It’s time to ditch your job description

Too many marketers are sticking rigidly to their contracted responsibilities: what they need is not a job description but a job purpose.


Every McKinsey consultant fears that shocking moment; the day when you say to yourself: Oh, shit, what am I doing here?

My moment came right in year one. An associate, I was tasked with building a media model for a telecoms client. Eight weeks in, our senior director entered the team room. It was late. I was the only one left. He said: “What are you working on?”

I proudly explained the model and my innovative response curve. After patiently listening for two minutes, he dropped the killer question: “What’s the purpose?” I was puzzled. I was the media expert. My job description said to make a model, and I was making a model. “OK, let me rephrase,” he said. “If you owned this business, would your model be a top priority?”

Now I got him. Newspaper advertising mattered, yes. But the client’s real issue was customer retention. People were churning away in masses. I admitted that our team had once discussed the retention issue, but didn’t want to rock the boat.

The director got on the phone to the partner in charge. Next day, we pulled the project, refunded the client and offered two weeks of customer retention work for free.

Like me, too many people follow their job descriptions and miss the purpose. United Airlines crew followed their job descriptions perfectly and stowed a passenger’s bulldog in the overhead bin, ultimately killing the puppy.  In 2013, BlackBerry’s engineers followed their job descriptions and made new phones while their company was already folding. And if Bob Liodice is right, thousands of digital marketers today are burning their firm’s cash by following a job description that says ‘digital’.

Liodice isn’t just some guy. He’s the CEO of the US Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which estimates that just 25% of digital media money reaches target audiences at an annual loss of $20bn, or £15.20bn. (In case you missed it, Procter & Gamble cut $100m in digital spending last year, without any negative effects.)

Just to be clear, I’m not questioning digital marketing. In fact, I’m doing the opposite: helping numerous firms crack the digital code. But digital marketing is a tool. An enabler. A means to an end, not a purpose. The purpose is to find and nurture customers. And managers should be free to scrap any digital campaign if there’s a better option.

Here’s the crux with job descriptions: say we put a talented manager in charge of Instagram. She works hard. Her campaigns get buzz. She asks for more budget, because she wants to excel on Instagram. It’s in her job description. But will she ever ask whether Instagram marketing makes sense in the first place? Take a guess.

Why job descriptions fail

In 1922, Morris Viteles invented the job description. A researcher, he observed the auditing department of a railway company. At the end of each day, the conductors would turn in the cash and tickets sold. The clerks would separate the two, calculate receipts, issue invoices, and prepare statistics. Viteles counted and codified 19 different jobs done by the clerks. The job description was born. Now the firm could hire, train, promote and pay clerks in exactly the same way each time.

Almost a hundred years on, we still love the job description. We check people’s performance against them. We can add fancy new competency requirements. We can even have HR write them, so we don’t have to worry about it.

The job description works, with one condition: that customer needs don’t change. If customers keep buying the same things, at the same price, in the same place, then the job description is the perfect tool. But this is not our reality, and job descriptions have become massive progress barriers.

We are in the middle of a revolution. In the past, firms made products and tried to find customers. And when everybody had everything, we chased the unique selling point, the so-called ‘Purple Cow’ – the stuff that stood out in the moment, so people would take it home. We basically perfected the one-night stand. But big changes are coming.

Netflix ploughs through millions of data points to invent Stranger Things and airs it wherever and whenever you want. Amazon aims to cover your complete shopping list and hooks you in with Prime and Alexa. Tortoise Media has just broken Kickstarter records by promising journalistic content for members only.

Old industry players are catching up too. L’Oréal cosmetics has built an ecommerce empire in China with millions of direct customers, bypassing the retailer. Porsche, a true former Purple Cow, now offers Porsche Passport, a monthly car subscription.

Thanks to technology, we can finally understand and serve customer needs at a much deeper level. Call it the subscription economy, the end of ownership, or software as a service (SaaS). Whatever the words, the one-night stand starts turning into a relationship for those who get it right. And a relationship it is: I know a few people who would rather spend a Saturday with their Netflix account than their partner.

Job purpose

In times of change, nobody’s job description fits. But how do we get millions of managers to create customer relationships, to embrace technology, to push bold business ideas? By rewriting every job description? Forget it. No firm has that time. The customer transformation must start on the shop floor, led by people who are brave enough to face the only guaranteed result: push-back.

Want to make a start? Ask yourself two simple questions. Firstly, in a relationship economy, what’s my job’s real purpose? And secondly, what’s the one big thing I can do to help make my firm move forward?

Once you know that, scrap your job description – and do what’s right.

How brave are you? Take the test. Thomas has teamed up with The Marketing Society and Kantar to help you understand your personal bravery level:

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