Marketing in crisis?

Lucy Handley

This week’s cover feature looks at the often grim view board members have of marketing. But is marketing at a crisis point?

Over the last few weeks I have almost become convinced that it is.

It started when I began researching this week’s cover feature on what board members really think of marketers. I spoke to a commercial director, previously a marketing director, who is well-placed to comment on brand activity.

He was shocked by the number of brands which do not understand digital communication, rely too much on agencies to find the answers to bigger strategic problems and then approve and run poor creative work.

He said that marketers must use business creativity to get more for their money. “Marketing directors are not willing to take the risk in those areas. They would rather put a brief into an agency and have a whacky campaign.”

It was refreshing to speak to someone who spoke honestly and was prepared to give his real view of marketing, and didn’t use any management jargon. (And I came across a classic example of jargon recently, from a marketing director who said: “There will be some significant thought leadership in innovation next year.”)

Speaking anonymously clearly means he could be more open, but it also means there wasn’t any publicity in it for him.

Two managing directors I spoke to were a little less critical, but they still accused marketers of working separately to everyone else.

One was resentful of having to pay a substantial sum every year to a central marketing team in a previous job. This team did not communicate what it was spending the cash on, or present any of the work to him. And this was in a business that anyone who has ever walked down a British high street will have heard of.

This seems a shocking practise and not one that is going to reduce the resentment towards marketing departments that I came across.

The other MD said that marketers must work much better with data teams, which are increasingly important in providing information to customers.

But it wasn’t just during research for the piece that I came across negative views. I went to valuation agency Brand Finance’s annual conference this week when its chairman and marketing professor Malcolm McDonald berated marketing for being “a bit of a disaster”.

McDonald says the problem with brands that get it wrong is that they can become smug, economical with the truth and too focused on generating cash by cutting corners.

But he told me that marketers can raise their game. “Ninety per cent of what we do is hated. Most marketers can’t add up. The whole thing is quite remarkable. But we need to be public about what is good about what we do.”

He added that judging the IPA Effectiveness Awards, the results of which are announced on Monday (1 November), felt like “an oasis”. He said: “There is no question that marketers haven’t stormed the citadels. It has been a bit of a disaster.

“But I now ameliorate my view because the IPA entries demonstrated that they were fully accountable and most of them made a major contribution to corporate strategy.”

He adds that traditional above the line advertising was what made the winning campaigns work.

The anonymous commercial director also had praise for one brand: Aviva, because of its consistent message and clear link to its website.

So in spite of the criticisms, perhaps there is a chink of light in this dark silo of marketing.

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