CMO of the Week: IBM’s Randi Stipes

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As Chief Marketing Officer of IBM’s Watson Advertising and Weather; Developer Marketing, Randi Stipes oversees three very distinct business units: one dedicated to providing AI-based solutions for marketers, one centered around the world’s largest datasource for weather and the other focused on harnessing the power of coding to solve systemic societal issues.

As Chief Marketing Officer of IBM’s Watson Advertising and Weather; Developer Marketing, Randi Stipes oversees three very distinct business units: one dedicated to providing AI-based solutions for marketers, one centered around the world’s largest datasource for weather and the other focused on harnessing the power of coding to solve systemic societal issues. 

But the common thread for all of them, Stipes says, is “helping people and businesses use technology to help navigate incredible transformation, make better decisions and hopefully do some good in the world.” 

Stipes’ most consumer-facing division is Weather, which boasts combined monthly reach of more than 400 million for The Weather Channel app and — a figure that gets even bigger when factoring the native weather apps IBM’s technology powers for Apple, Google, Samsung and other companies. “Chances are, no matter where you’re getting the weather, it’s from us,” she says. 

Weather and climate also factor into another key focus for Stipes, the 2021 edition of IBM’s Call for Code. The initiative invites developers to create solutions for everything from racial injustice and the COVID-19 crisis to gender inequality and disaster relief. The latest iteration, announced Monday (March 22) is dedicated to climate change “with a focus specifically on how to use open-source technology to create solutions that address consumption, clean water and hunger,” Stipes says. “Without innovation, we’re not going to solve climate change — we won't even come close. IBM recently announced a net-zero pledge by 2030, and we want to do our part but everyone is going to have to do their part. When we think about the next 30 years, we’re going to need scientific breakthroughs, technological innovation, full policies and global cooperation on a scale that the world has never seen. And we’ve seen the power of this platform and the solutions that it can generate when we can apply technology in an open and accessible way and put it in the hands of developers.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Stipes from her home in Atlanta to learn more about IBM’s transformational year, the increased need for trusted information and how brands like Clorox are leveraging AI technology in their advertising. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: How did the COVID-19 pandemic initially impact your business last spring, and what were some innovations or pivots you introduced to meet the new needs of your consumer?

Randi Stipes: At the beginning of the pandemic, and arguably still now, there was so much misinformation out there. People were scrambling, looking for answers that they could trust, and on the consumer front we felt a level of responsibility to use our reach. The Weather Channel is the fifth most-trusted brand in America, and so we felt this responsibility to disseminate that information. We created a COVID-19 hub on The Weather Channel app and where we used Watson AI to analyze data from a variety of sources. We were not the source ourselves, but we did use our technology to look at data coming from the CDC, from local and state governments to provide local incident reporting so that people could understand the outbreaks that were happening near you. And we also used Watson to create an interactive chatbot which helped answer more immediate questions.  

Another example in terms of the pivot we had to make was that in February 2020 we announced the Call for Code global challenge was going to focus on climate change. A mere number of weeks later we were all in lockdown and we knew that we needed to expand the focus of the challenge to address the more acute and immediate issue of COVID. Not to find a vaccine, but how do we address the effects of the pandemic — things like remote learning or community cooperation, all these new challenges that were being introduced. And I was blown away that the developer community stood up in record numbers on an accelerated timeline to develop solutions — several of which are now being incubated and developed. So I share both of these examples because it’s a matter of whether it was IBM-ers or the larger developer community recognizing they felt compelled to use technology to do something positive in the world and provide a lot of optimism when we all needed it.

What are some recent uses of your AI technology in advertising, and how did your team help bring those to life?

I love the work that Clorox has been doing to connect and provide value to their customers. We can all remember running around stores trying to find Clorox wipes and other Clorox products and they weren’t available on the shelves, which we know was because of significant supply chain constraints. I really applaud Clorox because even though their product wasn’t available,  they felt compelled to provide resources and education on how people can stay safe during the pandemic. And they did that by using AI technology, specifically something called Watson Advertising Conversations, where they came in and leveraged machine learning and natural language processing. 

And what the conversation solution did is it enabled Clorox to have one-on-one conversations with their consumers within an ad unit. Clorox knew they needed to be in front of their customer regardless of whether their product was available, so that when their product came back, their customer would be back as well. And it allowed Clorox not only to stay relevant and top of mind, but also test new technology, engage in a new format that allowed them to have this more direct link with consumers and also use te AI to identify insights, find out what their customers really care about so that in turn could inform future messaging and perhaps even product strategy.

IBM and Watson were recently announced among the many partners for the Ad Council’s communications plan around COVID-19 vaccine education. What role will your technology play there?

It's pretty staggering: 40% of the U.S. population hasn’t made up their mind on whether they’re going to be vaccinated. They’re undecided because they’ve said they need more information to make a more informed decision. And what we've learned through all of the Ad Council’s research is that different demographics have different levels of comfort, which means it can’t be a one-size fits all message in terms of how we market to these demographics. 

So the Ad Council is using AI technology, specifically our Accelerator solution, to understand what message and what creative permutations are going to resonate best with different audiences that may have this vaccine hesitancy. This kicked off a few weeks ago, and based on where we are with vaccine awareness it’s going to be an ongoing effort. It takes something like this unfortunately for the entire industry to unite, and maybe we can unite the same way around keeping the open web open next.  

Consumers expect actionable improvements for diversity & inclusion from companies and marketers. What are some actions IBM and your team have taken this past year? 

We look at diversity on several levels. First and foremost is encouraging diversity of background, diversity of thought, diversity of experience and ensuring that underrepresented minorities and genders have a voice and an equal opportunity. Something IBM launched externally a few years ago is the Be Equal initiative - a campaign to engage IBMers, clients and society in promoting the advancement of fairness and gender equality in business and society. Be Equal has now engaged tens of thousands of women and men worldwide to pledge their commitment to equal representation. What started as a pledge has now sparked an entire movement across IBM which has become programmatic with learning courses that we offer to IBMers and a global Allyship program.

In marketing specifically, we have a D&I board with a number of task forces to ensure we make real progress in a variety of areas - increasing diversity on our own team, addressing how we show up in the world through our creative, putting a focus on our diverse supplier program and improving the diversity of the agency teams that support us. We have asked all U.S agencies with whom we have a material spend to achieve two goals over the next year: Give due consideration to minority owned suppliers when hiring suppliers on IBM's behalf to create work — our goal is to increase the amount we spend with minority owned suppliers that our Agency partners hire by at least 20%. And ensure that the agency team that supports IBM is diverse and reflective of the overall marketing talent pool in the communities in which we operate. We asked our partners to increase the underrepresented minority talent they have on their IBM team by at least 20% over the next year by encouraging them to make affirmative efforts in recruiting diverse talent. 

What new consumer behaviors emerged around your business this past year that you think will be here to stay even after we start to return to more in-person gatherings?

One of the great things that’s come out of the last year is that consumers are getting more savvy. We’ve seen this in our Weather business, where there is a growing constituency of people who are craving an even more comprehensive experience. It’s information right now, particularly trusted information when it’s rooted in science. It was that insight, that appetite for more information, that prompted us to create a premium version of the Weather Channel app to give people access to more data 24-hour feature radars. 

We stood up that business 18 months ago, we’re pacing to hit over 1 million subscribers this year. We did that because we saw the consumer demand people are craving more information, they want it from trusted sources. If we can continue to satiate that appetite and create a true value exchange so that people feel like they're getting something in return then we’ve done our job.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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