Beware the Flesh Eating Zombies – They’re behind You!

This is an opinion piece prepared by Mike for the Marketing Transformation Leadership Forum on Measurement & Accountability.

Beware the Flesh Eating Zombies – They’re behind You!

Ever had one of those recurring ‘stress dreams’?  You know the kind of thing….the zombie flesh eater is on your tail but no matter how far or fast you run it’s still just behind you….oh, and sometimes it feels like you’re trying to run through a big pool of treacle….no?….maybe it is just me after all then!

Anyway, I’m sure you get the idea, and our panel discussion on Marketing Measurement and Accountability at London’s Transport Museum put me in mind of such a dream.   Why? Well, for as long as I’ve been in marketing – and that’s quite a while – marketers seem to have been agonizing over our ability (or inability) to demonstrate the value of what we do.  Yet, despite years of angst, it appears we’ve made little progress.

Ask a room full of senior marketers from a broad sweep of companies whether marketing’s ability to assess its commercial value has improved over the last decade. When 47% say there’s been no change and 13 per cent say it may even be worse, surely the alarm bells should ring?

Not too encouraging….but read on because it gets worse.  Over half that same audience felt that marketing leaders are not sufficiently qualified to assess the commercial impact of their function’s investment.  Hang on…highly paid CMOs unable to demonstrate the commercial value of their work….surely that can’t be true…can it?

And then, to cap it all, 78% of the audience say they expect scrutiny of marketing investment to increase in the next 5 years.   Well, it looks like the zombie flesh eaters aren’t just chasing us, they catching up and we’d better wake up fast or we may get eaten.  Some may venture that we deserve everything we get.

Here’s the question then – is this kind of serial failure to improve accountability acceptable, especially for a profession that aspires to lead in the commercial area and given the advances in technology available to our industry?  After all, how will we react if England lose on penalty shoot-outs again in the next major championship? A resounding chorus of “Never mind chaps, better luck next time?” I suspect not.  More likely, “they’re professionals, how could they still make the same mistakes?”  Hang on – that’s another recurring nightmare – let’s move on.

So here’s another question – what’s stopping us? Clearly some have managed to address the issue, or at least make encouraging progress. As for the 60% who haven’t – is it an issue of knowledge, skills or attitude?  Do CMOs and their charges understand how to address this issue – or where to go for help? Do they possess the capability to implement the change that’s required?  Do they care enough to make the effort?   If not, why not?

Perhaps just as worrying was the perception that the wider business community simply “doesn’t get marketing” or understand the nature and value of what we contribute. 55% of the audience felt that CFOs need to look more closely at the value of what marketing does for their businesses and devise credible financial measures to assess returns from this area.

This begs the question, why do so many businesses and business leaders continue to pay lip service to critical issues like customer centricity, brand experience and brand differentiation?  Why are phenomenally successful companies like Tesco, who build their entire business model around customer insight and customer affinity, still the exception in this regard? Why are so many CEOs and CFOs uncomfortable talking about their strategies in these areas when they are so fundamental to competitive performance?  And why have finance departments paid so little attention to developing tools to assess the true commercial returns derived from investment in these vital areas – marketing areas?

These are powerful questions indeed, worthy of debate with the wider business community.  But lest we marketers are too quick to point the finger at our financial and operational colleagues, let’s just take a closer look at our own back yard.  Let’s look in the mirror and ask some questions of ourselves – question which, if addressed with serious conviction, may produce measureable improvement we so desperately need over the next 5 to 10 years.  So here goes….

1)    Are we, as professional marketers, sufficiently ‘commercial’ in our approach? Do we make the effort to figure out how our work contributes to the financial performance and business goals of our companies – and then adapt accordingly?  Are we sufficiently rigorous in questioning the commercial value of the products, promotion and print we produce?  Do we ask “Is there a better way” often enough?  If not why not?

2)    Almost everything a marketing department does impacts the rest of the company.  So are we as marketers sufficiently savvy about the operational and financial implications of what we propose?  Have enough of us worked in, or at least spent time understanding the operational areas of our businesses – enabling us to develop service and product ideas that are practical and credible?  Have we spent time getting to grips with the financial drivers and constraints of our companies – enabling us to construct business cases that are affordable and viable? If not, why not?

3)    We can be quick to decry the apparent insensitivity of our colleagues to the needs of customers.  But how successful have we been at developing valuable insight into the buying behaviour of our customers – insight that our competitors do not possess – and using this to substantiate commercial proposals and business cases that will produce real competitive advantage?  Do we just repeat the same old research or do we rigorously and regularly interrogate data in a way that breaks the mould?  If not, why not?

4)    Only 27% of senior marketers present in the audience felt there was a working partnership between the marketing and finance in their respective businesses.  This, despite our continuing concern over shrinking investment in marketing and brands.   So are we doing enough to developing a dialogue with our financial colleagues?  Do we invite finance departments to work with us to investigate the value of what we do? Are we making sure marketers are financially literate?  If not, why not? After all, we’re a commercial function and our success is measured in financial terms isn’t it?

5)    Modern marketing is sophisticated and complex. Integrated planning and rigorous business analysis are critical to a modern marketing function. Departmental silos and turf wars between functional heads impede effectiveness and are for the dinosaurs. Integrated planning requires seamless operations and meaningful financial assessment depends on end to end tracking, teamwork and shared accountability. Question is, are our skills and structures keeping pace? If not, why not?

6)    Suppliers and advisors can play an integral part in delivering and demonstrating the value of marketing investment – but do we harness this wisdom to greatest effect?  Do we expose our plans and thinking to their input?  Do we include them in the planning process and encourage their contribution?  Do we hold them accountable for proving the value of their activity? Do we negotiate deals that incentivise performance? If not, why not?

7)    And finally a challenge to my CMO friends and colleagues – the leaders of our profession upon whom so much depends. I hope you share my sense of disquiet and embarrassment at our continuing malaise in this area. Surely it’s up to us to look long and hard in the mirror and ask what we’re going to do differently starting tomorrow.  Surely it’s up to us to lead the way….if not…why not…and who’s job is it?

There are certainly no one-size-fits-all solutions to these issues. But as the business gurus say, the first step to finding a solution is to ask the right questions. They also say that we should focus on fixing the things that we can control and leave the rest to someone else.  So this paper has been written in that spirit and in the hope that by posing these questions we can start a process of investigation and improvement.

Of course it’s always possible that you disagree with some of what I’ve had to say – or maybe all of it!   So if that’s the case please add a comment.

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