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

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 to overcome some of the common pitfalls.

Secret MarketerThere’s a rustle in the office. It’s been growing for some time. A real hubbub brewing. The new Gail’s by the tube even had a queue outside. I think we’re back. Back to that buzzy world of work where grads, apprentices and juniors can learn their trade, as much by office osmosis and physical proximity to senior talent, as they can through hard work and getting to grips with how to get things done the right way.

It won’t suit everyone, of course. I’m certainly very wedded to my days working from home. But the energy, vitality, and bustle of being part of the world of work – at work – is coming back.

Sadly, despite all of this the bubble of advertising and marketing is more inward looking now than at any time. Still obsessed with the next shiny thing, in many ways modern marketing practice, when viewed in Darwinian terms, is clearly approaching a crisis.

Too often we disregard the first order principles of understanding our audience, developing a clear proposition and setting measurable objectives. Instead, allured by the new, we prioritise format and technique over proper strategic thinking, surprise and creativity.

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

I read recently something like 80% of marketers think AI is vitally important to their work. A new shiny thing to distract from the hard work of defining and executing a growth strategy in seriously tough headwinds.

“Why are we building our brand?” I was asked recently. When faced with annual planning and strategy development, I am a huge fan of questioning basic assumptions. Admittedly, when the boss levelled this one at me following a fairly titanic debate on where we should focus our efforts, I wasn’t that surprised, though a bit disappointed. It was a knee-jerk response to my resistance to refocusing our brand proposition by two degrees of separation to our core strengths and the category drivers. More on that later.

Questioning why we need to build a brand at all is as good a question as any, and perhaps one of the first ones we should answer. But only after we’re a lot clearer on where we want to win.

But, it was the kind of question I have been asked throughout my career. A question that belies a much greater dilemma: many senior execs really don’t understand the power of a strong brand. Additionally, many also undervalue the worth of having a comprehensive strategy, while being impatient for, and prioritising, execution. Ritson calls it “tacticification”. It’s the crack cocaine of my company, and the ones before that too.

The horror of marketers’ strategic bankruptcy is about to be laid bare

Trying to get very senior people (exco and exco plus one) to make a choice and face into alternatives is exceedingly challenging. Often with a world view reinforced by decades in a sector, combined with a huge bias towards action, they simply can’t resist acting like everyone else. The learnt behaviour in many a company is to reinforce the norm. This is not helpful to increasingly well trained and ambitious marketers. It’s where your Mini MBA in Marketing crashes headlong into reality.

There is no segmentation in place, and worse, no one wants to even consider partitioning the market. The thought of doubling down and looking to win in one or two audience cohorts is anathema to most MDs with huge product lines and stretching targets, or indeed sales directors.

Having the discipline and understanding, within the internal senior decision making unit, to move beyond a proposition that simply communicates who we are as a brand, our product or service features and attributes, into the benefits we bring, is also a rare challenge.

Rare but not impossible.

The path which I am walking at the moment to force the strategic debate in my company involves resilience, reflection to hone arguments, a willingness to have challenging conversations several times over, listening very carefully, and patience. Lots and lots of patience.

Strategy for me has always been about three things. Firstly, understanding the lie of the land and working out where to win. Secondly, calibrating the approach to ensure we have the resources and capabilities to execute the plan. You need the second to ensure you don’t have a plan that sits in the ‘wishful thinking’ camp. Of course the second massively informs the first. In my world we can’t target the whole category, much as we want to. Why? Like most companies, we simply don’t have the resources to make an impact.

This takes me to the third thing about strategy: the importance of making choices. Choices like which audiences should we double down on? Is our positioning right for them? What do we need to achieve by the end of next year? What can we afford? Is the business ready? Are we competitive? Where does our social purpose fit in to all this?

In this context, questioning why we need to build a brand at all is as good a question as any, and perhaps one of the first ones we should answer. But only after we’re a lot clearer on where we want to win.

I’ll let you know in a few weeks where we land, and the approaches and trade offs made to point the business in the best direction. In the meantime I’m popping out to that new Gail’s for a latte and to find a bit of space to think, while planning the next stage in our strategic journey.

Leading change is one of the key focuses at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing this year. Click here to find out more about the ‘Setting the Agenda’ stage and what else is happening at the event on 5 October.