Over the past few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to write about marketing finance and metrics. Like many marketers of my generation, my understanding of marketing performance metrics was transformed by the 2000 recession. At the time I was president of a marketing agency in San Francisco, and as the economy plunged, I watched as clients mercilously slashed marketing teams and budgets. When the economy bottomed out, Marketing ROI became an obligatory mantra recited in every new business meeting. Marketers got swept up in the cult of ROI, accepting an unassailable truth that dictated their behavior, without question or true belief. Few marketers had the training to put ROI in a real financial context–our business schools don’t like to worry creative minds with accounting requirements–so Marketing ROI was interpreted in myriad ways, which often meant little more than a vague definition of “success”.
With a vacuum of financial acumen among marketers and a rising imperative for accountability, CFOs gained ever greater dominion over marketing programs by holding tighter purse strings. Marketing gurus responded with all kinds of new marketing formulas featuring pseudo-financial concepts–Return on [Your Concept Here]–instead of promoting basic financial fundamentals so marketers could connect with the CFO on common ground. This only distanced marketers further from the boardroom, as I wrote a couple of years ago:
Marketing loses all credibility with the board room suite when it twists and bends financial metrics designed to measure value creation into concepts that skirt the issue of accountability for actually creating value.
Even before the new financial crisis hit, I could see the ROI shackles hobbling marketing organization’s and their ability to innovate. It wasn’t the concept of measuring peformance that was the problem, but the inability of marketers to effectively argue a compelling business case that challenged whatever rigid ROI framework they felt imposed on them by the CFO. As social media surged, I sat in many dozens of new business meetings where marketing executives stalled out in their enthusiasm for innovation when it came to justifying any new program without a proven ROI. The irony was stunning: on the one hand, businesses and board rooms were buzzing with the new wisdom of Innovation, and yet they couldn’t execute anything innovative because there was no appetite for risk–and this was when times were good:
I don’t want to be flippant about this, but I think marketers need to bring a little balance to the justifiable demand for performance accountability. We do need to be accountable, and we do need to show that we’ve thoroughly vetted the investments we’re making. But when you’re in a competitive market that demands innovation, you have to get in the trenches to help innovation along, instead of just throwing up knee-jerk stop signs to every project that doesn’t come with a business case tied up in a neat bow. It makes me think of a prehistoric fish in a receding inland sea saying to an amphibian “so, what’s the business case for legs?”
With the new economic crisis deepening, this is going to be a critical test for marketers. A steep recession drives a natural imperative for immediate returns. But we’re not just in a recession. We’re at the apex of a global cycle of creative destruction. GM, CitiGroup, New York Times–representative samples of the titan industries of manufacturing, finance and media–are all on the edge of bankruptcy. The businesses that survive this destruction–and the marketers that support them–have to find new ways to drive returns, and those new methods are not going to come gift wrapped in a mature ROI model. In fact, ROI may be entirely the wrong financial metric. But marketers with no grounding in finance, and with no common ground to share with the CFO, won’t be in a position to make those arguments, or to critically challenge the happy case studies offered by vendors.
Fortunately, there are some ports in this storm. There are a few marketing thought-leaders that can not only bridge the gap between CMOs and CFOs, but they have the talent to make marketing finance accessible to mere mortals. One of my favorite lights in this small pantheon is Jonathan Knowles, a banker by training and a brand consultant by trade. Jonathan has written extensively about marketing finance, including an entertaining book on Marketing ROI. I interviewed Jonathan for BusinessWeek back in 2005 and we’ve maintained a friendship ever since. Jonathan has opened my eyes to a number of financial concepts that illuminate marketing trends, including the critical rise of intangible assets as we’ve shifted away from a manufacturing economy.
I’ll be writing a string of posts in conversation with Jonathan over the next few weeks on marketing finance and social media, focusing on the fundamentals marketers need to understand to escape the Cult of Marketing ROI and develop a strong partnership with their CFO. We’re jointly fielding a survey on Social Media Metrics, and Jonathan will be my guest this Friday at the San Francisco Social Media Breakfast. There are a few seats left for the breakftast, which you can pick up online.
Photo credit: allspice1