It was only when George Bull, chief executive of GrandMet, put down the man from Coopers & Lybrand that he really scored with his audience. What had this hapless individual done to deserve such summary reproof at the third Marketing Forum’s opening address? He, or rather his consultancy, had dared suggest the marketing department’s days may be numbered.
Of course, no one likes to be told the MBA crowd knows best – especially when it’s an MBA doing the telling. But if the suggestion was melodramatic, it was not wholly without merit. Change, like it or not, is on the way.
Much of the agenda aboard the Canberra echoed this theme. Marketing, it was suggested, is suffering a “mid-life crisis”. In a strange, rapidly transmuting world – where retailers are king, media fragments all around us and global competition is making its mark – marketing practitioners feel increasingly defensive and perplexed. Equally worrying to them, marketing may be yielding its status in the boardroom to the likes of benchmarking and econometric tools.
If marketing really is on the retreat, there will be some unpleasant consequences, and not simply for its practitioners. One of them, as Andrew Seth, ex-chief executive of Lever Bros UK, warned will be an inability to innovate. The UK business mentality has become a “basket case”. It’s too driven by immediate accountability and shareholder greed to take medium and long-term strategy seriously; the very timeframe in which marketing initiatives – and especially innovation – are likely to flourish.
And this at a time when other countries feel no such inhibitions about longer investment returns. Here, if anywhere, was the weak point in an otherwise well-rounded conference. It was strong on the need for changed attitudes and the exploration of fashionable marketing techniques. But the geographical dimension received almost no attention. True, Bull beat the drum for Britain in announcing the imminent launch of the Marketing Council. Its precise role, however, remains obscure. And how Britain is to deal with the likes of the Asian tigers a few years down the line was an untouched topic.
This is probably not the fault of the conference organisers, who meticulously research what their delegates want. More likely it is symptomatic of precisely that parochial mentality within the UK business community which the conference, in other areas, sought to address. And which itself needs to change so much.