Creativity is marketers’ last legal unfair advantage – and I don’t mean advertising

Our marketer on the inside argues that as people move up the career ladder what they gain is often not as precious as what they leave behind.

Secret MarketerAs the nights draw in and Christmas comes ever closer, I find myself walking across Hyde Park in the early evening, on my way home. I didn’t think I would be a daily commuter again, but here we are. As the stream of puffing cyclists race down past the Serpentine in the gloom of the day’s end, like a flock of luminous geese, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a marketing leader in today’s fast-moving, yet strangely unpredictable world.

At the heart of the marketing adventure, the romance and squash buckling, lies the saddest truth ever told: that as our careers progress and we grow into more commercial and business-focused roles, what we leave behind is often more precious than what we gain. Boxed in by clever accountants, Teflon-coated MDs, pugnacious product managers and savvy-suited sales people, it’s all too easy to lose one’s grip. To suffer from a failure of imagination.

Are you a marketer of conformity or of conviction? Do you seek to reach existing consensus or to build a new one? Do you refuse to be led by the group-think mob? Do you stand tall and challenge the received logic of slow growth and incremental improvement, settling down to slug it out with performance media alone?

The best in our industry don’t settle for the binary. They know the one great truth in marketing: when you get it right, everything’s a multiplier.

It is tiring, sure, but the best marketers – the ones we get to hear on podcasts and read about in online magazines – are in the business of nurturing the last legal unfair advantage: creativity. They live in the realm of the imagination. Using the language of emotion over logic, listening to intuition as much as relying on data, they believe in the spirit of bold moves over incremental gain, and building their brand for the long term, all the while smashing the short-term sales targets out of the park. You see, the best in our industry don’t settle for the binary. They know the one great truth in marketing: when you get it right, everything’s a multiplier.

Customer, creativity, cost management: What every marketer should refocus on in challenging times

2 + 2 = 5

Long and short. Mass marketing and key target segments. Brand and performance. This profusion of opposites. This chaos of contradictions. These are what lie at the heart of finding and unlocking growth. The art of the marketer is to weave these together in unforgettable ways, while telling a compelling story to sceptical stakeholders.

Creativity isn’t just about advertising, that’s probably the weakest creative lever. Creativity in marketing is about how we use our imagination to find the most powerful ways to engage customers and unlock their value. We do this by facilitating an exchange: we deliver unique value to them, and in exchange, they give value back to us; be that in sales (money), loyalty, repurchase, a bigger share of basket, advocacy. It always pays to ask if all those smart, digital-first, socially led, tactical marketing plans ever really facilitate this kind of valuable transaction.

Aligning strategy to the business plan

I’m not surprised anymore when I find out that someone’s marketing approach is untethered from value creation and value exchange. Too often today, marketers risk falling into being second-rate business spivs chasing the bottom of the funnel.

But this isn’t what the CEO, CFO or the board want. They want someone to pull open the festive cracker of extraordinary growth with a POP! They want their marketing leader to find a way for their business to blossom and grow, to explode in a storm of confetti and party streamers. They want their brand to be famous and deliver long-term growth.

This takes a very special kind of marketer, and it’s great to see these Olympians celebrated by the industry from time to time.

I’m not surprised anymore when I find out that someone’s marketing approach is untethered from value creation and value exchange.

I have had a few moments where all the stars have aligned, and fame has come to visit, all glamour and buzz. But for the rest of the time it’s been a desert. And like one of those cacti in the hot house at the botanical gardens; waiting, waiting, waiting for the blossom to burst forth yet again after dormant years, when the conditions are right.

So, how do we create the right conditions for a decent, ambitious and talented marketer to turn into a great one, albeit for a short turn?

  1. The business has to have ambition – the CEO, the commercial director, the chairman, people with real authority have to be committed to winning big. If that doesn’t exist and your ambition is unabashed, you will need to find a new role elsewhere.
  2. There has to be a vision, a North Star that is focussed on delivering unique value to customers, that everyone can rally behind. Everyone at work has to know it and buy into it. It sets the tone for the next business cycle. As a marketer, you should be at the heart of that.
  3. Commercial plans, targets, resources and investments all have to reflect the big progress that is required over the period – so everyone is incentivised and equipped to achieve it. This often means hard choices.
  4. There has to be an arc of transformation that shows broadly what needs to change across product development, distribution, pricing and brand building, over the medium and long term – so everyone knows what they need to achieve by years three and five, not just next year.
  5. Finally, there really does have to be cadence – there has to be a well thought through flight path so the right things happen in the right order, at the right time, and the right pace. Momentum and understanding interdependencies is critical.

With this mighty convergence of conditions, the scene is set. Lights dimmed. Silence reigns in the wings of marketing success. You can feel the anticipation from the quietly murmuring crowd, with tension growing the master marketing magician enters the stage to weave their creative magic, and use the full gambit of their imagination to find a way into the mind of their audience.

Becoming CEO shouldn’t be a marketer’s ultimate career goal

Some will never even try to get there. They have fashioned for themselves the most pernicious, inelegant object, that a free market and high employment can bestow – a quiet life of modest achievement. Well, each to their own, they keep the machine running. But modest achievements will never be enough for the changemakers, the heirs to the last generation of marketing greats.

Our marketing heroes, those valiant few, are who we look to for inspiration, the stars we see above us as we lie in the gutter eyes to the sky dreaming of future success. They are the ones who set the scene for the future. Putting complacency aside, rolling up their collective, and rather well-tailored sleeves, they do the hard work of building something new and great for their customers to enjoy, and peers to admire in wonder.

As we enter 2024 and a new year of opportunity, how will you use the power of your imagination to deliver commercial effectiveness and enable future growth in your business?