The problem with marketing, and how to fix it

Something is wrong with marketing.

Looking back at my clients, I struggle to think of any that have a wholly positive relationship with it. For example:

  • For those who invest heavily in marketing strategy, it often becomes a confusing and expensive burden; all convoluted brand pyramids, wheels, houses, and onions; built via excruciatingly protracted conversations about the merits of “this word” versus “that word”, culminating in large agency costs that they aren’t even sure were worth it.
  • For others, it’s seen as being “the thing you can give to the intern”.  Something that everyone else in the business secretly (or not so secretly) thinks is a bit of fluff.  Superficial, and unimportant compared to the “real business” which happens elsewhere.
  • And then there have even been clients with no marketing department at all – who perversely are often better marketed than the ones who throw money at it.

Whether you’re a founder or even a marketer yourself, I expect at least one of these scenarios provokes a flicker of recognition – and this is a big problem.

It’s a problem because, as Peter Drucker once said, “marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs”.  This means that if your business has a dysfunctional relationship with the discipline, you are essentially flying with one wing.  You’re choosing to forgo perhaps the most potent weapon in your arsenal, and worst of all you probably don’t even realise it.

Now I am not exactly a marketer per se, but I do consider marketing to be the most important subset of strategy.  And so here I want to lay out the key misunderstandings which surround marketing, and suggest some practical changes which founders might want to consider if they wish to turn marketing from a liability into a serious asset.

The first thing to say, is that the marketing Drucker spoke of is radically different from what people understand “marketing” to mean today.  The main cause of dysfunctional marketing is simply that people and organisations don’t understand what it is – and this sadly includes many marketing professionals.  (I want to stress however that this is hardly their fault; they obviously need to adapt their behaviours to modern expectations if they wish to progress in their careers).

Drucker saw the business of marketing the same way as Martin Glen, former chief exec of the FA, who summed it up by saying:

“The fundamental role of marketing is to decide what a company is”.

Stop and consider that for a second.  What a company is.  Clearly there is nothing more crucial and fundamental than that.  The clue in fact is in the name: “marketing” – as in navigation of the market.  As in determining how the business clicks into the market and interfaces with it.  In other words, determining its very nature from an external point of view.

This is why Drucker said “all the rest are costs”.  He means that “all the rest are simply necessary expenses in order to execute the determination of marketing”.  An efficient business would naturally minimise those costs as much as it could; doing as little as it could get away with whist still fulfilling the market purpose.

This existential understanding of marketing is what gave birth to the famous 4 Ps:

  • Product
  • Price
  • Place
  • Promotion

If you think about it, the combination of these essentially covers the entire business from an external (i.e. market) point of view.  There is nothing more that contributes to what a business is for its customers.

However today, as many have noted before me, how often do you see marketing designing the product?  Or setting the price?  Or really doing anything other than the final P: promotion?

Yes, that pretty much summarises the unfortunate evolution of marketing.  Moving from deciding what a company is, to simply how a company presents itself.  Decorators rather than architects.  It would be far more accurate, strictly speaking, to call most modern marketing departments the promotion department – because that’s basically all they do.  This isn’t to denigrate their importance in any way (promotion is obviously crucial); it’s just that this is not how strong marketing works.

So why does this matter?

Well, there are two key drawbacks for businesses to this evolution:

  1. Most importantly, as marketing has receded from its true role, nothing has taken its place.  It’s not like the old job of marketing has now been taken by finance, say.  There is instead simply a vacuum.  There’s a vacancy at the tiller, so nobody is navigating the market whatsoever (other than occasionally the founder, in an informal manner).  This means that the business doesn’t make decisions in an integrated manner.  It has no central blueprint with which to coordinate product, price, place, and promotion.  These decisions are instead made independently – thus creating an end result with weak market fit.
  2. Secondly, and consequently, the new responsibility of marketing, promotion, becomes much much harder.  As there is no central blueprint, it becomes extremely difficult to articulate what exactly the business is; what exactly you are selling.  Marketers have to somehow make sense of this weird thing that has been created.  This is what has given rise to the modern cult of marketing jargon, and inflated agency power: these are attempts to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of grown-up organisational marketing.

(As a side note, keen-eyed amongst you may have noticed that my description of true marketing is similar to my description of strategy.  This is because the central marketing strategy for the vast majority of businesses is market-oriented – and thus yes, is essentially marketing.  It is possible to have non-market-oriented strategies – like exploiting mining rights in Peru or whatever – but for most businesses leverage is going to come from their market role).

So, as you can see, this is a problem – and one which I would encourage any founder to address.  The question is how?

My first suggestion pertains to naming.  I acknowledge that it will now be more or less impossible to rewind the meaning of the word “marketing” in most people’s minds, so the obvious solution could be to rename the department in order to break that spell.  The downside of this, however, is that it could be a bit confusing, so a more simple hack that I personally would employ would be to break marketing and promotion into two separate departments.  Although I appreciate that strictly speaking promotion is part of marketing, such a separation would force a business to seriously engage with all the other parts of marketing which are currently neglected.

My other suggestion is to reconsider the way marketing is integrated into the organisational structure.  The typical mistake which modern companies make is to have all their departments (marketing, HR, sales, finance, logistics) running in parallel, underneath management.  If we recall that true marketing plays an orchestrational role, determining how other departments knit together, then in reality it should operate over or though them, rather than alongside.  This either means that it is an umbrella department – under management, but above operations – or even if you wanted to be really radical, a decentralised department: where all divisions have a marketing representative within them, who coordinates with the other marketing representatives to align operations.

Anyway, these are just ideas.  However you do it what really matters is that you do do it.  That somebody takes responsibility for market navigation, and ties together policy and practice accordingly.  In a small organisation that can (and probably should be) the founder.  But in a larger one the task will eventually need a degree of specialisation.

So if you’re a founder ask yourself who is doing this job.  And if you’re a marketer, ask yourself if you are doing it.  Because if you’re not, there’s a big opportunity there.  And nobody else is going to grab it.

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