Podcast Digital Leadership: Arjan Dijk (Booking.com)

11 December 2020

Newpeople has interviewed a number of digital leaders in a series of podcasts, in search of the true meaning of this. In every podcast, the unique story of a digital leader is at the forefront.

Arjan Dijk – Senior Vice President & CMO bij Booking.com 

In his very personal story, Arjan Dijk talks us through his challenges, his certainties and uncertainties and his own style of leadership, to name but a few. He also has some thoughts on the question of why digital transformation is so difficult for companies with a legacy and what the pure players do differently.

 


Sidenotes

  • Book Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink

Podcast

“From the REM island in Amsterdam, Newpeople is on the hunt for digital leadership, my name is Hanneke Rinkes.

The digital world demands a different kind of leadership. We live in turbulent times and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to increase the pressure. Just waiting around is not an option. Why is digital leadership so different to leadership as we know it? Why give it a special name? Make no mistake, it is not because everything is going online now. If that were the case, every leader would be classified as a digital leader.

As a step in Newpeople’s journey to find digital leadership, I am talking to Arjan Dijk (Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Booking.com).”

Hanneke: “Welcome Arjan, it’s great that you could find the time to be in our studio in this Hangout. What is your experience of the new reality where we all work from home?”

Arjan: “Yes, Hanneke, fantastic to be here. Of course, it is an interesting question. I also get this question a lot when I give external talks, what is the future of working? Will we just all continue working at home forever and is that what we should do? I’ll be honest, personally I have my ups and downs. I don’t know how you experience that, but sometimes I really enjoy working at home. You get up in the morning, I put on my jogging trousers, I walk the dog and I’m ready for my first meeting. But of course you miss your colleagues, you miss the quick, fun conversations at the coffee machine, you miss the personal contact, so personally I don’t believe that the future of working is solely from home, but I do think the coronavirus pandemic has opened up the question of whether you can be working more from home or not. I believe it is definitely possible. Before the pandemic I think I worked at home about one day per week, if I even managed to just sit down, think, and reply to my e-mails. I think in the future perhaps, but we’re busy discussing this within Booking.com, this could turn into 2-3 days per week depending on your role in the company.”

Hanneke: “Yes, because how do you keep the spirit in your team up?”

Arjan: “That is of course something to talk about still, for me the most important thing is to establish a business rhythm. In the end, we are a bit predictable, and everything that is predictable, is very nice, so I ensured that I have my one on ones every week, my team meeting with the management team, my consultation with the whole team, and Chris knows that, he also organises it often, he’s also on this call with my team. We have a weekly meeting on Thursday afternoons at 17:00, where the whole team, which is more than 1000 people, can join and ask any questions they have. Often these meetings have a certain highlight or subject matter that is relevant for that week. We used to do that already, but in my office instead of online, we would stand in the canteen with a glass of wine or a beer and some bitterballen. So basically, this is a continuation of that, although of course the latter requires some imagination. Everyone in my team knows that Thursday afternoons are reserved for these meetings, and I think those kinds of things are very important, having a good business rhythm.”

Hanneke: “Yes, so you crack open a bottle of wine and tune in to the online meeting!”

Arjan: “At 17:00 that is allowed!”

Hanneke: “Arjan, one and a half years ago you left Google in San Francisco, where you had worked for almost 11 years as CVP Global Marketing. Why the change?”

Arjan: “Yes, well of course it was a very difficult decision. I had worked at Google for 11 years and perhaps as everyone who has worked somewhere for a long time does, you begin to wonder; “should I stay here for another 4 years?” “Will I stay here forever?” For me, it was a question of hmm, what should I be doing after 11 years? Another factor was that I am Dutch and if you want an American passport, you have to give up your Dutch one. That was something that I struggled with as well. And besides that, I wanted to come home, my father had health issues so this was a really good time for me to come back in this phase of my life. The biggest reason was that there were very few jobs that would really make me want to return to the Netherlands, but when I got a call from thé headhunter, haha, of course you understand that I was paying close attention and that I had to take the call.”

Hanneke: “Very good, and that transfer, what did Glenn Fogel ask you? What is the challenge you accepted?”

Arjan: “The challenge is that Booking.com is a great brand in many countries in the world. But, there are a number of countries where we are working hard to improve our popularity, to become a household name. The US is an example of such a country. I worked there for a long time and know that market well so that’s something that Glenn asked me to focus on. The company has grown very quickly in the past 10/15 years, but how do we really become a brand that does more than just handle accommodations? Something that regularly comes up in discussions now is the term connected trip, being able to book a flight, attractions, a car, a taxi and accommodation with us. That’s a mission that he has charged me with. How will we do this and how will we do this in such a way that it just works?”

Hanneke: “And why were you the designated person to do this? And not a colleague or someone else? What did you bring to the table?”

Arjan: “The interesting thing is that when you look at marketing, you often see that people are either very left-brained or very right-brained. People are either very creative or very analytical. You see that various companies also grow that way. When I worked for Unilever in the 90s, it was more left-brained, more creative/conceptual brand driven. Then I worked for Capital One for years, an American bank in the UK and they are very right-brained, everything is testing and learning, everything is very objective and everything is very rational. Then when you look at Google, that’s a bit of both worlds. It is a world-famous brand but its marketing is of course also very analytical and I think I was the candidate for Booking.com because I combine both. I’m good friends with our data scientists but also get along well with our creative people. I think I can connect the art to the science of marketing. The art is the more creative right brain and the science is the more analytical left brain. I think every successful brand has to be able to combine the two, being able to push performance as well as brand forward.”

Hanneke: “Very nice, that’s a lot about the actual work, but if you look back to when you first started at Booking.com, what did you find in terms of the team that was there?”

Arjan: “A fantastic team of course! No, all silliness aside, the first thing you do whenever you transfer – and take it from me, transferring from Google to another company is not something that happens very often – is being certain of the step you’re making. I think I talked to Booking.com for about 3 months, with a lot of my future team members, and there are a lot of talented people there. We’re world leaders from an analytical as well as a performance marketing perspective, that’s what we’re good at. We also have a lot of good branding people, really good PR people and I saw an opportunity to connect everything a bit more. How do I make sure that our performance marketers and our brand marketers and our PR people work on one agenda? I think that if I were to very humbly name one of my successes, then I would name that one, that I managed to bring together more people on an internal level.”

Hanneke: “And how did you do that? What is it in you that made you realise this?”

Arjan: “That’s mainly spending time with people, listening. The first six months not having too much of an opinion and not talking too much about how things went in my past. You might have experienced that yourself before, when people only talk about how good they had it at their previous employer and it makes you wonder: “why didn’t you stay there?” I also examined Booking.com’s strengths, what we could improve on and what we could do differently. And we did that, the first thing we did was sharpen the focus of our mission. We actually changed it a bit, which I was proud of because it became much more specific. We brought forward a whole brand personality and brand positioning, which we plan on implementing in the US at the start of the year. But of course, you know how this past year went, suddenly at the end of february the world became very different. Then, we really had to re-examine what we were going to do and we were very flexible in our approach. We looked at what we could and couldn’t do per country. Going back to the drawing board for a bit.”

Hanneke: “So if I may summarise what you just said, there are silos within Booking.com that you broke down and united. We examined our mission so had a lot of great successes. You must have made some mistakes as well?”

Arjan: “Of course not Hanneke, of course I don’t make mistakes, haha. And about those silos, they weren’t that bad. I would say that rings true for every company. And that is a good thing because then people are focussed on what they are responsible for. What I really dislike is that everyone feels responsible for everything and nothing at the same time. You have to have clear owners of specific responsibilities within a company. But, of course you have to make sure that everyone is working from the same strategy as a starting point and is heading in the same direction.

Yes, and regarding mistakes, this year Booking.com has faced a lot of criticism. Of course we received the first round of government support for very good reasons and the interesting part about that is that I was actually a bit surprised. How could it be that a great company like booking.com, that should be the pride and joy of every Dutch person, faced so much criticism? What I feel very strongly at such points, is that I should take ownership of that, so I could say that the media has it all wrong and is not portraying us fairly, but perhaps we did not tell our story very clearly. Maybe we haven’t been clear enough about what we stand for. That’s something that I’m currently working very hard on and what I probably would’ve started working on one and a half years ago if I could turn back time. Because I think that Booking.com is a company that every Dutch person should be very proud of. Imagine waking up and having every tech company be Chinese or American. That is almost the case already and that’s not great right? It’s much better that there is also a Dutch company and a German company and a French company. That is much more pleasant. Booking.com is the tech company in Europe that counts worldwide and it is a Dutch company. So that means that we can definitely be a bit proud of it. But then we do have to explain why people should be proud of it in a better way.”

Hanneke: “Yes, there was a lot of criticism, but we won’t discuss that on a content level. You actually already mentioned what the effect of that was on you and that you realised that you have to focus on PR more and why we should be proud. How was it in your team? How did they react?”

Arjan: “By the way, I don’t think it’s just a matter of PR, it’s more a matter of showing who you are. So the role marketing plays is “accelerating momentum” and “truth telling”, we have to tell things to the outside world that are actually true. You know how it is, if that is not true, you look at a company like none of that is true, what are they doing? But also for my team, I have a really good book, I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, it’s called ‘Extreme Ownership’. I gave that to everyone in my management team and it’s written by an ex Navy Seal. The subtitle is “How US Navy Seals Lead and Win”. That all sounds a bit American and a bit over the top, but when you read the book, I can really recommend it to you, you realise that there is definitely a lot of truth in it. If things aren’t going well or if things aren’t going quite as planned, is this someone else’s fault or should you also look at yourself? That is definitely my motto now, I think – we should really take ownership over this. What are we going to do? What are we going to do differently? Really taking that ownership and saying we’re really not going to do X, Y and Z anymore. I also told my team this, gave them that book and told them that from now on we’re done blaming others, not our predecessors, not other members of the management team, but taking ownership ourselves. We have to tell our story clearly and show to the Netherlands and to the rest of the world who we really are.”

Hanneke: “Great! Just to link it to the next part because you mentioned it already: how would you describe your leadership style?”

Arjan: “Yea well, the interesting part is, and I spoke about art and science earlier already, that that is also the case in marketing and in management. There is a kind of immaterial creative side but also a more practical housekeeping side to it. Now, it is my personal view that the practical housekeeping part just needs to be in order, we already talked about that when we discussed the business rhythm and those kinds of things. That means being on time for meetings, being organised, having everything written down in your diary, and being low maintenance so not one of those people that needs to have everything printed out for them and have things done for them etc. You need to really think about that and force the people in your surroundings to do the same. Ensuring that you’re well-organised and once you’ve achieved that, you can start focussing more on the softer aspects of the case, the more subjective elements. Just sitting down and really listening to someone. That’s probably how I would describe my leadership style, I see myself as someone who has discipline and is organised, but also just wants to spend time on people to see what’s going on. The interesting thing is that people always ask ‘how do you handle feedback?’ and ‘how do you give feedback?’ I always say “it’s cold at the top.” You need to realise that you work with a lot of very busy people, they don’t always give you very clear feedback. They’re not going to sit down and say, well Hanneke, today in the meeting I thought you presented this slide very well, but this slide was less good. Things don’t work that way anymore, my boss manages a very large company. He manages thousands of employees, he doesn’t have time for that.”

Hanneke: “But do you consciously ask for that then?”

Arjan: “I definitely ask for that, but also between the lines. Just quickly checking in on crucial points and also just looking at what is going on. If something didn’t run well in a meeting, that you walk with your boss to the toilet for example, and say: “what was going on in that meeting? You looked a bit irritated? Is there something I can improve upon?” It’s in those moments that you really hear what is going on and I think that’s very important. Having a bit of empathy.”

Hanneke: “So how do you do that with your team? Do you also ask your team members ‘how do you think I’m doing and are there things I should change? Or do you have a feedback system?”

Arjan: “Yes we have a system for that. In my experience, I barely ever offer written feedback to people because I’ve noticed that I’ll write everything down and work on it quite hard. I’ll have 10 positive points and one negative thing that is a bit more critical, and the whole conversation will be about that one criticism. Then I think, I just tried really hard to list the 10 positive aspects, but still your brain works in such a way that you have to focus on that one thing that was not positive. So in my experience, it is better to just have a conversation, but also to just take a little time. Taking time after crucial moments, after that big board meeting, asking how it really went, what could we have improved on, what could I have improved on, how was it for you? I find that very important. I also find it important that you’re low maintenance. That is the advice I always give to people looking to build their career, don’t always make your boss work.  Your boss will start to get annoyed, if you’re continually making their life difficult. Make it easy. Making it easy doesn’t mean avoiding difficult conversations, but thinking about whether now is really the right time to start that conversation. Is now the time to start this conversation? And there are certain things for example, and i always make the same joke, like compensation or that kind of thing. I advise everyone to complain about that at least once a year. Not 3 times a year. That drives someone so crazy, if you do it once a year on a well-thought out piece of A4, no longer, with I think I should earn more. Can you help me? What can I do to achieve this? Your boss can work with that and you prepared it. You don’t want to talk about that 10 times a year. So being low maintenance is something that I personally, value. I understand that my boss works pretty much day and night, so then it should be fun. That we can also laugh and just talk about things and not only presenting slides and having to look at things. Usually he asks what I want to talk about. Then I say what I’m struggling with and ask his opinion. It happens very often that I end up talking about things that have nothing to do with my marketing responsibilities but rather just with things going on in the company.”

Hanneke: “Do you currently take on more of a coaching role?”

Arjan: “Exactly, because he obviously expects that I know something about marketing at my level. I can definitely run something and if he thinks it’s going wrong, he’ll tell me.”

Hanneke: “You were just talking about advice that you’d like to give people in their career. If you look back at your own career starting out at PostNl until now, how would you describe your own personal growth?”

Arjan: “First of all, I still think I’m ambitious. I always aim to achieve the best and that is something I find important. Setting the bar high because the performance culture around you is so high as well. People in my team know that if they come to me with a presentation or an e-mail that has spelling mistakes, that I have some trouble with that. You could say, it’s just an internal e-mail, what does it matter? But that is not the way we treat our customers and partners. I just want to set the bar high. So, that when we do things that do go out externally and that are important, every detail is well thought out. So that is one thing.

A second thing is that you sometimes have to make mistakes. Sometimes in a new job, I have had that in the first week I thought, this isn’t quite it. You don’t quite dare to admit that to yourself yet, it takes a while. After 6 weeks, you slowly start allowing yourself to admit it and after 3 months you think, this is not it. At that point, you have to make a quick decision. This is not what I want to do so I have to go and do something else.

One piece of advice that I give to everyone is that people should make their weaknesses discussable and that they should improve on them and become good at that. I really believe that you should focus more on your strong points, whatever you’re really good at, focus on that. Then of course, at the same time you should ensure that the things you’re less good at are still somewhat up to scratch. That you say “how do I make sure to achieve a level that is good enough for me to be able to function at the level that I’m at”. I think I’ve done that twice in my career. It is quite a big pivot, that I first had to eat a humble pie, as they so nicely phrase it in English. It’s a mistake but you learn from those and that’s a good thing. Don’t get hung up on your mistakes, that’s my advice.”

Hanneke: “So you really examined “what am I good at?” and focussed on improving that rather than saying “this is what I am less good at” and just placing less of a focus on that.”

Arjan: “Exactly!”

Hanneke: “What are your insecurities? Do you have any?”

Arjan: “No. Well today, you hear a lot about impostor syndrome. If I fully analyse myself, I might have that a little bit. I’m gay and when I was a little boy, I just happened to be smarter than the other kid who was “not different”, if you know what I mean. I made myself stronger by being incredibly ambitious. In that sense, you could say I was very insecure, because what other reason would there be to try so hard all the time. But, “I wanted to fit in”, I didn’t want to be different, I didn’t want to be criticised and I wanted to ensure that I came across as a strong person. I think I really did do that. I did interviews about diversity and inclusion and always made sure I had a certain factor, that people could even be a little afraid of me. But why? Because of course, I have made myself incredibly strong.

Now I do have the advantage of having been born in the Netherlands and having gone to school in the Netherlands, where it is only natural that it is possible, even though this is not the case in other countries, and for this I am very grateful. But if you just take 2021, yes, insecurities are things you should just be open about. The best way to handle insecurities, I’m sure that’s something you know, is admitting “I don’t know” or admitting that you find something stressful or that you need help.  If you do that, show vulnerability, then you’ll be surprised at how much help you are offered. People always want you to do well.

I remember having to present in front of 3000 people for the first time about 15 years ago and that when I worked at Google, sometimes having to present in front of 40000 people. People say that I don’t appear nervous at all and wonder how I do it. What I have learned is that the public wants me to do well. Nobody is sitting there thinking, oh please let it go wrong. People don’t want that, they just want me to do a good job. That realisation is very important and that gives you more certainty.”

Hanneke: “Yes, on the other hand you could also say that that is your assumption, that you’re standing there and everyone is thinking “I want to see a high-performing act or hear a speech,” but even if you do show that you are incredibly nervous, you might make it less hard on yourself?”

Arjan: “Exactly. Or even that you do find things very difficult, I also sometimes have conversations at work about what I really find very difficult. Being capable of concluding that things aren’t quite on track and have to change. Meetings also stop, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but some people get hung up on that. But we should stop this now, we should think about this and get back to it in a few days. Of course, there is a big difference between being arrogant, smug and having self-confidence. It can be an interesting line to draw, but personally I am a big believer in natural self-confidence. The interesting part is of course, knowing when you’re simply out of your depth. We’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and I’m in the management team and we’re in the middle of a very difficult restructuring right now. Of course, I listen very carefully to our Chief Legal Officer when he talks about certain matters because I know nothing about them. You also have to know when you simply don’t know that much about something, when to keep your mouth shut perhaps, even though you might have an opinion.”

Hanneke: “Is there anyone that has influenced your career?”

Arjan: “Hanneke, you know that you have.”

Hanneke: “Okay, besides me Arjan…”

Arjan: “Well, of course, so much has been written about the importance of having sponsors. Now I have been incredibly lucky to have had 2-3 big sponsors that were really there for me, helped me and gave me their time, had dinner with me in the evenings. In Unilever and Google I already had that, which was very nice. At Google, I had the same boss for 11 years, can you imagine? That was my biggest sponsor. This means he really wanted the best for me. I think that’s very important.”

Hanneke: “Yes, sponsors are very important. But has there been anyone that influenced your decisions almost on a subconscious level? Because of him/her you chose a certain path?”

Arjan: “I don’t know, I don’t think I can fully pin that on one person. A bit of serendipity always comes into play, whether things happen or not. You have to realise that when I started at Google, I think I had about 30 interviews in the space of one and a half years, which was very normal in that time. That has all been analysed in great detail and it turned out that after interview number 5 it was all very clear, that the 6th or the 30th interview didn’t matter anymore, but that was just the times back then. But still, in the beginning I was not that enthusiastic about Google, I just thought “those weird tech guys, I’m just not sure whether that’s really my thing.” I ended up going with it and it turned out very well. I made best friends for life within that company, so it all had to fit quite well. Of course, getting that phone call from headhunter Hanneke at christmas two years ago, was a stroke of luck. Because like I said, there were not that many jobs in the Netherlands that would have made me enthusiastic, but the job at Booking.com gave me butterflies. And you must know for yourself, having that feeling in your stomach, is a nice feeling.”

Hanneke: “That’s exactly what you want right? I like that you said that about Google: starting off with, this can’t be it, weird tech guys, whilst still slowly falling in love with the place. But you didn’t fall head over heels overnight, even though there are so many people dying to work for Google or for Booking.com. I’m very curious what drives you right now.”

Arjan: “Well what really drives me right now, is being able to make a difference. I don’t think I’m someone who is very good at a staff job, only being able to advise people. So, for example, working as a McKinsey partner would be a nightmare for me, because I would hate just telling companies what to do and not being able to do it for myself. I wouldn’t be able to see the results of my work. So, I choose my positions carefully, something you can also see at Booking.com, here I really have the feeling that if I try and work together with a lot of good people, that I can really make a difference. So that’s what drives me and that’s what I like, starting a new campaign. Last week, we had a great new campaign in the US with “America is for everyone”. It was a campaign that was kind of meant to promote unity in the country. I was very proud of it and we had a lot of PR for it and national newspapers and now I look back on it and think wow, fantastic!”

Hanneke: “Yes, the feeling of being able to make an impact or make a difference. How do you see your future within Booking.com? What good things are you hoping to make happen in conjunction with your team?”

Arjan: “I am very clear about this in my team, as a company we are kind of in a difficult phase. So, if you look at the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going through a difficult restructuring period right now, which simply isn’t very fun. I say that to everyone, whether you want it or not, you’re stuck with me for the next three years. For the next three years you’re stuck, although of course you never know. Of course, it could be that my boss says tomorrow, “well Arjan, I don’t want you anymore.” I don’t think that will be the case, but it could always happen. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that it doesn’t happen, then I’ll be here for at least another 3 years. And what I really want to do right now is become the number one travel brand worldwide. In a number of European countries, we’re already number one, but in a number of other countries, we aren’t. We still have to work hard on that. But to be a brand that makes people worldwide say: “ah yes, Booking.com, they are really cool.” As in, I like to use them, and even like them. That’s the challenge for the next 3 years.”

Hanneke: “And after that? Because if you’ve realised all that and are standing on the tables high fiving people, your work is done.”

Arjan: “Then I’ll retire and go walk the dog with you. No, I turned 50 this year.”

Hanneke: “You wouldn’t say that, just looking at you!”

Arjan: “No, thank you, but it is definitely an interesting age. That you suddenly realise wow I turned 50. Of course, I still feel like 25 which is silly, but it is reality. You do really start to think about what’s next, what’s next. I have definitely learned, and perhaps that was the case when I was younger, that I was very occupied with what my next step will be, and now I don’t have that as much. My head is much more peaceful now, so that if another headhunter calls, Hanneke, I’m not on the market. I like where I am right now, I see a huge challenge ahead of me, I have a nice boss, I work for a great company, so I’m just really comfortable where I am right now. Of course, it could all change, we all know that, because the world changes. But that is where I’m at right now. I’m not thinking that much about what I should be doing in 4 or 5 years from now. Having a bit of continuity right now, is nice.”

Hanneke: “I could also imagine that at some point you start thinking about taking on more of a coaching role. You have so much knowledge and experience, you could be a great source of inspiration for the next generation, perhaps that’s where you’ll end up.”

Arjan: “Yes, and at some point, which is a very Dutch thing, many jobs are totally not ‘nine to five’, I work with a  lot of people in a lot of different time zones and you have to have a certain temperament for that. I call that a temperament and that can be a difficult thing. Last weekend, I was at my mother’s house and still had to take a call on Friday night, and she really thinks I’m a weird workaholic. I tell her “I’m not really that much of a workaholic mum, if I want to, I can have a lie in from time to time.” But do you know what I mean? You have to have a bit of temperament for that. Maybe at some point you’ll have that less and not have the urge to be in a zoom call on a Friday night.”

Hanneke: “I just want to make a link to the following: you worked for companies in the old economic situation, which are now classified as digital transformers, and in the last 12 years you worked for pure players. I could imagine that with the knowledge and experience that you have gained at Google and now also at booking.com, you can see very clearly why your old employers are finding it very difficult to further the digital transformation process. What do you think stands in their way?”

Arjan: “Well, it is interesting because during the years I spent as a marketer at Unilever, I was just a spider in the web. You’re the one controlling the supply chain, the product development teams, the advertising teams etc. When you start working for a tech company, you have to start working very differently culturally speaking, because suddenly there are engineers that decide how a product is going to turn out. In a certain way, they are more of a spider in the web than you are as a marketer. That doesn’t mean that you are less important, but it just means that you have to take on a very different role. I think if I’m looking to take on people for Booking.com without any kind of tech experience, then I do need to think about it a bit more if it is at a senior level. At a junior level, it is of lesser importance, because you can train people and it will all turn out fine. But if we hire people at a senior level, you have to understand certain things. In tech companies, technology is simply a very important aspect and you do need to have a certain affinity with it and understand it a little. You also have to understand that a discipline like data science is incredibly important and that you need to have a feel for how the data works and understand how to use it. You can’t just think in images. What was funny, is when I had to convince a colleague who is my senior, of something. I said: “we should really do this branding campaign, it’s very important and we need more right-brain engagement.” And then he says: “I don’t fully agree with you, I find it nonsense.” This person is a real data scientist and he got a daughter. I sent him a t-shirt and a towel with the name of his daughter on it. He called me and told me he loved the present. I said: “well now you know how right-brain engagement works.” It has nothing to do with numbers or analysis, it’s just how you feel them, because a name is simply a ‘verbal icon’ as I like to call it. It triggers an emotion and you can see that it works immediately. Then we laughed together on the phone and agreed that we would indeed start our branding campaign. But you know what I mean, being able to talk to critical engineers is very important. And that is not for everyone. I think if you talk to a traditional marketer, it’s all very traditional. The way in which television is planned and bought, still goes the same way as it did 30 years ago, not much has changed in that regard. Then suddenly, there’s Youtube with 22 ad formats ranging from 6 second bumpers to 15 second reviews with different measurements around that. Yes, of course, they’re ready.”

Hanneke: “So would you tell the old legacy companies “guys, just turn around in one go?” Or what should they do according to you?”

Arjan: “Well, I wouldn’t just tell them to turn around, but I do think they should definitely look at having more measurements more critically. That’s in our DNA, we just measure everything we do. Just broadcasting a video on TV and hoping everything works won’t do anymore. The indirect relationship that many companies have with their work. We have the advantage of being a platform that people are directly in contact with.”

Hanneke: “According to reports from the WEF, what also isn’t it anymore, is the positions in the new economy. You can see that the new number one in the marketing positions is the Growth Hacker and at number 10 is the CMO. What does that mean for you Arjan? Can you simply pack your bags and go now?”

Arjan: “No, but see, you should realise that you could also call me the Chief Growth Officer. That is simply my responsibility. The responsibility of the marketing team within Booking.com is making the company grow further.”

Hanneke: “So what you’re really saying is what’s in a name?”

Arjan: “Yes and you really have to start looking at which buttons you can press. If we think that there are certain obstacles to a product for example, you start to focus on those. If we see that there are things in a certain phase of our final, and that they will be the game-changers, we’ll start to focus on those. I remember back in the day, that when applying for a credit card, you had to indicate how long you had lived somewhere. We had the English phrase: ‘time at address.’ We really had people that just wrote 11:15 there, so this was a point where many people were dropped from the process. Because If i were to ask you how long you have lived in your house, you would tell me, I don’t know exactly, but definitely roughly between 1-2 years. So what you do, when you put down dropdown boxes, is you say between 0-6 months, 6-12 months, 1-2 years. My point is that, that is also marketing, making things easier. I think too many marketers, especially the traditional ones, think too much in the form of videos and in the form of a campaign. It’s not always about a campaign, there are also other things that are important.”

Hanneke: “Maybe that’s a nice way to transition to the last question: much is being written about the fact that the new economy demands a new kind of leadership. We experience that the phase of digital materiality in which a company finds itself, demands a specific type of leadership. What’s your take on this, given what you’ve just said?”

Arjan: “I spoke earlier about temperament. The difference between more traditional companies and tech companies, is that the speed is often very different. You have to see that everything is much more real-time. everything happens every day. If i don’t respond to a certain e-mail within 3 hours, I may as well not respond at all because the discussion is either over or has totally escalated. I think that in more traditional companies, it all just goes a bit more slowly, there’s more time to think about things. Zara is always a nice example. In the clothing industry, you used to have a winter and a summer collection and Zara completely transformed that, i think there is a new collection in the stores about every 4 weeks. That is one example of everything happening much more quickly now.

So what I would say about leadership in a tech company is that you have to have the temperament to be able to keep up with the speed. I’m not saying that speed is always better, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just different. Sometimes it’s good to think longer about certain things. The second thing is really having a lot of knowledge about data and that everyone who wants to make that step from a traditional company to a tech company, needs to ensure they have a good foundation in statistics. Understanding data, and understanding that when you obtain results, you are working with confidence intervals and shouldn’t just accept any results without questioning them. Those kinds of things are very important. In traditional companies, you see that you have the commanders, people that are good at processing and running something but actually on a content level don’t have that much to offer. If I look at Google and Booking.com’s management team, then at a senior level there are a lot of people with a wide range of skills. Besides that, however, they are also specialised in very specific fields. And when I say specialised, I mean really specialised. Our Chief Legal Officer is immersed deeply into the field of international law and really knows a lot. Our head of business unit is incredibly specialised in data science. Everyone has their own expertise and I think that’s very important in a management team, to have people with diverse heavy expertises. You’ve worked at Unilever, one of the nice things there was that everyone went through a certain trajectory. You went from assistant brand manager, to junior brand manager, to senior brand manager. The good thing is that the general director of Unilever, can still run a campaign himself.”

Hanneke: “Yea, so just being able to really get down to it and work.”

Arjan: “Exactly, he still understands how it works and I think that’s important.”

Hanneke: “Arjan, I think that you gave us some really nice insights. I think the listeners will be very grateful to you. Do you have any last insights/tips/advice?”

Arjan: “Well what I always tell my team is take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. We all have that from time to time, that we take ourselves too seriously. Especially right now, when there are so many uncertainties, and when things can be tough. Let’s keep it a bit light and be able to laugh from time to time. I find that really important.”

Hanneke: “I hear the dog, it needs to be taken on a walk!”

Arjan: “Yes, saved by the bell!”

Hanneke: “Arjan, thanks very much for your openness. I really enjoyed having you here in the studio through Hangouts. See you soon!”

Arjan: “Thank you! See you soon.”


Podcast journey

In Newpeople’s podcast journey, a variety of digital leaders take the floor, broadcast live from Amsterdam’s REM island. Each has a unique background, each has his/her own style of leadership and all are currently working in different types of organisations from each other. The journey takes us to leaders of grown-up tech companies like Booking.com as well as to family-owned companies who are only at the start of their digital transformation.

New insights into digital transformation and growth

Newpeople, “leaders in digital transformation and growth”, is thé international executive search and interim solutions bureau in the digital world. Are you looking for an answer to the question of which digital leaders would bring your company further and/or which digital capabilities are needed for that? We would love to think along with you.

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