B2B Digital Strategist

Episode 7: The B2B Digital Strategist – A Conversation with David Kavanagh

The B2B Digital StrategistDigital Strategy for B2B organizations brings with it particular challenges. More modest budgets, a more targeted audience and a generally more conservative mindset combine to make this a particularly challenging environment for the digital strategist to excel in. This week, David Kavanagh, Director of Digital Strategy at ADP joins us from Toronto to discuss why this particular niche is such a rewarding career choice. You can hear his perspective in the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or below now.

David never set out to become a digital strategist. He started in the nineties working in B2B sales, selling website solutions to hosting companies. By the time of the dotcom bust that saw his employer go bankrupt, he had demoed the software so many times that he felt like he could transition into the role of a web developer, building websites for small businesses. This career development happened while he was otherwise employed, giving him the room to grow his expertise in the space.

This is an interesting, consistent detail that keeps coming up in conversations with strategists, namely that their start in digital was not specifically planned, but rather came about as a result of personal side projects.

A decision to move to Park City, Utah brought with it a shift for David into a career in web design and development. But that career change brought with it a swift realization that as the web was becoming more ‘professional’, self taught people like him would soon be competing with young developers with more formal training in the space who would outpace his skills. This gave him the impetus to quickly shift his focus to move into managing the function rather than compete directly. This was his move into digital strategy, starting with strategic digital guidance for the US Ski Team and culminating in developing and subsequently managing the team that executed the digital strategy for the Sundance Institute.

This experience in designing digital strategy and managing executional teams led him to a similar role at Moneris, a well respected B2B organization that wasn’t doing much online at the time. His work began with defining the 5 year digital strategy and building the team to deliver against it.

David sees the role of strategy in this context as helping companies understand what the future looks like, what ‘best’ looks like today, how to build teams to deliver against that vision and build capabilities to help organizations become flexible enough to succeed on the web.

In order to achieve this, the strategist needs to be able to have informed conversations with people throughout the organization, from the very technical all the way up to the implications on the business. The combination of technical and soft skills is critical, and the strategist can’t succeed without hands-on experience. In his words, ‘being a brilliant tactician didn’t necessarily make you a great strategist, but in order to be a great strategist you had to be a brilliant tactician’. The gap between the two skill sets still exists and that is where the strategist excels. What’s more, the opportunity to acquire both types of skills exists more in B2B organizations than in B2C since the teams tend to be smaller and the members of the team have to ‘wear more hats’.

The implication is that as an individual practitioner, the strategist in a B2B environment needs to be more nimble, more agile and more well rounded than in a B2C company. David sees B2B organizations as being places where individual strategists have a greater opportunity to lead and to impact in more meaningful ways. With smaller budgets and more cautious mindsets, what he refers to as ‘fast followers’, the B2B organization nonetheless gives the digital strategist the opportunity to be more mindful, more hands-on and more integrated in their thinking and work, allowing them to develop and implement a complete end to end strategy. But this is very much dependent on having a progressive work environment that allows the change agent to really impact things, something that he has certainly found in his time at ADP.

Looking forward, David sees a change in how people are approaching careers in this space. With better alignment of digital output with business KPIs, he sees young professionals being able to demonstrate their value to their employers much faster and in more concrete ways than was ever the case previously. This in turn leads to people moving from company to company, leading to particular challenges in retaining talent. He sees this movement as not being helpful in allowing people to develop their skills and careers since what they miss is the development of leadership skills that really only come with time and hard work. These skills that are missed are related to the higher functions and opportunities within organizations, specifically around hiring and motivating people and empowering teams to achieve a common objective.

His advice to those early in their careers is to pay attention to those in leadership roles and learn what it takes to corral and motivate different people and personality types. This is important since he sees the role of the digital strategist as becoming broader and these skills are necessary to properly navigate that change.

Next week on octopus, we will explore the role of the digital strategist in the shadow of Google with our next guest. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

Access the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or listen below now.

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