To fix marketing’s perception problem, we must overcome three issues

To be seen as more accountable, marketers must overcome the fear of forecast, measure what matters, and make selling a purpose again.

A couple of days ago, I had dinner with a friend who complained: “Our profession’s reputation is in tatters. When I started out 12 years ago, people respected me for my job in this highly regarded industry. What we did was important. And today? Nobody trusts a banker anymore.”

I found some nice words for him. But deep in my mind I thought: be glad you aren’t a marketer.

Depending upon which study you pick, between 50% and 80% of CEOs don’t trust marketing (some of these studies were done by marketers, so maybe we can’t trust these numbers either). I don’t know about you, but I find these figures apocalyptic.

And here’s the paradox: while CEOs are sceptical, firms flourish and grow because marketers at Adidas, Diageo, Unilever and so on do successful work that keeps the factories humming.

Beware of the naysayers. Marketing is, next to innovation, a firm’s most important function. The product is good; the perception sucks. But why?

Well, if a complaint letter lands right in a marketer’s inbox, no marketing expert would challenge a customer’s perception of a brand. Rather, they’d accept it and do better marketing. The same principle applies when the ‘customer’ is the CEO: if the brand perception of marketing isn’t right, it’s for the marketer to fix, not the CEO.

Since marketing’s brand trouble is such a hot issue, Marketing Week asked me to give a keynote, at this year’s Festival of Marketing (FoM). Here’s (roughly) what I said.

To fix marketing’s perception problem, we must overcome three issues: forecast phobia, noise obsession, and purpose confusion. If these titles confuse you, you aren’t any better off than my FoM audience – but hear me out.

Forecast phobia

Just when you think everything already exists, someone invents a turntable for cats. Seriously: it exists. Its advertising features a cat-turned-DJ behind a music deck. This thing sells like hot cakes on Amazon.

And if you already own one, don’t worry, there’s also the cat laptop. It’s a MacBook turned CatBook with a plush toy mouse. Now your tiger can finally watch cat YouTube videos on her own device. Honestly, who would have known there are people out there who like cat turntables, buy cat laptops and make the creator rich?

Marketing is, next to innovation, a firm’s most important function. The product is good; perception sucks. But why?

Marketing is all about future success. Future revenue, future profit. And that future is hard to forecast. So marketers tend to avoid forecasting, because they could be wrong – and look stupid.

But “hard to forecast” is no excuse. It’s also hard to forecast the weather. Yet someone each day takes the effort, runs the models, crunches some numbers, and puts out a forecast to show us how much rain we are going to have tomorrow. We need the same effort in marketing.

Noise obsession

On the Festival of Marketing stage, I pulled three orange balls out of my bag – my giveaway for the audience. Three people were quick enough to catch one when I threw them into the crowd. Then I asked the three winners if they liked their new balls. Three hands went up. Next, I asked who preferred to keep their orange ball. Two hands went up. And finally, I wanted to know who would now go out and buy a ball. No hands whatsoever.

Getting a click, a blink, a catch is easy, but it’s worthless if it doesn’t lead to demand. Likes are nice, but worthless if they don’t lead to demand. Preference is nice, but worthless if it doesn’t lead to demand. If you are the maker of the orange balls, what you care about is demand.

Unfortunately, too much of today’s marketing is about noise. Expert Scott Brinker has now counted over 6,000 digital marketing solutions. Never before have we had more powerful tools to understand customers, serve them better, and create real demand. And yet we are using these tools to more frequently, more precisely, more aggressively spam people with advertising they haven’t asked to see.

And then we look at views, clicks, likes; the stuff only one person cares about: the marketer. It’s good to have these noise numbers from the front end of funnel. But what really matters the is demand. Too often, we measure the wrong thing.

Purpose confusion

Many marketers are yearning for purpose. The one thing that typically doesn’t make it onto the purpose list is selling. In my view, that’s a mistake.

Here’s a stunning fact about Irish cows: about 5% of all Irish cow milk goes into making a drink you all know: Baileys. The stat was 5%, I should say, because not long ago, Mark Sandys and the smart marketers at Diageo worked their magic and repositioned the Baileys brand by telling customers they could drink Baileys on many more occasions (with your coffee, for example).

As a result of that great marketing, Baileys last year shipped almost 10% more bottles. And because more Baileys was sold, there’s now more work for Irish farmers, the Baileys factories, and, of course, the cows. Sustainable sales growth can be a pretty good purpose.

I’m certain we can fix marketing’s accountability issue. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Know your number. Every marketer in this world needs to know how much revenue they are helping to create. Not clicks, not likes – true demand. Like the weather, you won’t know exactly. But you gotta have a forecast. You gotta have a number.
  2. Get into the revenue camp. Show your number. Talk about your number. If people in your firm believe your work is pure cost, they’ll ask you to do less of it. If people believe your work leads to revenue, they’ll want you to do more of it.
  3. Make selling your purpose. Imagine you help your company sell more contracts, ship more boxes, move more bottles. In that case, chances are more people get jobs, more innovation gets funding, and the cows may get more work, too.

Purpose can be that simple.

Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker and the co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’. He has teamed up with Marketing Week to launch the Marketing Leadership Masterclass, a new CPD-accredited online course designed to equip marketers with everything they need to become a better leader. To find out more and book your place visit