From the uncertainty of Brexit to the unpredictability of a Trump-led America, from the widening chasms in society to the looming consequences of climate change, the world is increasingly fragmented and disjointed. We are now living in a reality that many of us never thought possible.
For marketers, there’s the digitally driven disruption of just about everything. The proliferation of data and the rapidly changing expectations of customers have brought both opportunities and challenges.
It is not easy being a marketer today. But then perhaps it has never been easy. Against this context of change and uncertainty, there is one thing that all CMOs can do to succeed.
Be brave. Bravery is the one thing our most successful marketing leaders have in common.
They are the CMOs who are leading the rallying cry for our industry, the people who are driving growth in their businesses by being innovative and creative. They are the marketers who stand taller than their peers, consistently and tirelessly representing the customer within their organisations.
So what does brave mean? It is not simply about holding your nerve when political events send shareholder confidence spiraling downwards and put a squeeze on customer spending.
Being brave is also about admitting vulnerability. It is about being human.
It means being brave with career decisions. It means being prepared to get to know the other areas of the business as well as your own. It means getting to know your chief financial officer or finance director. It means understanding what makes your CEO excited. It means accepting opportunities within the business that scare you. It means being strong enough to hire somebody better than you.
It means being brave about brand decisions – knowing when to return to your roots, and understanding how to flex and stretch your brand without it snapping. It means trusting your agency to be your partner.
It means being brave enough to stand up in the boardroom and speak on behalf of your customers, so their voice can be heard even when other stakeholders are shouting louder. It’s about always putting the customer at the centre of everything, even when outside forces suggest other parts of the business are more important. Because we all know this is how we create long-term value.
It also means doing lots of little things; listening to your critics inside and outside the business and trying to understand their point of view, for example.
Being brave is also about admitting vulnerability. It is about being human. Bravery requires you to be prepared to ask the questions that no one else is prepared to ask. Only then can you start a more meaningful conversation.
I talked about how people are unwilling to ask questions even if they don’t understand something with creative director and advertising author Dave Trott when we last met. He says people would rather sit there in ignorance rather than risk looking stupid. I would rather raise my hand and take that chance, because as he said, “if we don’t ask questions, we can’t change anything”.
Being brave starts with telling the truth. The best CMOs are those that speak honestly about challenges and are prepared to address the elephant in the room, the uncomfortable truths.
This might be about making the most of data, or grappling with digital transformation or simply the challenge of keeping up with the pace of change. The brave marketers are those who have the courage to put their hand up and admit that some of this stuff we do is really difficult. They are the marketers who are prepared to talk candidly about what doesn’t work: sharing these ideas and challenges are how we get better as an industry.
This is why I’m making this year’s agenda for The Marketing Society all about being brave. Bravery gives you permission, it allows you to be vulnerable, and it allows you to be revolutionary. It gives you courage.
What stuff don’t we talk about as marketers that would make us better at what we do? What would improve the reputation of our industry? What might make the world a better place? Let’s start an uncomfortable conversation.