Veronika Birnkammer, Head of Marketing APAC, Fluent Commerce: “AI will help us better understand each other and connect more meaningfully”

Does your company have a motto? Core values to live by? One of Fluent Commerce’s key values is “fair dinkum”, Australian slang for honesty/authenticity, and there’s plenty of plain-talking truth in this interview with Veronika Birnkammer, Head of Marketing APAC for the company.

For example, while others embrace AI with open arms, Veronika is more cautious. Or perhaps pragmatic is a better word. She already uses AI tools to aid her own writing, but isn’t a fan of letting it take over: “People have started using ChatGPT to write their comments on LinkedIn,” she says. “It is hard to distinguish between what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t.” (We agree, by the way.)

However, don’t mistake this caution for hesitancy. Veronika sees an important role for AI, and other emergent technologies, through 2024 and beyond, believing that this is the year when businesses will learn how to embrace them to improve customer experiences. Beyond a chatbot that answers basic queries.

Read on to discover how Veronika came from a degree in anthropology and psychology in Munich to be Head of Marketing for Fluent in Sydney. It’s all the honest truth.

Why Dust or Magic? That stems from a quote by legendary American advertising creative director, William Bernbach: “An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.” (And if you’re wondering where you’ve heard the name, Bernbach was the inspiration behind Don Draper of Mad Men fame.)

Could you please introduce yourself to our audience? What motivated you to pursue a career in marketing, and how did you embark on your journey in this field?

I’m the Head of Marketing for APAC for Fluent Commerce. I’ve been with Fluent for six years now and still love it! Software or the broader tech industry happened by accident for me. I studied anthropology and psychology in Munich, Germany. But I also worked part-time in the marketing department of a home shopping TV channel (those were fun times!).

I really liked working in marketing, so I decided that’s what I was going to continue doing after finishing my Masters. Moving to Sydney, my first job here happened to be working at a marketing agency with major software companies as clients. I really enjoyed that too, and so I stayed and have been in marketing in the software industry (mainly commerce) for over 15 years now.

What are your thoughts on the escalating integration of AI in digital marketing and its potential influence on the future of marketing, Martech and social media?

The hype around AI is at a fever pitch right now. To an extent this is justified. It will have huge implications. But I also believe that there will be a moment in the next year or two when this will slow down and be replaced with the reality of what AI can deliver right now. The data and hardware available right now is currently not yet catching up with the potential of AI. And maybe that is a good thing to let us humans learn, understand and adapt as well.

Like many people, I worry that AI will continue what I would call a “flattening” of experiences. People have started using ChatGPT to write their comments on LinkedIn. It is hard to distinguish between what’s “real” and what isn’t. The tone of voice, local nuances and emotion. Currently, a lot gets lost in the process. I hope that in the future this can be recovered as people become more proficient in how they use it.

How do you ready yourself for an AI-driven landscape as a marketing leader? What new skills do you need?

First of all, I look at it from this angle: how can I use AI to supplement the skillset I already have, or help where I have gaps? An example: I don’t like writing. Copywriting has always been the thing I enjoyed least about my role. I can now use AI to help me kickstart this process. What I need to continuously work on now is to develop my prompts and improve what input I use to get a great first draft.

I think a first step will be to figure out what you can use AI for in your role, give it a go and then really determine in which areas it works for you and in which areas it doesn’t.

Related reading: AI copyright: should your business be worried?

Do you anticipate any significant disruptions in marketing and sales technology for 2024? If so, what?

I find disruption isn’t always the best word to describe these things. It can make people feel concerned rather than excited. And I hope that AI will fundamentally bring exciting changes. Will it also have downsides? Absolutely. But overall I expect it to increase productivity and we can already clearly see this across all industries.

And for marketing, what I think it will do is significantly increase creativity. Increasing efficiency for tasks means a lot of space and time in people’s minds gets unlocked to refocus on creative ideas, innovative ideas and problem-solving.

How do you think AI might evolve B2B marketing strategies in 2024?

I think AI will enable marketers to take charge of CX and really boost customer service and experience for the first time in a few years. CX has taken a backseat in recent years as businesses had to focus on just keeping the lights on during the pandemic, quickly pivoted to service-changing customer needs, and now don’t have the budget to invest in the technology needed to really power up seamless experiences.

Economically, the focus had to be on cutting costs rather than improving CX [in 2023]. With AI lending a helping hand to marketers and across other functions, CX will once again take a step into the spotlight [in 2024]. AI will enable us to connect touchpoints and map out journeys, find the gaps in customers’ experiences and fill them.

In retail, for example, AI can streamline sales by using extremely detailed data on individuals to create highly personalised product or service offers. Later in the journey, AI assists in upselling and cross-selling and can reduce the likelihood that customers will abandon their digital shopping carts.

Interestingly, I believe AI will help us better understand each other and connect more meaningfully by smoothing out the bumps along the way.

How do you perceive programmatic advertising in today’s marketing landscape?

This is an interesting topic as I have two perspectives on this. For my role and in our business, programmatic advertising doesn’t play a huge role currently. And I can’t see this changing in the next 12 months. We don’t see it as a crucial element as part of our effort to engage B2B buyers for our business.

Now, for our customers, that is a whole different story. Currently, our software is mainly used by retailers, and programmatic advertising of course plays a huge role for them. But what we also see is that advertising and the tools used for generating and targeting ads often aren’t connected to other systems that hold crucial data.

An example is inventory data. This will lead to things like seeing ads that advertise products in a location where that product isn’t available. That’s a huge waste of advertising spend, as well as damaging to customer trust and loyalty. So connecting data sources will become more and more important. Making your systems such as your advertising inventory aware is only one part of this.

Related reading: What will the digital landscape look like in 2028?

What core values have played a pivotal role in shaping your approach to marketing and communication?

I think authenticity is incredibly important. In my personal life, I’m open and honest with friends and family about how I feel about certain issues and I bring this into my work. At Fluent Commerce one of our core values is “Fair Dinkum” which also means being our authentic self at work.

As a marketer and communications professional, I also believe being genuine is critical. I’m not going to mislead anyone about a product that doesn’t deliver or promote something I don’t believe in or can back up.

In an environment where trust in corporations is waning and consumers want to know more about the companies they buy from, how they’re run, how they treat their staff and where they source their products, it is even more important that your brand is authentic, transparent and honest. Even if that means admitting to gaps or having to acknowledge areas that you can improve on still. That is how you build a brand that stands the test of time.

What major hurdles have you encountered as a marketing leader, and how did you surmount them?

One big, ongoing internal debate I often have with myself and within marketing teams is to find that perfect balance between taking a risk and playing it safe. In times like the current one, where people feel insecure, the world seems scary and the economic climate is unstable it is even more seductive to stay within your comfort zone and wait until whatever crisis the business may be experiencing blows over for them to start becoming a bit more interesting again. But that’s not going to make change, it’s not subversive and personally, that’s then not interesting to me.

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.