Are marketers facing a clarity crisis?

From misaligned activation and wasted resources, to demotivated teams, operating with a lack of clarity has major ramifications for marketers.

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It’s a familiar problem. Too many marketers lack clarity on what they need to deliver and the definition of success, as well as the all-important ‘why?’

It’s becoming a problem at all levels. Execs and mid-level marketers are being asked to brief without the context of what they need to deliver. Senior marketers are being tasked with last-minute comms requests that just need to ‘get out’ by end of play.

Yes, we need to pivot and be responsive to trends, the cultural dialogue and competitive landscape. Sometimes we will need to action at pace and not always with the full context, but clarity is ensuring individuals at all levels of the organisation are aligned to the vision, goals and strategic direction.

This means also having clarity over the context of their role and the initiatives they lead. Furthermore, clarity is needed on what success looks like, so everyone knows when they have delivered.

Whether clarity on the direction of travel comes from the top, from senior marketers leading cross-functional teams, or marketers presenting bottom-up growth potential, the key is we all fully understand our roles in delivering the vision – and are motivated to do so.

Common clarity gaps

There are clarity gaps I frequently see at all levels when training and consulting:

1. Work being briefed without SMART objectives or clear KPIs that doesn’t ladder up to deliver strategic, brand or commercial goals. This results in investment that doesn’t help reach long or short-term goals. There are knock-on implications for the performance and perceptions of marketing.

2. Leading strategic brand planning without clarity on the desired commercial movement or growth expected at a corporate level. As a result plans have to be reworked later, causing additional workload and demotivation for all involved.

3. Innovation pipelines being built when the business doesn’t have the investment needed, meaning launch dates are pushed back to the point the work is no longer competitive or relevant.

4. Tasks being allocated with a quick turnaround requested, often with the person setting the tasks doing so to appease someone and remaining unclear as to why the work needs to deliver in that timeframe. Resources are stretched and allocated away from tasks that deliver growth.

5. All of the above are demotivating and result in wasted time, taking energy and resource away from initiatives that are delivering growth, as well as personal and professional fulfilment.

The capability gap

There are many reasons why clarity is becoming such an issue.

Setting a clear vision takes time and often those who need to do so are stretched too thin. They don’t have the headspace to develop the vision. This lack of clarity makes pushing back on requests from other teams more difficult.

I am also seeing a capability gap in making strategic choices and then being able to make these objectives SMART. There is also the issue of psychological safety and being able to ask ‘why?’ or to say: ‘No or that’s not a priority for us and here’s what is.’

Even when clarity is defined, many leaders assume communicating once means job done and fail to ensure alignment is truly embedded. Indeed, a lack of understanding of the role of marketing often means senior stakeholders set tasks that could sit elsewhere.

[Success] may mean slowing down to speed up, to give yourself the time to define context and clarity before you share it in a way that motivates and inspires.

I get it, particularly in our fast-paced marketing profession. As marketing leaders we may assume understanding, rushing to meet deadlines or the next meeting without stopping to check. In many cases we have not been adequately briefed ourselves.

This means we are not able to provide the much needed context for a project, campaign, or initiative, and how it will ladder up to the bigger picture. We may also presume the work we are allocating doesn’t need this colour and a certain job title reflects a competency level, forgetting the motivations that come with context.

But is this need for clarity the responsibility of the marketing leader alone? Or does it sit with the person receiving inadequate information having the confidence to ask for more clarity? Or even having the knowledge to know to ask?

The main reason for not asking for clarity is due to a lack of understanding of the importance of the ‘why’ and ‘what’ marketers are being tasked to deliver. In essence, how their output will deliver in-year goals and strategic objectives, as well ladder up to the long-term vision for the wider organisation.

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In a recent agency briefing training session a client told me they weren’t allowed access to the commercial goals or targets for the wider business. Not only is this disappointing for the marketing profession that we are not trusted to lead the long-term commercial agenda, but it is also a massive missed opportunity for the marketers to show how their work drives sustainable growth.

It feels like this capability gap is a result of a historic period of industry shortage, of marketers not entering the profession, meaning many executives and mid-level marketers being overpromoted and not possessing the necessary strategic understanding. 

A lack of clarity can lead to poor output, poor results and investment being incorrectly allocated, causing frustration and conflict. Work has to be re-done, budgets are wasted and the workforce loses motivation.

An analogy if I may. Imagine asking your team to run a race, but you haven’t told them why they are running. Who will benefit? How long is the race? What would a successful race time be? Who will support them on this journey?

Would you run a race without knowing where you are running to, for how long and why? Stop asking them to run without this clarity. Give them the motivation by telling them why they are being asked to run and what the journey may look like. Scope out the key milestones along the way and how they will know when they’ve crossed the line.

Don’t forget to celebrate when they arrive and reflect on success and learnings, before regrouping and getting ready for the next race.

Role of leadership

Like all other great leadership qualities, providing clarity is a key responsibility. You need to carve out time to ensure you are clear. Clear on the bigger picture, the company’s wider agenda for growth, the desired vision and what success looks like.

This may mean slowing down to speed up, to give yourself the time to define context and clarity before you share it in a way that motivates and inspires. I cannot stress enough the importance of providing clarity to your stakeholders and the marketers in your care. Clarity should be given around:

1. The overall vision, direction and commercial goals of the wider business and/or for your brand, as well as the timeframe in which these are to be delivered.

2. Strategic objectives for your brand that outline your choices around how you will grow, in which markets, who you are targeting and what you are expecting to shift.

3. The key tasks or initiatives that will allow these strategic objectives to be achieved.

4. Provide the desired outcomes for each initiative with KPIs.

5. Clarity for individuals on their role, as well as the skills and behaviours they need to get there. Ensure they have the support to achieve it.

Many of you may be reading this thinking: ‘Yep, have all that’. But how clearly has this been communicated? Is the context understood? I encourage you to check with your team.

What works

1. Involving all marketers in the strategic planning process provides them with an understanding of the ‘why’ behind the market and consumer challenges, as well as an appreciation of the strategic objectives.

2. Regular cascades of any corporate goals and/or performance results with awareness of what may be coming up and why.

3. Check understanding when allocating tasks, either verbally or via reviewing briefs.

4. Review capability gaps through outputs. Reviewing the long-term strategy, annual brand plan or brief is a great way to assess this understanding and define capability gaps.

5. Provide the why. Ensure when allocating work the purpose, desired intent and clarity around success is provided. Explain the problem and not just the need. Why is this necessary and what will it allow us to achieve? If you aren’t given the ‘why’ push back.

6. If you don’t have the clarity yourself find the time to attain it. Without this clarity, we will be investing time and energy into work that isn’t as effective as it could be. We will also have a team who are not only demotivated, but also not fulfilling their potential.

As business consultant Marcus Buckingham says: “Clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.”