How should we organise our marketing departments?

Sometimes the old ways are indeed the best. You might be familiar with the concept of the four, or latterly seven “ps” that comprise marketing – product, price, promotion, place, process, people, physical environment. Whilst this list has been around for a long time (the original variation cropping up around 1960), it actually represents a far more cutting edge approach to marketing than that seen in the vast majority of contemporary businesses.

Marketing today has come to be almost synonymous with “advertising”, or to put it another way “promotion” in the list of ps. Few are the marketing departments which are defining business processes, designing the products, managing the people, building the physical environments, etc., however today as we have seen it is this holistic, “total business”, approach to marketing which is essential to build a coherent and inspiring brand.

It makes sense up to a point that marketing got trapped in this narrow definition, since twenty years ago the primary battleground where brands fought was in paid media. The only way information could really travel or get purchase with the public psyche was if it had a huge amount of money to support it. Unsupported pieces of information – say the type produced by a normal person – quickly dissolved away. The chances are that if you won the promotion wars then you won the game full stop, even if your business was technically an inferior one to a competitor. After all, who’s going to buy them if nobody’s heard of them? Thus marketing adopted a very outwards-facing mindset, turning their back on the real business, seeing it as almost incidental as to whether it became successful or not. This created countless farcical situations where brand teams and agencies would agonise over how to position and sell a sub standard product, with nobody ever thinking to say “hey, what if we just changed the product?”.

Contributing to this superficial approach was the very idea of the “marketing department” in the first place. Most businesses are divided into different departments each with a different responsibility; HR, sales, manufacturing, marketing, etc. These departments, for obvious reason of symmetry, are generally all of equal seniority, lined up side by side, sitting perhaps underneath a board of directors. Generally this makes pretty good sense – but not for marketing. If we think of marketing not as a department, but as a discipline, we can see that it is the body of thought which essentially defines what a business’s role in the world is. Why is it here? What’s the point of all this? If you answer that question well, and then deliver on it across all the ps (however many of them there might be), then you’ll have a great business on your hands, one which is doing great marketing every day just through its very existence. This means that rather than being a department that sits alongside all the others, marketing done correctly should instead be an umbrella approach which sits over them – ensuring that everything is done in a joined-up and on-message kind of way.

It is for this reason that many of the new breed of inspiring brands – whose marketing everyone admires so much – actually have no marketing department at all. They know that to have a dedicated marketing department sends the message that actually fulfilling the business’s place in the world isn’t everyone’s responsibility – a bad move in today’s world. They might have a publicity department (which is essentially what most marketing departments are these days), but the responsibility for defining what the brand stands for sits at a much higher level, and is activated by everyone in their own field.

So what’s the best way to place marketing internally? Whilst the traditional department model is clearly not ideal, there’s not necessarily any one “best” alternative – you just need to make sure that everybody is involved. If you already have a marketing department, you might simply repurpose them so they sit across all your other departments, helping keeping them all aligned and operating creatively. Or you might re-label them something more appropriate like the “promotion” or “publicity” department, and instead assign someone in every other department the role of “brand thinker” whose responsibility it is to ensure that their department acts in an distinctive way. Or you might try something completely different. Many businesses now are adding the role of “creative director” to their organisations as they start to take creative control back from their externally-focussed agencies.

Ultimately the answer to the question will depend largely on what the current status quo is in your organisation, and how you can most smoothly manage the transition. So long as you find a way to bring that kind of thinking to every corner of your business, you’ll immediately be far ahead of the competition.

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