Shape up or be forced to the edge of the marketing picture

Now that brand building has been subordinated to ‘customer experience’, the marketing department’s role within a company has become less easy to define

Perhaps one of your new year’s resolutions is to get a better job. In which case, what questions will you ask in that all-important interview? And could you answer a question like “what do you intend to achieve in your first 100 days?” Square pegs and round holes are an endemic problem for employers and employees alike, and one reason for this (in marketing circles especially, it seems) is lack of clarity. All too often, marketers and others find themselves talking at cross-purposes.

Recently, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton conducted a survey with the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American equivalent of ISBA, to clarify the changing role of marketing departments and chief marketing officers in large organisations. One of its most intriguing findings was how different the role of marketing is from one organisation to another, and how hazy our understanding of these differences is. The research identifies four interconnected areas of potential confusion.

The first one is scope. How broad is the marketer’s responsibility? The second one is decision rights: different degrees of autonomy versus dependency when it comes to decision making. Is the marketer expected to set prices and decide distribution strategy – to manage all four classic Ps, for example? Or are job expectations limited to promotional activities? And do all parties understand and agree those areas where the marketer has formal authority, informal influence and those areas where he is expected to fit into a formal matrix management structure?

The third element follows from the first two: capabilities. What technical and other expertise is the marketer expected to have? One of the big flashpoints recently, of course, has been financial literacy and the ability to translate traditional proxy marketing measures, such as awareness, into numbers that connect with the chief financial officer’s return on investment calculations.

Changing fit

Finally, there is what Booz Allen calls “organisational linkages”: how and where does marketing fit into the formal and informal networks and structures of the organisation? These linkages vary massively, from central marketing departments in big, diversified organisations which are responsible for broad guidelines, skills and capability development and the sharing of best practices, to the chief executive’s confidante, to isolated, specialist communications problem solver.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realise there are endless possibilities for mismatches here.

For example, the Booz Allen/ANA research identifies six different types of marketing organisation. Three of the most important are what it calls “growth champion”, where the marketing department drives the company’s priorities and leads innovation and new business development; “senior counsellor” where the marketer acts as a high-level adviser to the chief executive but is operationally restricted to traditional communications activities (thereby creating a subtle but important mix of formal power and informal influence); and the “brand foreman” responsible for technically efficient communications efforts and the management of agency relationships.

“Although many marketing organisations profess to fulfil most or all of these functions, they tend, in practice, to gravitate into only one of these roles,” observes the report. Knowing which type of marketing organisation exists within a company – and whether this type of marketing orga- nisation actually fits what the company is trying to do – is thus “a critical first step”.

This first step is even more important considering the way marketing is changing. In a well-functioning organisation, all the various functions and departments fit snugly together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Boundaries are clearly identified, with very little overlap (which creates turf wars) or gaps for stuff to fall through (which generates finger pointing).

But the world keeps changing and the pieces need to change shape in response, and as they change they create friction, overlaps and holes. Today’s shift in focus from “brand building” to outstanding customer experiences takes marketers out of their traditional communication comfort zones to operational issues that they can only influence, for example.

Much of today’s hand-wringing around the marketer’s role and status in companies is a by-product of such shifts. Early last year, for example, the Marketing Society issued “a Manifesto for Marketing”. Marketers, it said, must become customer champions, business innovators and growth drivers – or else be relegated to the role of an “increasingly isolated function”. In other words, in Booz Allen/ANA terms, “growth champion” is good; “brand foreman” is bad. But do all those involved agree with this assessment? Different parties have different pictures as to what type of marketing organisation is needed, and they are not yet able to articulate these differences to the necessary level of detail: those crucial boundaries of scope, decision rights, capability and linkage.

Reality bites

That is why, as Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt points out, “it is important to codify more precisely what kind of marketing department we have, and what kind of marketing department we want”. To this end he has teamed up with Booz Allen to create a speedy “marketing profiler” questionnaire to help marketers clarify which role they are currently fulfilling (see www.marketingprofiler.org).

So, getting back to that interview, it’s not surprising that separate research in the UK by Oxford Strategic Marketing and executive search specialist Hunter Miller finds that 60 per cent of marketers discover that the realities of their new job are very different to the initial descriptions. There are a lot of subtle and probing questions that need to be asked.

And what about our own answers? What should we promise to achieve in that first 100 days? Most of the advice from blue-chip marketers is not to rush at it like a bull at a gate, in a vain attempt to change the world, but to spend the early days listening, learning and adapting – to build the internal network and win internal allies (see www.first100days.co.uk).

We can’t avoid organisational jigsaw pieces changing shape and creating friction. It’s how progress happens. But we can build a better, common understanding of exactly what is going on. Slowly, it seems, we are developing some tools that can help us do so.

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