Strategy development is the most important skill for marketers

As part of a new mini-series looking at the different stages of planning, from strategy setting and targets to budget and ambition, our marketer on the inside shares how they are overcoming some of the common pitfalls.

Secret MarketerIf our job teaches us anything it’s that as marketers we don’t know what we are going to face next.

But, if we commit to have a long-term vision, act with guts, when all around us retreat to the short term. If we lead with gravitas, connect with our customers’ lives and care about making them better. If we choose to inspire all around us, then we will be able to face what comes our way, and achieve things with our teams that we can’t imagine yet.

So, instead of telling people we are the expert, the most qualified with our mini MBAs; instead of telling our peers that we have got better and more creative ideas, let’s make it obvious through our actions. Being a marketing director in today’s world is about running a marathon. So, let’s stop running in sprints, and do what is hard.

Since my last column on the trials and tribulations we are having on annual planning and our marketing strategy development, we have bumped into the mid-year review period. It’s a super time to look back over the last six months, revel in our successes as a team, learn from any mistakes and focus on the year ahead, as well as the plans for next year.

One of my team has really struggled in the first six months of the year. He has jumped wholeheartedly into that hole in the road and got stuck down there. It’s a miserable review meeting. He’s missed the point entirely. Instead of focusing on outcomes – real achievements, he has focused entirely on outputs – lots and lots of stuff, which unfortunately, does not bridge to results. It’s a common mistake to make. He isn’t without talent or commitment. But, he lacks the acumen and clarity of vision to use his craft skills to deliver results, rather than a rag tag bag of tactical responses.

If your marketing strategy sucks, there is a high probability that no matter how excellent your tactical execution, your commercial performance will be underwhelming.

I have always found craft is really important, but increasingly underrated. Not spacecraft or one-off regional beer varieties – both very important in their own ways, I am sure. But I mean marketing craft. And more importantly being a craftsman… woman… person, oh let’s say ‘crafty’ for ease, and to avoid unintended misgendering.

Today there isn’t enough appreciation of good craft. It’s just ‘wham bam thank you mam’, here’s your ad, new logo, digital strategy (whatever that is).

Too often in the melee of the day to day we accept any old mediocre shit. I remain unconvinced that putting something half cooked into market and testing it is the best way to persuade people and build brands. The craft skill I am practicing at the moment, and I would argue perhaps the most important for a marketer, is strategy development. If your marketing strategy sucks, there is a high probability that no matter how excellent your tactical execution, your commercial performance will be underwhelming.

So, after the car crash of the initial planning meeting last month, and the lack of alignment on some key tenets, we have had another run at it, using some proper structure, materials to stimulate debate, and a lot of upstream thinking on my part.

Marketing strategy is the most undervalued skill by businesses, marketers say

Starting at the beginning

While fairly rudimentary and a bit incomplete in places, our new market segmentation has been a super tool to focus debate and make choices. No more floundering around talking at cross purposes. Here we have a view of the market and a common language to use, to aid thinking and discussion. This has made making choices over targeting much, much easier.

We also recognised early on that we will need to take a two speed approach. There are activities that will be at a broad market level, as well as ones that will need to be pointed at very specific segments. While this adds complexity, it is really helpful to gain that shared understanding at a strategic level, before we move further forward.

Being true to our positioning

It’s critical for us that we operate across the whole market. In fact, a key differentiator for our brand is that we intend to make market wide impact. That ambition and sense of scale is core to our competitive positioning. So, to be true to this we recognised that while being super focused on a few segments where we can see instant measurable results, this will constrain the brand in the long run. Key to our success will be pulling as many levers as we can over the long term to create a rising tide across the whole category. In turn this provides a platform to inspire and motivate that will be much more compelling than just focusing on short-term results. We need to do both.

Pleasingly, through hours of intense discussion outside of the meeting – running through the segmentation, talking about where to focus, replaying key audience insights etc, has got everyone in the same territory. So, we are in fact tantalisingly close to getting our strategy development complete. The final step is setting objectives. That will be a wicked little problem to solve.

Where ambition meets reality

Why wicked? Well, like most businesses we have significant cost constraints, stretching targets and very high expectations. Dividing our budget between long- and short-term activity will be tough. Both require different methods and skills. In this next phase I suspect we will do a few laps around the circuit of audience size, impact required and budget, until we get to the right solution. But, critically, the stage is now set for this debate. We are no longer discussing principles, but what objectives we need to set to achieve the strategy.

It is incumbent on marketers to force the strategic debate: Here’s how

Craft skills we all need to hone

All of this has demanded using very specific applied craft skills that you might not learn on an academic course. Three stand out in particular:

1. Lead with vision and intent

This is about shaping a vision in your own mind, sharing it informally and beginning the planning process with this end-state in mind. It’s about exercising the discipline to plan ahead, look at the whole field of play, and figuring out at high level what planning outputs are required to get to the desired strategic outcomes. It’s about making sure the holy trinity of segmentation, targeting and positioning, are covered off. These three marketing axioms provide strategic certainty that enable tactical agility in execution.

2. Be confident and agile

Real experts, masters of their craft, are able to glide between things. Juggle different aspects of the strategy simultaneously. Practise this. Strategic planning in a linear fashion is actually really hard. Learning how to skip between things to maintain momentum and overcome challenges while always edging towards the end goal, is a rare skill. The best are able to navigate past roadblocks with stakeholders, and get the cadence of decision making right for their specific organisation. Don’t be afraid to let things get a bit messy, or leave spaces for innovative and creative thinking. There is real strength in, and opportunity to be unlocked, through being confidently flexible on your approach, just remember to keep a hand on the tiller and guide the team towards the final destination.

3. Managing your stakeholders

Often the difference between carrying the room, or not, are the conversations held outside it before the meeting. It requires real skill to work with stakeholders, understand who has power, and then gently, but firmly exert influence. It takes courage to debate differences and test positions. Patience and empathy to listen and really understand stakeholder concerns and motivations. This is a skill that can and should be practiced all the time. It isn’t just about strategy development. It is as important in discussions on budgets, performance and indeed any aspect of being in business.

So, in my world, the stage is set for the final piece of our strategic marketing jigsaw – setting objectives. It will be easier said than done I am sure, but with vision, empathy, tenacity and discipline, I have confidence we will get there. After all, we have come a long way already. And, over recent times, like many others, we have had to contend with significant headwinds. We did not expect or ask for difficult trading conditions. We did not seek or provoke a drop in consumer confidence or increased regulatory interference. The true measure of our strength and maturity as a leadership team is how we rise to master this moment, and respond with a well thought through and focused approach for next year.

I have found that with the best marketers, every time they think they have reached their capacity to meet a challenge, they look up. They are reminded, when they survey the marketing industry in all its glory, that that capacity may well be limitless.

As we all think about 2024 and work through our strategic planning, this may well be a time for new marketing heroes to step forward. Professionals who will create a vision. Professionals who will do what is hard. Who will achieve what is great.

This may well be the time for new marketing heroes, we should all look up, and reach for the stars.