Helen Edwards: It’s riskier to be too slow than too fast

CEOs might be making difficult demands of marketers to be more agile and entrepreneurial but they are right that marketing needs to move beyond its traditional plate-tectonic pace of progress.

What do chief executives increasingly require from marketers? The impossible. Sitting atop corporations crisscrossed with bureaucratic processes, checks and boundaries, they demand that marketing be more ‘agile’. Preaching from the pulpits of their cathedrals of caution they call on us to become ‘entrepreneurial’.

A recent McKinsey report on how marketing should move with more pace quotes the boss of an Asia-Pacific consumer goods company, who urges his marketers to make their launch programmes “bigger, better and faster”. There is no advice, or none that McKinsey relays, on how the tensions between these three mutually antagonistic objectives should be reconciled.

Of the three, the last is the trickiest. Scale and quality can be achieved with the right resources. You can throw money at those objectives and have a fighting chance of pulling off both. And that, in turn, lobs the problem back at the big chief: ‘Hey, how do you expect us to blow everyone away if you don’t release budget?’

But speed is another matter. You can’t buy ‘fast’. You have to be it. You have work hard to understand what to strip out, what to whittle down to its leanest functioning form and what it is that makes our discipline so slow in the first place.

And it is slow, isn’t it? Don’t we have to admit that? Nine months for a new global positioning. Upwards of a year for a new ad campaign. Two years and counting for a launch that everyone thought would take six months. And the hesitancy, in organisation after organisation, over when and how to implement digital business strategies.

We need to move more crisply in our considered marketing decisions, and take the flab out of our quotidian processes and systems.

‘Do you want it fast or do you want it great?’ We could try that old line on our CEOs – and they in turn could point to the new direct-to-consumer brands that are responding with nuanced love and care to real-time consumer needs.

Risk. That’s another reason not to go rushing around like an idiot. Who wants a launch recalled for some glitch that a bit more patience might have prevented? Who wants the corporate marque showing up on an inappropriate site for want of a little more deliberation in the planning?

Fair call – but when the CEO asks what proportion of our annualised 400,000 worldwide marketer hours is spent on risk management activity we go a bit quiet. Even in high-stakes industries – pharma, energy, airlines – ours is a relatively low-risk discipline.

We’re running out of excuses here. The game is up. We need to move more crisply in our considered marketing decisions, and take the flab out of our quotidian processes and systems. That means looking for leanness everywhere. It means implementing behaviours that are not only efficient in themselves but that send signals about the clock-aware culture of the unit.

Here are 10 temporal correctives that we could implement starting now.

  1. You are either attending a meeting or not. Anyone who clicks the ‘tentative’ option is a pompous time-waster. Ban it.
  2. On smaller initiatives, erase the middle hierarchical layers of marketing management. Let the junior member who has done the work present directly to the team leader without going one-by-one up the chain. They can be appraised later.
  3. Current norm: you talk through a considered, detailed brief with the agency and three to six weeks later they respond with…a brief. Future norm: one brief agreed on day one.
  4. Put a moratorium on new consumer research. Get the team to pin the copious findings you already hold on the walls of a single room and ask ‘What story is this telling us?’ Not only will the process be faster, the insights will be sharper.
  5. Make workshops just that: workshops – not talking shops.
  6. Reduce the number of agencies and consultancies you work with, and bring more of that thinking in-house. The time you save on managing and arbitrating between them is better spent creating your own solutions. And nothing energises a marketing department like the hands-on shaping of ideas.
  7. Do more face-to-face stuff and less video and audio conferencing, even if it means flying people in. Yes, it’s a counterintuitive way to save time, but it’s quality decisions you’re after and, believe me, you’ll get them way faster.
  8. Since we’re talking decisions, let’s address the tough point now: learn to make them with less information. You’ll never have enough to be 100% certain anyway.
  9. On any business list of any kind there is always at least one item you can safely delete.
  10. See 9.

CEOs are clever people. They know we are not suddenly going to behave like startup adventurers in a garage as we navigate our cubicle circuit inside the steel-and-glass skin of the 27th floor. They know that the entrepreneurial demands they make of us are, if not totally impossible, then certainly a tall order in the sticky matrix of corporate reason and responsibility.

But they frame those requests in language that is deliberately provocational to jolt us into moving beyond marketing’s traditional plate-tectonic pace of progress.

That is very annoying of them. What’s even more annoying is that they are right.

How do marketers divide their time?

What are marketers actually doing, thinking about and prioritising? Some clues come from the CMO Survey, a US-based study started in 2008. This non-commercial, bi-annual survey run out of Duke University aims to shed light on the issues that preoccupy marketers today and provide insight into what they expect to be doing more of in future. The August 2018 results report the views of 324 US marketers at vice-president level or above in businesses with revenues between $25m and $100bn. The results reveal some interesting trends:

  • Marketers spend over 50% of their time working on existing markets, focusing on product and service development. Less than 20% is spent addressing diversification or market development.
  • Forays into direct-to-consumer selling are reaping only modest results, with difficulties relating to business model development cited as hampering progress.
  • Digital advertising still preoccupies marketers, with spend expected to keep rising. Other areas where marketers are predicting more spend is on brand and CRM (both with a larger expected increase in focus than new product and service introductions).
  • Social media spending and activity increased more in the past year than in any other prior survey year, with marketers expecting to continue to devote both time and budget to it.
  • When asked which company activities marketing tends to lead, the answers are predictable: brand, digital marketing, advertising, social media. Surprisingly, less of a lead from our discipline is reported in market entry strategies, innovation and customer service.
  • Marketers expect to spend more time in future years on analytics, with spend on this activity estimated to rise some 200% by 2020. That said, right now they claim that analytics are used only about 35% of the time in marketing decision-making. If they are going to make the investment, they had better start using the information it provides.

The report contains a few verbatim quotes which, if anything, demonstrate that the marketing role is still pretty much what you make it. GE CMO Beth Comstock talks about “innovative ideas”; Philips CMO Geert van Kuyck prioritises “accountability and results”; Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard claims to focus on “building customer loyalty and strong brands”, while Ann Lewnes of Adobe emphasises the importance of “data and analytics” to “transform marketing and drive the business”. It’s a mixed bag.

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