A debate that has raged among the 30 members of The Field Marketing Council (FMC) about whether the trade body should change its name has spilled into the open, with client marketers demanding that the organisation find a more accurate monicker.
The council is coming under increasing pressure to redefine its role in the marketing industry because it represents members from a broad range of disciplines and businesses, and the term “field marketing” is considered to be so broad that it has become meaningless.
Field marketing originated in the Sixties as packaged grocery giants, such as Mars, sought to increase the penetration of their products through the independent stores sector.
In those days, it went under the name of merchandising, and the agencies concerned would hire part-time workers – often middle-aged women – to promote existing and newly launched brands to convenience stores and try to ensure they were given good facings on the shelves of the country’s corner shops. But the business has changed beyond all recognition since, and so has the way it refers to itself, with the field marketing name grafted on to the industry about 15 years ago.
Nowadays some of the companies offer a complete outsourced selling operation, where teams of salespeople actively sell a brand to the convenience store sector. Some industry insiders dispute that this is “marketing” at all, as it is neither strategic nor about adding value.
The change in the role of many of these companies has prompted a debate about the difference between marketing and sales, with some observers insisting they are completely different disciplines, while others argue that one is a sub-set of the other.
The area known as field marketing has exploded into a multiplicity of tasks. The FMC was created about three years ago, when the Field Marketing Association, which was formed at the beginning of the Nineties, became part of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and took on the FMC name. It identifies six main activities that comprise the remit of its member companies – selling, merchandising, auditing, demonstrations, mystery shopping and sampling. There are also what the FMC calls “emerging” areas, such as distribution/warehousing and telemarketing.
So what exactly is it then?
Main activities include giving out product samples in stores or on high streets; getting young people to promote drinks, mobile phones and other goods in student and youth bars; and the creation of “retail theatre” – often in the form of product demonstrations. It may entail door-to-door sales for the utilities industry, or signing up people’s bank details for charities. There are also the more traditional roles of promoting products – these days as likely to be a mobile phone as a new bar of chocolate – directly to retail staff. In many sectors, there are so many different products and specifications competing for attention that having a session with a field marketing executive can push the name of a product to the top of a store salesman’s mind. This has proved invaluable for brands competing with products that offer parity of performance and price.
As Britvic Soft Drinks category director Andrew Marsden says: “There are all manner of activities in this area. The majority of [field marketing] people are talking about auxiliary sales forces; it is not marketing as such. If you take marketing in its pure sense, I don’t think there are many [field marketing agencies] at all. It is just a posh word for selling.”
He believes that the British have a peculiarly downbeat view of selling, often considering it to be sleazy and unpleasant. “The British have a hang-up about selling. You wouldn’t find that in American business. No doubt that is where the term ‘field marketing’ comes from,” he says.
He sees marketing as being concerned with research studies and techniques for identifying consumers, in order to create products they actually want to buy. This would usually be a job performed from a central perspective, using new product development agencies, ad agencies and other specialists. Selling comes at a later stage – once a product has been created and is ready to be sold. But Marsden insists that both areas are interesting and essential to the whole process, saying: “One is not better than the other.” He believes that, in a lot of cases, marketing has simply become a euphemism for sales because of negative views about selling.
But according to Alison Williams, founding chairman of the FMC as well as field marketing company FDS Group, the issue of what to call the discipline has been debated at length by the FMC’s 30 members, and each time runs up against the same problems – what other name would be suitable? And how confusing it would be to have to tell the industry about the name change.
She says: “Field marketing has always been about gaining customers for products, be that by sampling [introducing consumers to a product], auditing [making sure the product is available for people to purchase], merchandising [putting up point-of-purchase material to develop awareness of the product] and goes on right through to selling utilities and telecoms door-to-door. Whether field marketing is the right name for all these activities – all of which attract consumers by awareness or sales for a product – is a debate that will go on and on.”
So it seems that, love it or loathe it, there is little alternative but to use the term “field marketing”. Bruce Ellison, of Ellert Field Marketing, says: “The FMC has been reluctant to consider what it calls itself and how it positions itself, because it has struggled for some time to get field marketing understood. It is not a great term, it is an industry definition that does not do a lot to clarify the products and services that sit behind it.”
One major industry player that has eschewed joining the FMC is Aspen Field Marketing, which claims the body offers few benefits for companies or clients. Director Gary MacManus says: “We have talked to our clients about the FMC and asked whether we should join, but there is no perceived added value for our clients. I’m in business for clients first, and I can’t see what value it gives.”
Another bone of contention concerns the way sales staff are used in a part-time capacity, giving the impression that the sector is far from professional, and in fact is rather informal. MacManus adds: “There are people in field marketing who promote themselves as full-time employers and they are not: they employ part-timers on a contract basis and pay them by the hour.”
What’s in a name?
He adds that Aspen is considering changing its name and dropping the field marketing tag in order to better reflect the work that it does. “We are a contract sales organisation,” he says, dismissing the field marketing terminology as now little more than “pick and mix”.
There has also been much debate among companies about the compiling of league tables of the top companies’ turnover, and whether this is a justified way of viewing the industry, or just an opportunity for exaggeration.
One insider says that field marketing companies that are part of bigger marketing holding companies may group some of the turnover from other areas, such as direct marketing or sales promotion, into the field marketing area simply to boost their turnover and improve their position in the league tables. Some seem resentful of the picture it creates of where they stand in the industry. But the FMC’s Alison Williams says the turnover figures that appear “do not appear to be wildly wrong,” and generally reflect the relative standing of the companies concerned, though, she concedes, there is no way of knowing whether they are correct.
Another founder of the Field Marketing Council, Mike Garnham – who is managing director of Headcount Worldwide – agrees that in reality, field marketing is sales-based, rather than concerned with marketing. But he is not in favour of a name change because it would destroy the work that has been done over the past few years to build up knowledge about the industry among clients. There was one suggestion to change it to the Field Sales and Marketing Council, which he believes would be more accurate. “When we talk with our clients, are they sales directors or marketing directors? The feeling is we talk to more sales directors than marketing directors, so maybe we should be a sales council. I think sales reflects better what we do,” he says.
It may be that there is not much in a name, and the fuss over the FMC is a storm in a teacup. But there is a growing feeling that the sector will never gain full recognition until it comes up with a name that accurately reflects its work.