Thomas Barta: Being late makes marketers look like overwhelmed leaders

Marketers have a reputation for being overwhelmed and always late, but it does not have to be that way, says Thomas Barta, marketing leadership expert, speaker and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’.

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It was one of those baffling days. I was giving a closing keynote speech at a conference, but the event ran late and my slot was pushed back by an hour. The following leadership dinner talk started late too, because the marketing team hadn’t left the office on time.

There is probably a reason why no language knows the term ‘punctual like a marketer’. But why are marketers always late? Is it the system? The people? And, for marketers, does being late actually matter? Let’s start by exploring the last question.

The overwhelmed leader

Being constantly late creates a huge reputational challenge. When Patrick Barwise (co-author of The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader) and I recently compared how more than 14,000 superiors rate their people, we made a stunning discovery. Marketers are seen as the most stressed out staff: 20% of all bosses believe marketers never seem to be able to complete all their work.

Meanwhile, 39% say marketers’ workload is too heavy, though only 12% believe CMOs have too many responsibilities. Perhaps it is no coincidence that bosses give marketers strikingly low reliability scores: just 49% believe marketers uphold high performance standards.

As a marketer, each time you run late, let people wait, and then rush in to say you had something really urgent crop up, you’re simply building your brand as an overwhelmed leader. And if you believe looking super busy makes you cool, trust me, it doesn’t. I know first-hand of CEOs who have given important projects to non-marketing leaders because they were seen as more reliable. And I have worked with too many marketing teams whose unreliable bosses made the work environment toxic.

If you believe looking super busy makes you cool, trust me, it doesn’t.

So, yes, being late does matter, even for marketers. But are there good reasons for the inherent lateness in marketing? Or is it all just bad behaviour?

Good causes of lateness

Marketers are among the most open, creative, and curious leaders. When we asked over 1,200 CMOs to rate themselves, 90% strongly agreed that they are open and creative. Marketers’ curious personality allows them to figure out what customers want, ‘feel’ what’s right for the brand, and create brilliant promotions customers love.

But here’s the flipside: as a marketer, your openness means you are more easily distracted. When something interesting happens, you may simply forget time and space.

Let’s be honest, the inner clocks of marketers and, say, finance leaders tick differently. When the accounting department takes its first coffee break, the lights in the marketing suite may still be out. And because marketers start later than their peers, many have a constant feeling of having to catch up (which they won’t, so they run late). Yet changing your inner clock is difficult.

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – Marketing jargon is a major career killer

Another reality is that the marketing day job can be unpredictable. At a recent conference, the moderating CMO had to leave abruptly to initiate an urgent product recall. When CMOs meet with customers, happy or angry, it’s sometimes difficult to log out. I’m certain Budweiser’s vice-president of marketing Ricardo Marques had emergency meetings after its recent Super Bowl ad, ‘Born the Hard Way’, created an uproar among Trump supporters.

Internally things can be difficult too. Most people who create the actual customer experience do not report to marketing. And when a new product or campaign gets unforeseen push-back from other departments, emergency meetings are often needed. It’s hard to plan for these things.

Yes, marketers have many important reasons to change plans. Just ensure you handle these well, build in buffers, inform people ASAP, and reschedule instead of turning up late.

But there are less good reasons for lateness, too.

Bad reasons for being late

First, bad planning and fuzzy priorities. When we asked the CMOs about their focus level, only a sobering 60% said they were very focused. It’s true marketing is very dynamic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have goals, plans, and daily priorities.

Sticking to priorities is more difficult for open and creative people (I know all about it). But it’s totally doable – and if you lead a team, it is absolutely necessary. If you struggle, get any (I literally mean any) time management book. This stuff is easy.

Second, doing it yourself instead of delegating. Marketers are born experts. And great experts are supposed to know all the answers. That’s why, even when leading teams, many marketers still want to be the expert.

Ask each of your team members to write on a blank sheet of paper the team’s top three priorities. Compare. If everyone is aligned, great job! If not, it’s entirely your fault.

Instead of ensuring people understand the big goal, these leaders try to control every answer, look at every execution, and approve all the work. The result is last minute changes, stress and constant delays.

Try this: ask each of your team members to write on a blank sheet of paper the team’s top three priorities. Compare. If everyone is aligned, great job! If not, it’s entirely your fault. Instead of spending 90% of your time controlling and doing, spend 90% explaining. Or as Aviva’s brand communications and marketing director Pete Markey says: “Let your team loose to be brilliant.” Your capacity will expand exponentially.

Third, believing your role modelling doesn’t matter. When you let people wait, it means you have not prioritised them. You had more important stuff to do. That’s just bad behaviour. Yes, you are very important, but in another way: you are a role model and a force multiplier. If you are late, your team will also be late.

Even worse, there’s a knock-on effect. If you meet 10 people and arrive 15 minutes late, you have just created a delay of 10×15 minutes plus your own. That’s 165 wasted minutes.

In my CMO study, only 52% of CMOs saw themselves as role models. That’s a chilling finding, and you can change that. Starting today, multiply any delay you cause by the number of people you meet. This week’s goal: come in under 15 minutes each day. Next week’s goal: zero.

Marketing is a crucial business function with an often unpredictable schedule. However, there are good and less good reasons for being late. Evidence shows marketers can be reliable and on-time.

Let’s get rid of that sticky ‘overwhelmed’ brand image. It matters.

Oh, gotta go to be on time for my 3pm!

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