There’s a story my wife sometimes tells of an old woman back in the Azores islands where her family is from. The old woman had lived in a small village on the island of Pico all her life, and never ventured beyond it. By the time she reached her eighties, roads had been improved between the villages, and a young relative took the family on a drive to the other side of the island, about 10 miles away. When the old woman looked for the first time from the opposite shore and saw another island in the distance she gasped, “My God, the world is big.”
That’s what I feel like at my new job with the CMO Council. I’ve only been on the job a few months and already I’m getting an education that makes my career so far seem provincial. When I was running my own marketing agency, I had plenty of excitement serving a wide variety of companies large and small. It seemed like I was at the hub of enterprise marketing. But in retrospect, it’s evident I was always solving the same kinds of problems—developing competitive positioning strategies, establishing brands, building marketing programs, producing lots of collateral, messaging and Web sites. It was challenging work that is core to the marketing function. But now it seems like just a village on the side of a small island.
My work with the CMO Council, and with its parent GlobalFluency, has exposed me to a whole new set of operational marketing challenges that I haven’t had to deal with much in the past. They range from big company issues–like how to manage a global brand when it’s localized through thousands of agency partners–to issues that affect small and large companies alike, like how negotiate with the CEO over which key indicators matter in the measurement of marketing performance.
Many of these new issues were anticipated, and part of the motivation for my move. But other realizations have come as a surprise, the most startling being the state of the marketing solutions market. I’ve been on the front line for years reporting on the many ways in which marketing has been hammered by changes in the business environment–including the fragmentation of marketing channels, the explosion of new technologies, the demands for accelerated efficiency and effectiveness, the imperative to integrate with other key business functions, and the pressure to be more engaged with the customer.
What I failed to see was how rapidly a rabid market of proposed solutions to each of these problems circled the marketing profession. I’m not talking about Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Sales Force Automation (SFA) platforms, which have been around long enough to have matured into reasonably viable tools in the marketing arsenal. I’m not even talking about the Business Intelligence (BI) or Business Performance Management (BPM) platforms, which have a strong lineage in other enterprise application arenas. I’m talking about one-off solutions for every tactical ill that ails marketers, from lead generation tracking to customer referral manage.
When I was managing a marketing agency, I would run across companies from time to time that would seek a partnership to reach my clients. When I joined the CMO Council, those infrequent calls became a tidal wave of requests to reach our membership. I did a recent informal survey only of companies offering solutions that affect the customer relationship lifecycle—the marketing pipeline—and came across 900 companies with some kind of offering. If you’re a marketer, 300 of them are probably calling you or emailing you every day.
I don’t know what percentage of these companies actually has a compelling solution for a critical problem facing marketers—I’ve seen some credible vendors with solid offerings, and I’ve seen some pitchmen hawking elixir. The problem is that they all look exactly the same. Rapid software development tools and the growing acceptance of Web-based applications have lowered the bar so precipitously that there’s almost no barrier to entry. Hundreds of overnight vendors can pop out of the woodwork when the opportunity arises, and the plight of marketing has proven to be an opportunity of epic proportion.
What has made this situation even more confusing is that every one of the vendors, from the mighty billion-dollar incumbents to the masses of new startups, is selling their product the same way. Whether it’s an email marketing platform or a marketing analytics package, just about every product in the marketing bazaar is being wrapped in the same package. After years of hearing that marketers are pressed for accountability, performance and efficiency, every product is being positioned as an ROI-based lead-generating powerhouse that offers a real-time dashboard on key performance indicators. It’s become parody.
But if there’s one thing I’ve realized in this larger world of marketing, it’s how important vendors are to the balance of the ecosystem. The demands on all business functions are growing along with the demands on marketing, and the challenges can’t be solved without a strong set of partners. The biggest challenge today is the void between marketers and vendors. Marketers need solutions, but they can’t make sense of the sea of solutions, they have few benchmarks to compare options, and they don’t trust vendors enough to take them at their word. Hmmm. I wonder why.
The only way the gap between vendors and marketers will be crossed is by moving away from the mindset of marketing as a predatory sport. Vendors need cultivate relationships with customers in a way that treats the market more as a channel than a field of prey. Rather than the typical approach of staking a positional claim, trumpeting a message as loudly as possible to the market, and then tackling prospects at the knees, vendors need to actively partner with customers to listen and define problems so that solutions can be positioned for a tailored fit.
Ironic, isn’t it? Matching problems with solutions is the very definition of marketing, and yet it’s precisely the missing mindset that prevents marketers from gaining the powerful vendor tools that can unleash marketing’s full potential. I guess in some way, we’re all stuck in an isolated village on one small island in a vast ocean. We need a bigger view.