cmo to ceo

Marketing May Be Misunderstood

But Marketing Will Thrive

By Christopher Kenton

Have you ever wondered what it is that marketing actually accomplishes for your business? Let’s be blunt: the marketing profession hasn’t had the strongest track record over the past 10 years. Marketing soared with far greater irrational exuberance than anyone during the dot-com 1990s, elevating gurus who blathered endlessly about the value of “brand,” while delivering such gems as the $100 million sock puppet that dug a grave for Pets.com. When the crash ensued, marketers were mute— except when they were complaining about drastic budget cuts from executives who “just don’t get it.” As companies worked toward a recovery, marketers had the hardest time grasping the principals of budget accountability and ROI, requiring remedial courses in business and finance. And now that we’re finally seeing some of the fruits of the industry’s vast investment in technology, it’s marketers that are slow on the uptake, dabbling here and there in pod-casts and RSS feeds, but failing to deliver an integrated platform that tracks, serves and measures customer relationships from initial contact to satisfaction and loyalty.

As much as marketing has deserved its frequent trips to the woodshed over the past few years, it is corporate executives who have allowed this train wreck to continue for a decade. It’s a cliché for executives to say “we’re a marketing company, not a sales company”—an insider’s code for claiming strategy over reflexive selling. But what does that really mean? Is marketing an investment driven by market objectives to produce clearly measurable returns, or is it a necessary cost that should be contained before it gets out of control? If you’re an executive at a typical company, the truth has never been clearly resolved.

In a recent study I conducted with nearly 350 businesses on their attitudes toward sales and marketing, one finding waved from the results like a red flag. I asked the audience to identify the ultimate purpose of marketing, and offered a range of options covering the spectrum from competitive strategy to tactical sales support. When the results were tallied, I was amazed to find there was no consensus. There was an even distribution of responses across all options—only a handful voted “all of the above”—while a drilldown on CEOs showed a slight tendency toward the tactical. The picture that emerged was an astonishing lack of a guiding principal for marketing at most corporations.

At some companies, marketers are short order cooks serving up a platter of collateral for the sales team. Other companies give a little more leash, with marketers fishing up leads to dump into the sales hopper. At some companies, marketing wears a boardroom suit at the strategy table, while at others, marketing is the token domain for creative types who use iMacs to dream up branding campaigns. Far too few are the companies where marketing encompasses a multi-faceted system that marshals all available resources to cultivate the forces of supply and demand.

 Why is marketing so poorly understood and so misdirected? Now is the critical time to ask, because when the stock market climbs, the pressure will lighten up on the belt-tightening tactics that have forced smart marketers to examine their performance.

One provocative answer is that marketing became so enamored with its magical powers of influence and persuasion in the burgeoning mass markets of the 1950s that it went off the rails into self-absorption. So much energy went into producing the self-inflated hey days of advertising and branding, that marketing lost touch with the critical dialogue that has been shaping corporate strategy for the past 50 years.

If you look carefully at the history of management trends, you can see a clear and deep divide that has lasted decades among business and management strategists. The argument is often boiled down to whether it’s better to strive to do the right things, or to do things right—whether to shape yourself by looking outward to understand market demands, or to look inward to maximize core competencies better than the competition.

The arguments are coded into the DNA of just about every mainstream business concept and framework you’ve ever heard of: value proposition, core competency, value discipline, total quality management, one-to-one marketing.

The debate over internal versus external orientation, efficiency versus effectiveness, rages all around us yet most people remain completely unaware of it. Do you know the connection between total quality management and the balanced scorecard? Between a value proposition and customer lifetime value? It seems purely academic until you realize that these foundational arguments, the books they inspire and the management fads they fuel wind up determining many of our operational assumptions and attitudes toward business, and yes, toward marketing.

Marketing’s greatest failure was not staring at its reflection in the pond, but that in doing so it forfeited the political battle for the heart and soul of the corporation. While marketers flaunted the success of their emotional arts, corporate strategists were down in the trenches turning out metrics and methodologies for tying performance to profits. And when the technology revolution shook the economic order to the foundation, it was the efficiency framework— the Six Sigma black belts—that held the manager’s trust, while marketers bleated about brand and frantically churned out books on the value of customers. It’s true that customers are critical, but their trustee—the marketer—was a day late and a dollar short with the ammunition, and now marketers are forced to recast themselves as efficiency experts until the battle can be rejoined.

The good news is that marketing will survive its comeuppance and thrive. There is a small group of hard core marketers that understand business and technology, as well as the marriage of efficiency and effectiveness. They understand how to balance customer needs with optimized resources to ensure profitable growth, and they can back it up with metrics. The only trouble is: you have to find them.

Christopher Kenton is senior vice president of the CMO Council (www.cmocouncil.org), and its corporate parent, GlobalFluency.