Marketing in the Financial Services industry can often be a challenge. Organizations that have been around for as long as many financial institutions have are sometimes slow to adapt to new technologies and methodologies. Barbara Sessa is no stranger to this challenge. In her role at Mastercard, she spent a great deal of time facilitating the transition from traditional marketing to digital engagement.
We caught up with Barbara to chat about how financial marketing has changed over the past couple of decades, her approach to building the perfect team, and the importance of being customer-focused in everything you do.
Barbara Sessa | Interview
Barbara started her career working in sales for Getronics, a leader in IT-led business transformation. From there, she transitioned over to Altran CIS—an engineering and R&D consultancy—where she worked as their Business Manager for the best part of a year. A stint as Senior Account Manager for Linea S.P.A followed before Barbara joined Mastercard’s Account Management team in 2008.
In 2014, she made the switch over to Mastercard data and services department to work as Head of Managed Services West Europe. in 2019, Barbara took the lead of Managed Services Europe and recently, she was appointed Head of Digital Consumer Products Europe.
Hi Barbara, thanks for joining us. Can you first tell me a bit more about you and your career?
It’s great to be speaking with you, too. I essentially consider myself to be a very entrepreneurially-minded person—I love to invent (and reinvent) things, including myself! My current job lies right at the intersection of product and digital. This might sound quite tech-heavy, but it also requires an enormous amount of people skills.
I’m at a great place in my career. I’ve been fortunate enough to blend my love for creating things from scratch with my vast customer-facing experience (honed during many years of working in sales roles). I think that working in sales was an excellent learning curve for me. You not only learn what to say and what not to say, but you also learn about how others view your business—and where you could end up helping your clients. These are the very same insights that you need to create a great product or service, so I’ve become finely attuned to listening to the customer before doing anything internally.
My successful transition from sales to marketing is down to the fact that I’m a keen learner. For instance, I spent a lot of time recently helping the Mastercard Managed Service team transition from traditional marketing to digital marketing. This was a massive learning experience for everyone involved—it was quite a tough transition, but I think we all (myself included) found the entire process invigorating.
It helped train my brain to think differently. I was no longer scared of leaving my comfort zone, I actively sought it out. I think that’s when you really begin to see progress—whether personally or professionally. And now a new step, a new field to explore.
Digital transformation seems to be a big topic these days. In your opinion, what’s fundamentally changed in financial marketing over the last few decades?
Personally, I think there are four core areas where financial marketing has seen a significant shift over the past few decades.
1. The Role of Marketing
Financial marketing used to essentially be focused entirely on branding. Nowadays, it’s much more focused on the customers themselves. If you have good marketeers that can derive insights from the wealth of customer data, you can learn how to build amazing relationships. Customer engagement is the true name of the game today. Sure, it’s nice to have a well-known, strong brand, but if your customers aren’t engaged then it all counts for nothing.
As such, there’s been a huge shift in the “How”. How can we reach customers more effectively? How can we get them coming back to our brand time and time again? How can we add more value to their lives? I think the role of marketing has been flipped on its head somewhat. Instead of being brand-led, it’s consumer-led.
2. The Data
I almost feel like a bit of a phony for saying this—after all, everybody’s been speaking about the power of big data for the past 15 years or so—but that just goes to show how important it is.
We’ve made huge strides in recent years but more could still be done to better use the data available to us. For instance, much of it is still static. To provide the utmost value, however, we need to move towards having a real-time, 360-degree view of our customers. There’s a lot of work to do to make it accessible and useful.
3. The Consumer
Consumers today are starkly different than even 20 years ago: their behavior, the technology and channels they use, and what they expect from companies. I think consumers have generally begun to realize that value is a two-way street. For the company to provide them with the highest value, they have to provide the company with something valuable in return (their data).
Fortunately, most modern consumers seem to be on board—we’ve found that 73% of people say that they’re willing to share their data if they get value back from it. Despite their concerns about privacy, consumers want brands to know and understand their personal needs, with 87% saying it’s important to buy from a brand that “understands the real me.” Most consumers (93%) also said it’s important that every interaction with a brand is “excellent.”
That being said, as soon as they don’t start to get value back, they’ll swiftly stop providing their data—so it’s crucial that companies step up when given the opportunity.
4. The Last Mile
Digital transformation is an increasing necessity, especially when you consider the recent rise of remote working. Banks have started their digital transformation journey but there’s still a lot of work left to do. The pandemic has of course done a lot to accelerate this widespread transition towards digital-first approaches, so that might be one of the very few positives to emerge from this year.
I think banks have been slow on the uptake to date as they’re fairly risk-averse by nature. With digital transformation, however, it’s crucial that you embrace risk and invest heavily in building the change that you want to see.
So how do you go about managing risk (and thereby encouraging experimentation)?
This is a tricky one—not least because outside events often have the biggest influence. Take this pandemic, for example. It’s forced banks’ hands when it comes to digital transformation. Branches are closed and people are staying at home, so it’s crucial that all the same services as you’d find in a branch are available online. I think that it was fairly easy to manage the risk as the alternative—not being able to serve any customers—was so much worse than the fear of making a mistake.
Pandemics and the like aside, one key accelerator is to approach individual problems with well-thought-out packaged solutions that take into account compliance and regulatory risks. If you bake compliance and regulation into your solutions from the get-go, it’s far easier to receive sign-off and to ultimately serve customers quicker. Once your solution goes to market, you can begin experimenting with the customer experience, where data can be used to add even more value.
Of course, building these types of solutions is always a team effort—so how do you approach building the perfect team?
I generally break team-building down into four main components:
1. Know people
First of all, I get to know everyone on my team. You need to know the people behind the job description: their strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. I strongly believe that you get results as a team—as great as some individuals are, they’re never as great as a strong team working together. This means that I exclusively choose to hire people whose values are aligned with our organisation’s mission.
2. Synergies and Coaching
I don’t necessarily help coach people on the knowledge side of things, but instead, I help true industry experts collaborate with each other as a team. High-performing people can sometimes like to stay in their own lane and just do their thing. However, teams collaborate more effectively—and are ultimately more successful—when they learn how to all work together.
Personally, I believe this can have an even more drastic impact than having industry knowledge itself (though I’m sure some members of my team might disagree!).
3. Energy, Time, and Presence
Building a team takes a ton of energy and time. It’s an ongoing process that you can never ignore—if you’re in charge of a team, everything they do is ultimately your responsibility. You need to make sure that you’re getting the best out of your team members, that they’re happy, and that they feel listened to. You need to invest in people’s wellbeing if you’re going to have a happy and productive team. The old school ‘command and control’ style of leadership simply doesn’t work any more. In fact, I’m not sure if it ever did really work.
There are 1,001 factors that go into building and managing an effective team. Therefore, prioritisation is absolutely crucial. At the beginning of the year, I build out a thorough plan to identify where we are, where we need to go, and how we might get there. Once I’m aware of the company’s priorities, I can understand my team’s priorities. Once I understand the team’s priorities, I can begin to delegate each team member’s individual priorities.
So how do you actually go about setting those common, team-wide goals?
When you’re running a P&L, it’s incredibly easy: align your teams around revenue. It’s as simple as that. If you work in a department that’s an organisational value driver, then you need to bring in money. However, you also need to unite your team around a vision—and just saying “our mission is to make the company money” generally doesn’t cut it.
Fortunately, there’s always an inherent purpose behind any value-add activity—whether it’s to help more people get out of debt, make it easier for rural communities to access banking facilities, or whatever it may be. Even something as simple as improving the customer experience is ultimately a mission that’s larger than profit (even though it’s obviously still a profitable activity).
Your team needs to feel empowered enough to make their opinions known and to contribute to this vision. You need to delegate and you need to trust them. If you don’t trust your team, they won’t trust you, and you’ll never have an aligned team.
It sounds like cultivating the dream team takes a fair amount of effort! How do you find the energy to pour yourself into it day after day?
It’s pretty easy because I have an amazing team—in my view, it’s one of the best teams in Mastercard. When you have a great team, you rarely run out of energy. We all feed off each other’s energy and passion, so it’s a fantastic environment to be a part of.
I’m also a big believer in self-task—I read a lot about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and have been fascinated by this topic for a few years now. The core essence of it is that we all have the power to basically program ourselves. The way we talk to ourselves has a major impact on the way we behave, and I’ve found that it really works.
It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy—because I get up in the morning and look forward to heading into work and being around amazing people, more often than not I have an awesome day.
Once you try it, you’ll never go back.
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