We’re being seduced by engaging platforms, but it’s a complete non-starter as a strategy

The difference between good strategy and poor strategy is immense. As part of a new series, our undercover marketer explains why it’s better to take longer, shoot for the stars and slip a bit than to aim for mediocracy and achieve it.

Secret Marketer
There is little more frustrating to a marketer than failure of execution. Many in our profession grew up learning the craft of our trade in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, in the decades before digital really existed, and Macs were the preserve of the studio and some, progressive, art directors.

Creating campaigns was a painstakingly manual process. What’s more, years were spent learning from others on pricing dynamics, channel strategies, competitive positioning, proposition development, research, writing and interpreting briefs, working with writers and art directors, learning how to give feedback on creative work and media plans, and then optimising and reviewing performance of our campaigns to build brands and drive growth.

Wisdom, craft and short cuts were passed from senior to junior, experienced to naïve. Generations of marketers started their careers as operators. Specialists in the arts of communication, brand building, selling and driving businesses forward profitably. Execution was everything. Always.

Yet more frequently than not, in our digital age, where failing fast is often applauded as the goal, execution is seen as something to be improved iteratively. Focus has shifted to pace and ‘agility’. Excellence in execution is rarely spoken about.

This nee orthodoxy is anathema to me. As a start point it always seems ludicrously low. I can’t get excited or inspired by believing from the outset that we should start off a campaign aiming for good enough. I’d rather wait a tad longer, apply real craft and shoot for the stars. If we fall short, so be it. Better to aim high and slip a bit, than aim for mediocrity and achieve it.

I’d rather wait a tad longer, apply real craft and shoot for the stars. If we fall short, so be it. Better to aim high and slip a bit, than aim for mediocrity and achieve it.

Old codgers might lay the blame on ‘digital’. But that’s like blaming the hammer for bending the nail. My hypothesis is that at the root of acceptance of mediocre execution, and modest ambition, is a more systemic malaise in high quality commercial thinking, or what Richard Rumelt calls ‘good strategy’.

Strategy that is not only ambitious and smart, but also practical and achievable. What poor strategy achieves, apart from precipitous falls in share price, profitability and talent retention, is lousy marketing.

Three axioms and three questions that summarise all of brand strategy

Lazy thinking

As a marketing director I know I’ve let myself slip into lazy thinking from time to time. Prioritising what I want to do, over what we need to do. The two tactical siren calls of new adtech and engaging formats is powerful and seductive. Playing in this space can also help position the function as ‘cutting edge’ in the organisation. But it’s a complete non-starter as a strategy.

Early in my career I worked in a company where the corporate strategy completely ignored the most obvious and close to insurmountable issue. Our customers didn’t like our product, our competitors had a better and cheaper alternative and were prepared to pay to migrate customers over to it. Deploying a set of digital tactics, no matter how shiny, was never going to impact the fundamentals.

Within two years we had lost all our major customers in that part of the business. This put a huge amount of pressure on marketing to grow other divisions and increase customer value overall.

Over a number of years several things happened as that pressure grew and grew. First, all brand investment stopped. Second, all sponsorship activities were converted to sales promotion vehicles. And third, the business moved wholesale into personalised, direct digital communications to build engagement and loyalty with the end customer.

Sadly, the global brand platform we had built over a decade withered on the vine and joined the pantheon of mythical ad campaigns from yesteryear.

Today the brand is just a name, with very little equity and certainly no salience. Such a shame – and the product of poor strategy.

Be courageous

In a letter to his daughter in 1933, F. Scott Fitzgerald urged her to “look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”. I wonder if, before this pandemic, we have been guilty of planting far too many lilies in our corporate strategy and marketing gardens. I wonder, do we now have a once-in-a-career opportunity to move forward with far greater strategic courage, leveraging our newfound corporate solidarity and agility, forged in the crucible of this dreadful crisis, to develop and execute much better strategy and marketing programmes?

Fitzgerald continued in his letter to detail the things his daughter should reflect on. Perhaps his most useful suggestion is for her to make time to consider, “What am I really aiming at?”

This is such a powerful insight, given how we are constantly rushing from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. Always on, with rarely any time to draw breath, to step back and really concentrate on our direction of travel.

I have always found that in strategy development the two most important questions to be able to answer are of this ilk: Where are we playing? And how are we going to win?

Perhaps, as we come out of this pandemic, every marketer should be worrying less about the next digital thing, and instead working with their organisation and leadership team to answer these questions and build their strategy and marketing plan from there.

Our anonymous marketer has spent years working for big brands in large organisations. They have seen what you have seen, been left scratching their head at the decisions (or indecision) of others, had the same fights. They have also seen the possibility and opportunity of marketing. In this regular series, our marketer on the inside will unpick the failings, articulate the frustrations and speak up for marketers everywhere.

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