Boyden Executive Search

As Chief Digital Officer for Thomas Cook, Marco Ryan strikes a balance between leveraging brand equity and staying relevant in the digital age. In this interview, the accomplished executive discusses competition in the travel industry, the art and science of digital marketing, and the advantages of consulting experience.
By Boyden

Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organisations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.

This issue features Marco Ryan, Chief Digital Officer for the Thomas Cook Group. He discusses competition in the travel industry, brand equity in the 21st century, what digital marketing really means, the advantage of in-house versus consulting experience, and avoiding the “bad hire.”

At Thomas Cook, Ryan oversees digital end-to-end strategy across all countries and brands within the group. His responsibilities include digital strategy, innovation, digital product development, analytics, mobile marketing, digital culture change, development of digital channels, and media and partnership relations. He is also a member of the Thomas Cook Digital Advisory Board.

Prior to Thomas Cook, he was Partner/ Managing Director for Accenture Interactive in ASEAN, where he grew the ASEAN business by 560% in his first year, focusing on clients in telecommunications, media, luxury retail, travel and transportation across the region. He was also Accenture’s global lead on gamification. 

Ryan is an expert and regular speaker on digital transformation, digital marketing and gamification. He is currently authoring two books on digital transformation. 

Boyden: What is the profile of Thomas Cook’s typical customer, and do you see the profile evolving into something different? 

Ryan: We have a range of different customer segments. The family segment is what we’re best known for. They represent our core customer, though it’s clear that the needs of the family are evolving and changing. For example, we have a new branded concept hotel called SunConnect, which is focused on providing a digital and connected experience including games for the kids, Wi-Fi and digitization across the hotel. It’s a very new concept based on research showing that when families go on holiday, they want to be connected and want to share photos, videos and updates with family and friends back home. 

Boyden: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a 174-year-old company? 

Ryan: We’re 174 years old, but we have a history of innovation. The reason the company started was because Thomas Cook saw an opportunity to provide a service that met specific customers’ travel needs, and away he went. I think the advantage that comes with that brand history is that we already have substantial brand awareness amongst our customers. It’s extremely well known.  Of course, that means you are setting a high bar that you have to keep up. People have increasingly higher expectations as they’ve grown up with the brand. Sometimes having such a long-term relationship makes it harder for a brand to change and modernize, and stay relevant to different markets and different customer segments. You have to treat the brand with respect and be very careful about how you change or transform it.  

But also, inevitably, there are new brands in the travel sector that are becoming increasingly disruptive, such as online travel agents like Expedia, Booking.com or even Google. They provide increased choice and comparison, especially in the early and research stages of the travel lifecycle, before a customer would traditionally purchase from us. That means we have to work harder to engage earlier and your brand becomes a key factor in customer loyalty when there are more competitive travel brands out there. 

Boyden: Travel is up in the US market, but it’s still lagging pre-crisis levels in other markets. As head of everything digital at Thomas Cook, is part of the goal to encourage customers to travel more often? 

Ryan: Of course, we would love our customers to travel more with us. Historically customers took one big holiday and now people are taking several holidays throughout the year. That might include a big summer and a big winter trip, and then also a couple of weekends away.  As far as the frequency of holidays, it varies by customer segment but what we’re trying to do is ensure that each of our services remains relevant to them. We must delight them whether they’re on a two-week all-inclusive family resort holiday with a flight and a transfer, or a short city break for a long weekend with a flight and car hire. Our omni-channel approach recognizes that irrespective of where you are and which device you’re on, we should be able to give you a seamless experience. For example, you should be able to start at home on a multi-screen device. Then, perhaps as you travel to work you can continue your research or even your booking on your phone, and pick it up again on your desktop at your office, and so on. 

The big change at Thomas Cook, particularly in the last two or three years, has been a ruthless focus on customer insight and understanding the needs and behaviours of customers at different touch points along the customer lifecycle, rather than assuming that we can direct a customer to behave certain ways in a particular channel. 

Boyden: What companies will be your biggest competitors in the future and why? 

Ryan: There is no single answer to this. The reality is that a lot of our traditional competitors, such as the other tour operators, are going through the same challenges and issues. But, we have a legacy and brand awareness that can be both a positive and a negative. 

In the tour operator world, synonymous with the package holiday that includes a flight, a transfer and a hotel, we are very respectful of the fact that there are other companies. TUI is our most obvious direct competitor in Europe, and they have similar challenges. What’s happened is that the market has changed in a number of ways.  In the old days, we used to just sell packaged holidays. You would literally package a hotel, a flight and transfer together, and you left on a certain date. The dates were relatively fixed. One of the key changes we’ve seen in the market is that customers now want to construct their own package or perhaps just take one component – the flight or the hotel – from it. 

The challenge for a tour operator is that we need to be not only brilliant at package holidays, but we also need to be brilliant at the hotel-only booking and flight-only booking. On top of this, we need to be brilliant at what we call ‘dynamic packaging’, which is where we give the customer the ability to mix and match across those different types of journey. 

Where the tour operator has an advantage over all the others is that ultimately, it can provide the brand experience before departure, on the flight, on the transfer and at the hotel or resort. For this, you don’t go to a Google hotel and you don’t fly on a Google airline. Nor do you go to an Airbnb house or a Booking.com hotel. You don’t get that same level of end-to-end support across your entire holiday with an OTA such as Expedia or Booking.com. OTAs and many of the new competitors are basically a price play, not a value play. 

Boyden: You’ve stated that you’re going to give your digital group “more velocity.” What will that look like? 

Ryan: Digital is not just about web development. It is an end-to-end process that starts with a business requirement, perhaps some innovation, then product development and finally a solution or service that has a benefit to the customer. Having more velocity is about being able to respond to the needs of the customer more effectively across that end-to-end process, while still getting the best ROI. That means having the right capabilities, working in the most effective collaborative manner, and delivering a high quality product at the right pace. 

Boyden: Digital marketing is ubiquitous today. What do you think is least understood about it by non-experts? 

Ryan: What digital marketing is not is simply traditional marketing with a little bit of digital fairy dust sprinkled over the top to make it quicker or more efficient. It is about dialog - it is active collaboration with the customer that utilises multiple sources of insight and data to remain relevant to that customer. That focus on data-driven decisions has turned marketing from an art into a science. It is ruthlessly data-driven, which has given rise to a new digital discipline: Test, learn and optimize. 

One of the things I think people least understand about digital marketing is that whilst it’s an imperfect science because it is constantly changing and evolving, it is far more measurable than traditional marketing. 

Boyden: A good part of your career was spent in the consulting industry. How does that affect your approach now that you’re in-house? 

Ryan: What consultancy gives you that you don’t always get if you spend your professional life purely in-house is a broader understanding of the business. This includes the critical roles of finance, HR, how to be effective at the C-level and board level, influencing and managing stakeholders. Working as a consultant also ensures that you learn early on the importance of critical feedback, mentoring and coaching, and the impact this can have on the bottom line. Being able to “take feedback” and turn that into an insight that you can then work on to optimize your own performance is perhaps one of consulting’s greatest gifts. 

Consultancy also gives you self-awareness and a bag of analytical tools, methodologies and models that you can apply to a number of different situations. Consulting also teaches you to listen, to question, to understand and to judge less; and hopefully, you never forget that you are usually not the most important person in the room. 

On the flipside, when you’re in-house, you have more accountability, so you are really able to see something through end-to-end. I think when you’re in-house you can empower people more because you have direct reporting lines, which allow you more direct input into the way people work and how you want people to work together. The disadvantage can be that sometimes people become quite stuck in their functional silos because of their area of expertise. Consultancy teaches you to work across those silos effectively. 

Another huge benefit – and one of the most rewarding of working in-house – is that you can shape and build a high-performing team in a company which is more sustainable than the type of teams found on consultancy projects. You also get to witness the longer-term benefits that this team can contribute to the company. 

Boyden: How would you describe your leadership style? 

Ryan: My leadership style is quite informal. It’s very much about mentoring, coaching and collaboration. I see my role to be chiefly that of un-blocker, or removing constraints or barriers, championing and prioritising key critical areas of focus, and empowering the team to develop their own skills and confidence within that environment.

There are two mantras for the way I like to work. One is to seek forgiveness, not permission. In my head I am thinking about my colleagues, and I tell them we employ you because you are damn good at what you do. We’ve given you a job description. We’ve given you boundaries. We’ve given you budgets. So now trust yourself. Show us what you can do. Challenge me with ideas or different ways of solving a problem. 

It will help if you treat all colleagues, irrespective of grade, as peers and not as children. Communicate frequently and in different ways. Listen to them – they are usually far more connected to the pulse in the business than the C-suite. I’m not interested in hierarchy or politics. I’m pretty intolerant of people that deal in politics because that’s not really about the company; that’s usually about their own selfish agenda or insecurities. 

The second mantra is there are no surprises. My style is very transparent. I share and I seek input from others. If I have to make a decision, of course, I will. But I’d rather people got on and did that. When they make a mistake, and we all do at some point, I see that as a positive. They are probably pushing hard and that’s part of that digital culture. If you are going to fail, fail fast. Don’t punish them for trying or pushing the boundaries.

Boyden: What’s important to you in hiring? 

Ryan: Hiring should be a two-way process. I don’t think we’ve earned the right to assume that somebody wants to join our company just because we are interviewing them and they are talking to us. Hopefully they do, but I believe that interviews should also provide them the opportunity to question me as much as I’m questioning them.

My role in the C-suite is to provide anyone that works hard with the right career growth opportunities and personal development plan. It’s not my job to say they can’t do something or, for example, that at some point in the future they can’t be CEO. My job is to help them try and work out what timeframe that’s possible within, and what skills they need to learn in the next role to accelerate that progression and make it more likely. 

I try and apply that thinking in the interview process. Interviews of course need to be at least partially about competencies, capability and a very structured process that will allow the HR department to make general evaluations. Usually by the time I meet the candidate that more traditional process has been completed. But I also believe the role of executives is about being transparent and honest about the environment the candidate is coming into – no company is perfect – and whether we can make them successful and they can make us successful. And to me that’s a collaborative process. 

I’d say the second thing is that often companies try and fit people to a job description. But, a job description is a guide for the capabilities and competencies you need for a role rather than a prescriptive framework that the candidate must conform to or that companies often use as a “safety valve”. 

In my experience, very few people end up being tasked with or rewarded for what is in their original job description. I’m much more interested in people’s motivation and their potential. A lot of what I look for is a mind-set, a capability, a willingness to learn, openness, an ability to work in a team, and to take that accountability.

Boyden: What are the biggest mistakes even senior execs make in hiring? And what are often the reasons for a “bad hire”? 

Ryan: One mistake is that we’ve got to have somebody that’s a perfect fit and yet, if we’re under pressure to hire and we’ve got to make a decision, that’s when mistakes are often made. Hiring the wrong person is unfair to the individual and to the company. If they are wrong then eventually they cannot be successful or they won’t fit in or they disrupt the effectiveness of the team and that end ups being much more expensive to fix down the road.

Secondly, in going back to my earlier point, I think the traditional interview is a very parent-child relationship. It’s very much about the candidate talking, trying to impress and trying to sell themselves into a job description rather than the company challenging and listening and trying to find if there’s potential and if they will fit. To me the interviews are almost adversarial in some cases – each of you facing each other over a table in a sterile interview room. I like interviews which are side-by-side, more informal or in a place that allows us to focus on getting the best out of the candidate and not on making them feel nervous. 

In other departments at Thomas Cook we do have quite a traditional process. But I prefer to challenge that where possible and to meet candidates out of the office, or even at a coffee bar, where it’s more comfortable and more neutral ground. 

At the risk of sounding a bit arrogant, in my last 10 years, I have only made two bad hires. In both cases it was because I was under pressure to make a hire. I knew in my heart it was wrong. And it wasn’t fair to the candidates. It’s not a mistake I will make a third time. 

Boyden: What do executive search firms bring that is often overlooked? 

Ryan: I enjoy working with search firms because they challenge me in terms of questioning what we really want, whether we have thought about this from multiple angles, and what sort of skills and experience are critical. The conversations tend to be around capabilities and potential and career growth, which are surely the most important aspects of the hiring process. 

A big differentiator of a search firm is they can offer a reach that I would never be able to get directly. They can target people in a firm. Or I can give a direction that says I need them to be a mix of, say, an Airbnb type, with a bit of Proctor and Gamble and maybe originally trained by GE. Working with executive search firms provides you with choice, and if the firm is good, they often present “left field” candidates that provide me options I didn’t know I needed. 

Working with a search firm also makes me more effective on a C-level. They have specialists that understand the language and the currency of finding great hires and what is relevant to my sector. With a search firm I can leverage the expert and get them to do the hard work. And I can combine that with my input and my expertise to help balance that cultural fit to judge what’s right for the company. 

Boyden: While on annual holiday do you believe in complete disconnect? Or is that not realistic in today’s world? 

Ryan: I’m going to give you a couple of perspectives on this. First, there are occasional times when a large deal or something unusual is going through where you need access for legal reasons, for signoff or something, or where somebody or something is being deeply impacted. They want you to enjoy your holiday but they also want to make sure you’re consulted and you’re involved. 

But on most occasions, if the choice is entirely mine to make, then I think it’s a shame if I need to connect with work while on holiday. If you have a great team and you’ve done some really good talent management and succession planning, then the team should be good enough to work without me and go through another manager for two weeks. I’m not that indispensable. So I don’t think there is a need. That’s about control. To me, control is about a lack of confidence or trust, and I’d rather the teams felt empowered.

We would like to thank Catherine Gray, a Principal of Boyden Chicago, for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible. 

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Mr. Ryan


More Leadership Series