Learning curve

How do you teach sales promotion to someone just out of college? No one seems to know, since those in the industry are not at all sure what should be taught.

Some have a low view of the state of training in sales promotion. “It seems that most courses are designed and run by industry has-beens whose take on the industry is by definition out of date, not relevant and therefore of only limited value,” says Ian Millner, managing partner of newly launched youth marketing agency Iris.

This is an unusually controversial take on the state of training in the sales promotion – but unusual mainly because many others probably agree with it but decline to go on record.

Compared with the direct marketing industry, which is very well served by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM), promotional marketing – as it is increasingly becoming known – does not fare nearly as well on the training front.

There are many reasons for this, some more salient than others. In an industry that can’t even agree on how it should describe itself (sales promotion is making way for promotional marketing – but there is a feeling that this may change again), it is not surprising that agreeing how its workers should be trained will be difficult.

To be fair, the ISP Diploma is generally well received (except by Millner, who says it makes no difference to him whether his staff have it or not) and is viewed as providing a good technical grounding for junior staff.

But the teaching of techniques is part of the problem. Michael Beattie, planning director at Team LGM, says: “There is a certain amount you can teach people about techniques. But techniques are just that – techniques. Training needs to go much further.”

But how do you devise a curriculum that is both rigorous, challenging and – most importantly – covers the broad spectrum that is promotional marketing.

Peter de Wesselow, director at agency Dynamo, points out that the type of work provided for the range of clients is so broad, compared with ten years ago, it is difficult to know how to become experts.

Most people believe the direct marketing industry does not face this issue. It would seem there is a finite set of processes and techniques that need to be learned in order to get to base one in direct marketing. Pinning down those processes in promotional marketing is much more difficult.

Says Millner: “Promotional marketing is essentially an emotional thing. The skill is in brain storming and being creative. Direct marketing, on the other hand, is an extremely process-oriented discipline.”

Millner does have a point. Apart from the creative aspect, promotions involve many layers – particularly on the client side. Mike Bowen, managing director of Eleven, part of the Carlson Marketing Group, says that in addition to understanding customers and brands, sales promotion requires insight and understanding into the trade/distri bution/sales structure and production capabilities of a client’s business. He says: “When putting John Smith point-of-sale material into a regional pub, it is essential for the sales promotion team to have a relationship with both the regional sales manager and the landlord, on whose bar the material will be displayed.

“Because this business is often driven by achieving tough, short-term goals, the industry is guilty of breaking in new people too quickly, which is good, but then the training stops. We need to give people increased learning, not just skills for the job.”


Although most people are positive about the ISP Diploma, it is perceived as having some shortcomings. Dynamo’s de Wesselow believes one is preparing people for strategic problem solving. “I know this is very difficult to teach. We sent someone at vast expense on a two-day course at the Chartered Institute of Marketing – but it was only useful up to a point. We do need something that addresses the whole area of strategic brand and problem solving,” he says.

De Wesselow says it is often easy to distinguish those people who have come from the client side, and therefore have a stronger marketing background. “They have more flexibility of mind and are better at understanding the details behind a brand compared with an agency person,” he says.

Man management skills are another area that Bowen believes is ignored in training. “In this business, you have to be part sales person, part psychologist, part process administrator,” he says. “The industry needs to up the intellectual quality of its training. Existing training is very much nuts and bolts. I don’t think there are any training courses for newly appointed managers, people skills, running a team, understanding financial budgeting. One of the worst problems for any agency is the erosion of team morale, and it takes only one poor people manager to disrupt a cohesive and productive team. People managing skills are essential learning.”

What is needed, says Beattie, is a training programme that covers marketing as a whole. “I want people who are generalists in marketing, not people who are specialists in either direct marketing or sales promotion. It is what clients are demanding. We get communication briefs, not DM or SP briefs,” he stresses.

It is also what Millner complains of. He says that although formalised training can teach technical tricks, it can’t really help with managing teams, or negotiating with clients and suppliers. This, he says, can only be learned on the job.

Another issue facing the industry is the distinct lack of anything aimed at middle or senior management. Whereas the ISP Diploma is accepted as good grounding for junior staff, that’s where it ends. As a result, different agencies fall back on their own strategies.

In the face of all this, ISP chairman and chief executive of Skybridge, Randle Stonier, now has just under two years to rejuvenate the training provided by the ISP.

Stonier is known within the industry for his enthusiasm in the training and development of staff – but even he knows that something needs to be done.

“The ISP is cognisant of the fact that it does not cater for senior staff. We are working on how to evolve middle and senior management,” he says.

But Stonier is also quick to point out that the ISP does not have a bottomless pit of cash, and that it is sometimes difficult to know how to spread the limited resources around.

“Any trade association faces the challenge of lack of resources and infrastructure. We can’t respond to industry trends, especially in this sector, as quickly as we would like to. We are always playing catch up a little,” he says.

Responding to Millner’s accusation that training is conducted by industry has-beens, Stonier curtly dismisses it. “There must be occasions when that exists. But just because someone has retired from business, it doesn’t mean that 25 to 30 years of experience becomes redundant. Anyway, all the people lecturing on the ISP Diploma are senior practitioners.”

The target

He is right but industry practitioners can sometimes get it wrong too. As Beattie says: “You go to conferences where you are supposed to get some training, and all you hear is someone’s case study of what they did on last year’s brand.”

Nevertheless, Stonier believes that changes can and will be made. The target he wants to achieve by the time he passes the ISP chairman’s baton on is clear. “I want to have ensured a contemporary foundation course for the industry – which is the ISP Diploma. I want to have forged appropriate links between the ISP and tertiary education bodies to help get promotional marketing on the education agendas. And I’d liked to have developed a diploma for the service sector to provide them with a better understanding or promotional marketing so they can provide a more sympathetic response to our needs.”

On top of this, Stonier says he would also like to have developed “a framework for meaningful training in hard and soft skills for people beyond the diploma course”.

The ISP has the right person at the helm if it is serious about shifting the training and development of its sector up a gear. However, Stonier is also clear about where the real responsibilities for training lie. “Further education is up to the individual specifically. You are your own brand and so you must look to your own development. Second, the responsibility lies with your employer. They must make sure they are developing individuals properly rather than paying them a good salary, working them to the bone and then watch them leave.”


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