Marketing capability – Is it time for marketing to go exploring?

marketing capability

31 Jul Marketing capability – Is it time for marketing to go exploring?

We are facing a marketing capability crisis.

In the last 12 months both Profs Byron Sharp and the ever prolific Mark Ritson have commented and written about marketing capability and decried the quality of training available for marketers today. You can read their views in Marketing Week here and here and no doubt in a dozen other places. Or you could read this, which I’d prefer, but understand if you’d rather not. I am after all going to say effectively the same thing.

Those of you paying close attention will already know that a recent study by the WFA highlighted that only 56% of organisations state they have the marketing capability they need to be effective. That’s nearly half the business community concerned it doesn’t know how to “do marketing”. Put that into the context of seven out of ten of those businesses stating that marketing is critical to their success. Seems like we’ve got a recipe for consistent and pervasive underperformance. It may not be an overstatement to say we face a marketing capability crisis.

Furthermore, in Australia I’d argue these numbers are likely even more alarming. It’s hard to argue our marketing capability is greater than our US or UK counterparts. I do wonder though, if we have the same level of self awareness that our colleagues over the Pacific demonstrate in that survey. The fact that there seems to be no parallel study is probably telling.

As I meander around the Australian marketing community, I have observed three extreme types of marketing organisation. And extremes are always an interesting source of insight. To begin to try and explain what I’ve seen, I’ve used the much overhyped language of archetypes. That’s because I truly believe that if you’re going to take the piss out of some of your peers, you have a duty to also make it easy for the trolls to say something withering and sarcastic back.

Archetype 1.  The Creators.

Creators love advertising. And don’t really understand why everyone else calls them the colours and shapes department, in slightly mocking tones. They see marketing as purely about the art of communications. They wax lyrical about the importance of story-telling. With little to no regard paid to what story they’re actually telling. Or why they are telling it.

They are confused but ecstatic, bless them, by the plethora of new places to say things. And can’t understand why brand awareness is down when their spend is up. This despite their digital marketing manager posting cat videos on an almost daily basis as the core of their oh so modern ‘content’ strategy.

They wrote a horrified out-spewing of unsubstantiated, emotional rejections of Mark Ritson’s depiction of digital as the Tsunami of Horseshit. Then they tried in vain to find Tsunami of Horseshit on their Spotify account, to see if they could sponsor them. Then went back to trying to sell 7.5 million widgets a week by talking to 40,000 followers on Instagram.

Archetype 2. The Warriors.

Aka the sales support / replacement department. Warriors only drive hard metrics like acquisition and retention. They worship at the feet of the CPA God. Often found in digitally led e-commerce businesses, Warriors find it hard to invest in anything that doesn’t deliver to the daily sales report. They have an in house designer who “does their brand”. But everyone knows the brand proposition is “black”. They are a little concerned about a new competitor who looks just like them. Their competitor’s brand however, stands for “blue” so that clearly will never work.

Marketing is hard daily grind. They have no idea why anyone would ever want to join the marketing department. Indeed applicants for roles in these places are at an all time low, whilst staff attrition rates are in the mid thirties. Warriors sell shit today, because in the longer term they have absolutely no intention of being in the marketing department.

Archetype 3. The Sages.

They call themselves brand builders. They revel in their sage moniker without realising it’s also the name of a relatively tasteless and unnecessary seasoning. Unbeknownst to them, the rest of the organisation refers to them as the sales prevention department.

Sages think purely about the long term ‘health’ of a brand and how to better engage their target consumer in their brand values and purpose. Most of their time is actually spent refining said brand purpose statement with their agency, whose retainer makes up 30% of the marketing budget.

Nothing says ‘a productive day in the office’ more than a workshop arguing about whether their vital three words (NB: still in development) should be called an essence, architecture, proposition or purpose.

They measure ‘brand health’ as a factor of five other aspects; none of which they truly understand. These change each year anyway as their tracking agency presents yet another piece of meaningless correlation analysis entitled ‘The Brand Drivers’. Metrics move by about 0.5% per annum. Which is cause for a huge party on the harbour.

They do cool marketing stuff because, cool. Nothing excites them more than 5 brand loyals turning up to their $100,000 brand experience. Especially when one tweets about it to his 14 followers.

Stuck in the Middle.

Maybe I exaggerate. Undoubtedly I dramatise and caricature. I’m a marketer too, after all. I am probably being somewhat unfair, but these archetypes are real. There are some organisations that genuinely exist at these distant ends of the spectrum. I’d like to help them, I really would, because helping build marketing capability is what I do. But they are unlikely to ask. I’d say it’s because of confirmation bias, but none of them would know what that is.

More often many businesses I come across find, and more often, struggle to find, a balance between these three. And are better for it. All three archetypes have clear and genuine merits I have conveniently glossed over in my desire to ridicule. Balancing the three approaches makes for a much better set of outcomes.

I do dream, however, of a fourth, potentially mythical, archetype. So here they are, in all their glory.

Archetype 4. The Explorers.

A merry band of roving brand and business strategists. This team of data and insight driven superstars take the business strategy and its hard commercial outcomes and translate that into tangible, measurable, desirable consumer behaviours, that they then set about making happen.

They measure and evaluate

The CEO reports the marketing metrics to the board each quarter. As a result those metrics are well established and seen as fundamental to ongoing business success. Marketing is seen as an investment, not a cost and treated as such. 10% of the marketing budget is set aside each year for the difficult, but not impossible task of measuring the short and long term returns on marketing investment. The quality of evaluation and learning gives the CFO the confidence they need to increase the marketing investment line on the P&L year after year.

They do consumer and user centred design

Explorers begin by simply designing products and services that better meet the needs of their targeted and segmented user, consumer, customer, drinker, eater, wiper, blower or safe sexer. They empathise, prototype, test and learn at pace. They innovate only when they see a real new need or market to access. They are as happy making their existing brands a little better, as they are inventing new ones.

They communicate consistently at scale

Once they have that nailed, (although it’s actually a journey of continuous improvement), they set about regularly telling a targeted, but usually large, number of people about their existence. They emotionally and disruptively make ads that ensure that their distinctive brand assets get lodged in people’s sub-conscious. They do this in an engaging, creative but consistent and focused way. Their core advertising idea hasn’t changed in 4 years. Yet the executions they develop still beat every Millward Brown norm going and even win the odd award. They spend 60% of their effort and investment on longer term ideas, aimed at broadening their user base. And 40% making sure they hit their sales numbers this quarter.

They make shopping easy

They spend as much time and effort making sure that buying the thing they sell is an almost frictionless experience. FMCG Explorers are regularly up in the sales team’s grill about pricing, promotional frequency, space and display. Direct to customer, service sector explorers have a comprehensive approach to A/B testing almost everything that goes out the door and obsess about UI, UX and behavioural nudging.

They embrace process, expertise and creativity

They set about their task in a logical and systemic way. They see process as a helpful asset on the journey to problem solving, not the enemy of creativity. They read stuff from Ehrenberg Bass, the IPA, the HBR and McKinsey Quarterly. They and can happily critique all of them with cogent, fact based debate.

Finally, they wield creativity and their agencies like a surgeon’s knife. They understand both its power and its place, neither obsessing over it, nor ignoring its importance.

As a result, Explorers might actually get to call themselves professional marketers. Yet they seem to be on the endangered species list.

It’s time to address the marketing capability crisis.

So, in conclusion, I believe it’s time to raise the threat level. It’s time to focus on building our marketing capability. It’s time to recognise that Australia needs to get better, much better, at marketing. It’s time to invest in people, process and learning in order to build better marketers, better able to meet the challenges of the shifting marketing landscape. I believe the creators, warriors and sages need to start evolving. I believe it’s time to go exploring.

Jon Bradshaw is the Founder of Brand Traction, a consultancy whose focus is on building marketing capability for their clients. His dream is to play rhythm guitar in Australian progressive rock band, Tsunami of Horseshit. His archetype is explorer, because of course it is.

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