should be in-quarter performance-driven investments, and 35% should be toward longer-term investments.

Dua: How does your consumer data benefit you? 

Dew: We were actually the original direct-to-consumer company 35 years ago. We are a known and trusted brand. So the years of data [is helpful] from a messaging perspective, not just a targeting perspective. We know what works and what doesn't.

Dua: Is it an advantage? Because a lot of companies have over-relied on third-party data.

Dew: This rat's wheel that marketing departments at companies get into — around buying the third-party data —people never opted in for a relationship with you in the first place. Even if you think you're being compliant with your regulations, you're not always sure, and people can always opt out. You just basically poured your own money down the drain. That's one of the reasons you're starting to see third-party data companies get under a certain amount of financial distress.

Dua: What are your thoughts on an increased privacy regulation?

Dew: What I worry about is these competing standards, with California issuing its own rules and regulations, different states potentially having slightly different approaches, and then GDPR. It's really hard. There's a part of me that wonders if we're going to "Mad Men Era 2.0" because it could get so difficult to legally and ethically do performance-based marketing at an individual level that you could almost swing back to the broad space. What we want is where you give people relevant content, relevant offers, and they want to engage with you. The amount of time we spend now on privacy and compliance is markedly different than four or five years ago. I don't want to go to jail.

Dua: The role of the CMO is evolving, and roles like the CIO and CTO are gaining prominence. Are you having to constantly prove marketing's worth? What's your relationship with the rest of the C-Suite?

Dew: Marketing has always been about the voice of the customer and making sure we have the best possible customer experience. The fact that we're talking about that as something new is because marketing hasn't lived up to that promise. We just named a chief digital officer who is a really good partner of mine, and one of my biggest line items in marketing is my own digital transformation.

Dua: How are you leading that shift?

Dew: We have had data outside of our own domain, and we are now bringing that back in. If there was a new technology, we were trying it, and that resulted in a hodgepodge. We're simplifying our "martech" stack and not adding anything new. Also, before the EMC merger, the regional teams reported into regional sales, while I reported into the business unit. The EMC teams had a whole different approach to doing marketing. We're integrating all that.

Dua: Are you downsizing your agencies and working with the Accentures and Deloittes and IBMs of the world?

Dew: We did our agency consolidation a long time ago, and there were a lot of battle scars along the way, candidly. We have, for many years, been working on how do we take away the seams from within our agency structures. Their individual P&Ls [profit and loss statements] should not be what's driving complexity in my business. We have a very effective relationship within WPP between VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson, Mediacom. We have used some of the consulting companies for some of our data projects. 

Dua: What do you think of dedicated agency units like the one Omnicom created for McDonald's in the form of We Are Unlimited? You created one years ago.

Dew: I don't really want to drag this back up because it's an old tape, but it was one of the most unsuccessful agency relationships in the history of agencies and clients. I wasn't CMO then, but our learning was that you cannot build an agency from scratch in three months. The idea was right, which is: You don't want the complexity of the P&L reflected in your agency structure. But the execution was really problematic for Dell, as well as the people who worked at the agency within WPP. We spent years unwinding it. But what I am really proud of is, now we've actually realized the vision of why we did it in the first place. It is irrelevant to me whether somebody who's doing the work is from Wunderman Thompson or Y&R. I think we've solved for that. 

Read More: McDonald's demanded that Omnicom create an ad agency dedicated to its business. Now that unit will fold.

Dua: What about in-housing?

Dew: We have a creative unit of 200 people or so, and we're very explicit about what they do and what our external agencies do. Our own agency did all the out-of-home brand-campaign work. We just thought we could do that faster, more efficiently. There has been tension amongst those parts, but the up-front discussion about who does what work has helped. Obviously there are efficiencies, but more importantly, some of the work that we do quick turn is just better and faster because they already know the brand. They're sitting next to the marketing managers who are briefing that campaign.