A time for marketers to boldly go

The general feeling which emerged from last week’s Marketing Forum was that the industry is facing a ‘mid-life crisis’. Yet the present climate of change offers marketers prepared to take risks for the sake of innovation an unparalleled opport

In search of excellence? Pah! If your life is anything like mine, you never quite reach a position where you really get that search going. You’re always just on the point of getting on top of things when the dishwasher breaks down (that’s 40, for starters), the cat triumphantly does its business on Johnny’s pillow (for the 132nd time – we really must have it put down), and Auntie Meg falls ill and must be visited (there goes that time you had set aside to clear out the loft). And so forth.

As at home, so in work. People you’re relying on don’t deliver, important considerations get overlooked, competitors do something unexpected, decisions have to be revisited. There’s always too much to do in too little time: it’s all about firefighting, compromising, ducking, diving, making do. Surviving. Sod excellence, surviving is hard enough.

But is it enough? That was the question posed sharply at last week’s Marketing Forum. In his opening address, George Bull, chief executive of Grand Met, declared “the evidence of failure [to apply marketing skills] is all around us”. Former Lever Brothers chief Andrew Seth gave an impassioned call for better innovation warning, however, that to do so means going against the grain of our culture: “It’s not something that will respond to tinkering. It’s fundamental.”

Simon Broadbent of the Leo Burnett Brand Consultancy told delegates that unless marketers tackle the issue of measuring effectiveness and becoming more accountable “we’re dead”, while HHCL & Partners’ Adam Lury, declared that the traditional concept of the brand is now “pretty defunct”. One large consultancy admitted privately that many clients were sheepishly admitting they no longer know how their markets tick.

Then there was McKinsey strutting its stuff. It coined the term “Marketing’s Mid Life Crisis” and, returning to the theme, principal Anthony Freeling warned that “marketing’s role as a specific function is under threat… Everyone’s agreed it must change. But there’s no consensus as to how.” At which point, the Henley Centre’s Nigel Willmott chimed in: “The environment has changed, but the marketing model hasn’t.”

Indeed, a major thread running through the floating conference’s estimated 3,500 talks and seminars was the notion that nowadays marketing is in some sort of a struggle for survival. Once upon a time, every individual piece of the marketing jigsaw seemed to fit snugly, helping all the other bits to lock into a coherent whole like some Chinese puzzle. But now all these bits seem incongruent.

Just think of the business turmoil of the past ten years: the rise of retailer power and of global competition; a roller-coaster of boom and bust; the powerful impact of benchmarking and process re-engineering; computerisation and ever-accelerating technological change, including an ongoing media revolution (only 500 TV channels in the UK by the year 2005?). Markets and firms are being transformed and, like that Chinese puzzle, none of the pieces seem to fit snugly any more.

In such a context it’s perfectly understandable that marketers should feel that things are getting out of control. If all the pieces have been tossed into the air, no one is quite sure what pattern they’ll make when they come down – indeed, if they make a pattern at all. Yet the role of marketing’s various sub-disciplines and the people who have invested their professional lives in them depend on the outcome. Hence all that survival talk and, perhaps, Forum speakers’ ever-recurring plea that short-term tactical considerations should not be allowed to crowd out longer-term strategic thinking.

But how many of us will ever get to the happy state when everything is under control and can we really concentrate on strategy, on “excellence”? Running to a standstill seems to be more the nature of things. Even the mighty lion – king of the jungle – has to sleep 20 hours a day to conserve energy. And if for some reason it doesn’t make a kill, within a day or two it’s getting too weak to hunt.

One of the feelings left by the Forum is that marketing is in danger of falling into that trap. It is debilitated by a lack of recent triumphs. However, if the world is changing so fast – and what was fixed is becoming fluid – then now, as never before, marketers have the opportunity to make their mark. Unlike those who went before them, this generation of marketers has room to be more than mere practitioners. Instead of applying rules that are so well known they’re encapsulated in text books, their chance is to create the new models: to be the raw material for the next generation of text-book authors.

Can they, for instance, create a new view of branding that moves marketing on from the classic fmcg model of standalone product to the umbrella and corporate brand. Can ideas such as staff as a key communication channel, the creation of a “total brand experience” and the brand as a “unique organising proposition” really work?

It’s the need for bold moves such as this that prompted exhortations from Forum speakers like Seth and Freeling. When it comes to innovation, “you can do it!” cried Seth. “Break out of the doldrums. Dare to be great!” declared Freeling.

Just one caveat. In the search for the big new ideas of marketing, don’t forget the day job. For, as often as not, it’s the little, apparently insignificant, initiatives that are made in the day-to-day struggle for survival that grow up to be big ideas, and not the other way around.

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