Functional factionalism is fun, but working together is better

Marketers could be more influential and make it to the top more often if the defined their role and avoided rivalry with other specialisms.

So James Dyson thinks marketers are too powerful. While marketers agonise about their lack of influence on the board, Dyson complains that “too many businesses give priority to the ad campaign rather than getting their product right.”

“Too great a swing in power from the engineer and the inventor to the marketing men would create a static society,” he continues. So marketers need to make way for inventors and engineers if the country’s economic future is to be assured.

But marketers and engineers are not the only ones jostling for pole position within the corporate hierarchy.

Two weeks ago the Financial Times began one article with the phrase “Pity the poor Chief Financial Officer”. Only a fifth of US and British chief executives (ceos) have previous experience as chief financial officers (cfos), it complained. In the UK 71% of cfos who get to the top are appointed during deal or turnaround situations – when getting the numbers (rather than the business) right is paramount. What cfos need, the FT decided, was more hands-on operational experience.

And let’s not forget other professions such as human resources (HR). They are also feeling vulnerable and unloved. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently warned that “HR needs to see itself as central to delivering business objectives; ceos need to see HR in the same way.” How many times have you heard similar sentiments expressed on marketing platforms over the years?So there’s something fishy going on. What could it be?One possibility is that when push comes to shove, it’s personal qualities – personality, talent, ambition – and not professional background that land individuals ceo posts. You have to be particularly focused, dedicated and ruthless to climb the greasy pole right to the top. And there are focused, dedicated, ruthless individuals in every walk of life. So perhaps those professional percentages don’t mean that much anyway.

Skills for every occasion
Another possibility is that different circumstances favour different skillsets. If it’s takeover time, reel in a finance guy. If organic growth is the latest thing, turn to whizzkid marketers. New circumstances create a need for new blood.

Then there’s the more subtle but important factor of corporate culture. Consultancy Booz Allen has been working with the US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) to track the marketing profession. It found huge differences in status and focus lurking behind very similar job titles.

Some marketers act as “service providers”, offering advertising, promotional and PR services to product teams. Others are “brand builders” focusing on communications strategies, creative output and campaign execution. In companies with many operating divisions, some marketers act as best practice advisors – passing know-how from one operating unit to another. Some act as “senior advisors” to ceos in areas such as marketing strategy and growth opportunities, but never move beyond this role because they lack operational clout.

Then there is the A-list. “Marketing masters” lead company-wide marketing efforts and help set corporate priorities. “Growth champions” are linch pins of corporate effort helping ceos develop and implement strategic growth agendas.

The differences between growth champions and the rest – both carried on under the broad umbrella of marketing – are quite striking/ 75% of those classed as growth champions helped ceos set the strategic growth agenda, but less than 40% of those in the other roles did, while 81% of growth champions were responsible for product innovation and business development, compared to under 10% of the rest. Nearly all growth champions were in charge of other functions such as sales or finance, when working on growth initiatives.

Defining the role
This research echoes the findings of a 2004 report from the Marketing Society and McKinsey in the UK which found “little consensus” on the meaning of “marketing” across different sectors, and even within them. “Clarity of definition affects accountability, vision, structure and recruitment criteria for the function,” it commented. “Critically, it also affects the perception of marketing inside organisations.”

This probably fits your own experience. Think of any ten companies. Among them you’ll find much of the confusion over roles identified by the ANA. You’ll also find confusion over the “real” role of marketing. That makes it harder to change things. If a company sees marketing as “brand building” – being concerned with external customer communication – the chances of expanding this role to that of growth champion are slim.

New research by brand management consultancy Prophet paints a similar picture. Half of all European marketers say they have no influence at all over channel strategy and pricing and 40% also say they have no influence over product development. Clearly, these are not the growth champions. While marketing text books teach the critical importance of the four Ps – product, place, price and promotion – in reality many marketers still only influence one of them, promotion.

This picture of limited influence is even more starkly illustrated when we turn to the drivers of revenue and profit growth. More than three-quarters of the marketers say that improved customer experience and service are the most important factors in growth. Yet less than a third say they have a central role here, with a quarter saying they have no influence at all – just outsiders, looking in on the real action.

The big issue with customer experience, notes Prophet partner Ruth Saunders, is the ability of company employees to work well in multi-functional teams. By definition, improved customer experience means delivering value across many touchpoints – media communications, call centres, websites, retail sales channels and customer service operations. Perhaps more importantly, it also involves knowing which of these touchpoints to prioritise. “What are the issues to fix? Where are the opportunities to ‘wow’? Where can we bring the brand to life?” she asks.

But cross-functional team working – including agreeing on priorities – is difficult. While two-thirds of European marketers say they are very or moderately successful in their attempts to collaborate with other specialisms, a half still cite silos, cultural norms, a lack of both cross-functional understanding and shared objectives as barriers to co-operation. In addition, a quarter admit their attempts to collaborate have not been successful.

So, what conclusions can we draw?Well, functional factionalism is rarely helpful. Organisations need specialists, and specialists need to work together well to achieve objectives. The task of integration and leadership has very little to do with the obsessions of each specialism. The “bridge” from one to the other lies in knowing how to put your specialism to the service of others to improve the workings of the whole. As the Marketing Society’s research emphasised, marketers have a big opportunity here in areas such as customer insight, brand building and innovation.

Don’t promise the earth
But we also need to be realistic. A certain degree of optimism is always helpful, but can be dangerous. You won’t become a growth champion in a company that wants you to be a brochure producer. Meanwhile, over-promising and under-performing is an excellent way of destroying your reputation.

When Prophet asks marketers where their organisation’s growth came from over the previous 12 to 18 months, 61% say existing customers, compared to just 13 % who say new ones. However, 40% hope to get growth from both new and existing customers, with another quarter hoping that new customers would propel them forward. Just wishful thinking?There’s more. While 40% of Prophet’s survey sample claim their activities have a high or very high impact on their organisation’s growth, two-thirds admit they (still) have no formal mechanisms for measuring their contribution.

Marketers are also still measuring success in different ways from their own ceos. Bottom-line profits are the top priority for half the ceos in Prophet’s research. But “market share” overtakes the bottom line among marketers, who are also greatly exercised by top-line revenues and share of customer wallet – the focus for only one in ten ceos.

In the end, people get on if they make a contribution in a way that other people feel is relevant and helpful. Functional factionalism is great fun. But it doesn’t really tackle the hard questions.

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