Shifting sands of marketing

Which way forward for the marketer of today? Technology is rewriting the rule-book of career opportunities so fast it is proving difficult to assimilate them. That’s good news for the shrewd and the lucky who are prepared to take a big risk. Less so for the more conservative cadres which make up the backbone of the marketing industry.

The problem is solid, traditional companies and sectors aren’t that solid or traditional any more. The whole gamut of packaged goods is under pressure as the smart money moves elsewhere. Brewers, for example, are a sad shadow of their former selves. Even the global detergent, food and toiletries combines, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, are being forced to undergo radical change as margin growth dries up in mature markets.

Unilever has embarked on a massive brand pruning operation. P&G has rationalised more discreetly and attempted to place the emphasis on bringing innovation to market more quickly (with mixed results). But its new chief executive Durk Jager clearly realises a great deal more needs to be done. P&G a major pharmaceutical company? It seems incredible, but the aborted talks with Warner-Lambert show that’s exactly what he intended.

In fact, these days no combination is unthinkable. Tesco pitching headlong into home shopping might seem a strategic oxymoron, in view of its huge commitment to out- of-town sites. But, unlike Marks & Spencer, it has faced up to the future and realised it must embrace rapid technological change if it is to remain market leader. With a few notable exceptions, traditional high-street retail does not look a place for the thrusting, fast-track marketing executive.

Which brings us to Eric Nicoli, chairman of EMI Records, and his recently engineered deal with Time Warner. He’s certainly a marketer who’s seen the light – on more than one occasion, as it happens. Nicoli made the transition early from marketing department to chief executive at United Biscuits, but came up against all the problems of managing a conventional company in distress: squeezed margins, strategic over-extension, scepticism in the City. EMI, which he joined only last year, was not without its difficulties, but proved a shrewd move. EMI’s intellectual property made it a certain takeover target: the only question, then and now, was on what terms.

The 50:50 alliance Nicoli has forged with Warner Music, the world’s other biggest music label, prompted an interesting comment from Gerald Levin, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner. “There’s no such thing as a leviathan anymore,” he said. “A new artist is much greater, given the Internet, and no company can be large enough to undermine that.” Cynics at the entrepreneurial end of the business will retort that executives at Time Warner are nevertheless giving it their best shot.

But Levin touches on a crucial point. Does the future, for marketers as much as anyone else, lie in big or small, inc or dot-com?

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