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19 SEPTEMBER 2017
Grasping the digital opportunity
by Cara Bouwer
Technology can enable Africa to build more open societies and for some countries to leapfrog others, believes Cathy Smith, Managing Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at Cisco, who calls technology “an enabler of freedom”.

Africa has all the resources, talent and technology to be a global leader in digital innovation and transformation, says Smith, who notes that – on the other side of the coin – “technology presents many opportunities and challenges for Africa as the fastest urbanising region in the world”.

Companies like Cisco are working hard to develop a pipeline of African talent and “we are deeply involved in enabling the widespread emergence of tech ecosystems across the continent”, says Smith. She points out that: “With the Cisco Networking Academy — an IT skills and career building programme for learning institutions and individuals worldwide — Cisco is enabling African workers to be valued contributors to the digital economy.”

According to the United Nations, within the next 20 years Africa’s working age population is expected to be over one billion, larger than China’s or India’s. While only 2% of the African economy currently composed of internet-related services, this figure is expected to grow to 7% or US$315 billion by 2025. This highlights the opportunities available to Africa and its people, both within the continent and as a means of collaborating with other countries and continents too, says Smith.

“Digitisation is revamping the delivery of education, health and other public services, and transforming lives in the process,” she enthuses. “We are living in an age in which unprecedented digital transformation is occurring in business, economies and political systems. The significance of this is that the policies a country chooses to pursue in the next decade will determine the extent to which their economies will develop, compete and integrate within the global economy. Therein lies the opportunity to innovate.”

While industries from healthcare to law, banking to transportation are being affected by digital technology, one area being impacted before our eyes is communication; and the rise of digital marketing in particular.

Greg Garden, CEO of Marketing South Africa (MASA), is quick to point out, however, that digital marketing is not just a trend or a sub-section of the existing industry; it is a pervasive game changer. “MASA’s perspective is that the notion of ‘digital marketing’ is misconceived, as it treats digital as a silo rather than focusing on the need for digital to drive the business as a whole,” says Garden. “We agree with Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes’ view that the challenge is ‘not about digital marketing, but rather marketing in a digital world’.”

In the South African context, Garden says: “We are indeed seeing growing understanding and change among local marketers, but we observe digital planning and application still largely manifesting in silos and not yet at the core of business transformation and marketing strategy.”

In order to grasp the full opportunity of digital, this mind-set needs to change. And, in the process, it will invariable impact the role of chief marketing officers in an organisation and bring them closer to the strategic core of a business.

“More than ever before, marketers need to be central to business strategy, and have the skills to drive profitable growth,” says Garden. “That perspective and those skills remain the core requirements to be a successful marketer. The digital revolution is an opportunity to reboot all aspects of our businesses. Digital is indeed a disruptor, and the challenge for CMOs is to embrace it strategically rather than the current, more prevalent, practice of using it to spearhead tactical initiatives and keep up with the latest trends.”

Right now, however, Garden admits that there remains a lot of hype around “embracing the new non-linear world of customer engagement that the creation of digital platforms and channels has opened up, but much activity is still focused on following fads and trends rather than on the basics of marketing, which remain, as David Taylor of Bandgym so neatly puts it, to SMS – Sell More Stuff.”

Adds Garden: “The ‘how’ skills of the digital revolution are easier to embrace than the ‘what’ skills of marketing strategy which remain the key challenge of successful adaptation.”
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