September 10, 2021

As brands and economies recover, there’s an opportunity for marketers to shine but they must get some basics right first, says Russell Parsons, Marketing Week Editor-in-Chief.

You have all read the reports and opinions. You might even think it yourself. Since the start of the pandemic, I have heard and read what has almost became a mantra – ‘this is marketing’s time!’

Part wish fulfilment, part rallying call, the assertion came down to two things – the need for customer centricity and closeness is greater than ever, and the marketer in the room is best suited to deliver. If the voice of the customer in the boardroom was ever required it was at a time when no one had a clue what to do next.

It is undoubtedly true that marketers have a key role to play in the recovery. With so much business moving online, and so much more competition for attention, building brands digitally requires the strategic savvy good marketers can bring. Meanwhile, their closeness to customers and ability to orientate around changing markets is key.

As a chunk of the world emerges from lockdown, and we enter a recovery of sorts, what is it marketers need to do to realise the opportunity? What’s necessary for them to improve their lot and that of the brands they serve?

A marketer’s best friend  

The short, and blunt answer should be nothing. To explain, if you are a good marketer you are poised and ready to lead the recovery. Thing is, there’s plenty that aren’t, and can’t get beyond first stages in doing so. The undeniable potential of marketers will come to nothing if they don’t have the eyes, ears and crucially trust of the people needed for them to realise their potential – the CEO and CMO. And in this, there is work to do.

I receive a lot of reports from consultancies about the terrible state of marketing and the capability of marketers. I dismiss the majority as self-serving analysis: paint a gloomy picture and in the same breath offer the perfect solution the sender just happens to be well-placed to offer. One, however, from Forrester, stood out. Surveying 150 US B2C “marketing executives” the report found 71% reported proving the value of marketing to the CEO, CFO and the board will be “very or extremely challenging during the upcoming year.”

Difficult to lead an organisation out of the fire and towards the sunlit uplands when you can’t demonstrate to your boss that what you do carries any value? As Mastercard CMO and WFA president Raja Rajamannar adds, brutally, if marketers do not have the ability to correlate marketing activity with business impact “they will become hopelessly obsolete and get left behind.”

Before you all despair. This report is a snapshot. As I say, Forrester will not be the first or last firm in the business of solving problems to paint a very grave picture. Also, many marketers past and present are front and centre in leading business transformation and are doing so with the unequivocal support of their paymasters. There has also never been more data available to prove what you do works.

Nevertheless, all caveats considered, there is an issue.  

Learn the language of outcomes

Choosing the right metrics, or perhaps most pertinently, the right measure of success and communicating it in a meaningful way is key, as Rajamannar implies.

As chair of Marketing Week’s awards, I look over hundreds of entries and sadly many follow a pattern – demonstration of success by marketing measures. ROI by the most leaden of attribution method, clicks, reach and engagement are just a few, short-term metrics that excite many brand marketers but fall on deaf ears when you’re sat opposite a CEO or CFO.

Marketers need to talk long term business outcomes as well as meaningful short term wins. It’s all too easy to resort to the latter when you have someone breathing down your neck for results. Demanding senior stakeholders carry some of the responsibility for the use of meaningless metrics but the obligation should be with the marketer. “We’re putting the rigour at the wrong end, and it’s hurting our influence,” one senior marketer recently told me.

Have faith, marketing works!

Among the other things holding marketers back is a lack of faith in their own ability to enact change. This was apparent last month when Ehrenberg-Bass published a piece of research that confirmed what should have been screamingly obvious – if you stop advertising, your sales suffer, and badly. What was telling is the reaction of people in marketing to the research. The relief was palpable. It is of concern that people thought it needed saying so those outside the marketing ecosystem stopped thinking marcomms was discretionary spending, and its cutting of no consequence. After all these years of marketing-led business transformation, a chart is the difference. It’s sad the case still needs to be made.

I don’t want to focus entirely on negatives. I see enough in my working week that should make everyone working in marketing very proud. The extent of achievement is remarkable. The impact on growth is significant. Despite the failings of many of the entries to the Marketing Week awards, there were plenty that stood out. The depth and breadth of achievement is considerable.

Someone left a comment on a LinkedIn post of mine about the awards shortlist. I paraphrase but it went something like: “All marketers, at all brands deserve an award for coping with the 18 months we have just had.” Particularly for those in challenged sectors, the depth of reliance and agility demonstrated has been remarkable. I can’t offer you a prize but I can offer you respect.

This can be marketing’s moment to shine but only once you have earned the trust of those who set your budget.



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