Lance Walker on the weight of measurement, the importance of exploration and why marketers need to assert their place at the executive table

As a chief executive with an unashamedly marketing background, it has been suggested that I’m something of a rarity. And indeed, most studies around the world point to the fact that over 50 percent of chief executives have a finance or accounting pedigree, but less than ten percent come from the marketing field. Which is one of the reasons that I recently took on the role of chairman of the Marketing Association. I want to make it part of my personal mission to elevate the role of marketing at executive and board tables.

With that in mind, I was recently invited to speak at the Marketing Association Network of Executive Marketers events in both Auckland and Wellington. At that event I shared some personal views on the role of marketers within organisations.

The first was that great marketers must be wired to be risk takers and need to have a low boredom threshold. We marketers should be the innovators, the restless irritators, the challengers within business; because that’s what leads to real value creating opportunities.

The weight of numbers

It seems to me that as marketing leaders today, we aren’t as good as we once were at creating the environments for our marketers to do just that. It seems to me that as marketers become more senior they become more risk averse. 

One of the problems that creates this (and I confess that for an old direct marketer like me this is close to being sacrilegious) is that marketing is so well measured and analysed today. That ability to measure everything has the potential to kill risk taking and creativity in marketing.

I hear it all the time… “the numbers don’t stack up”.  True, they might not stack up – but does that make it a bad idea?  Does that mean we shouldn’t give it a go?  Too often the “numbers don’t stack up” argument becomes an excuse for not doing something – as opposed to giving it a crack. It concerns me when I see young enthusiastic marketers pouring over spreadsheets and debating whether the response rate for a new, untested campaign is going to be 1.1 percent or 1.2 percent.  Who cares?  By the time we’ve debated that we could have got out there and tested it and found out. As someone said to me the other day in a meeting, “creating great spreadsheets is easy; creating great marketing is hard”.  

Now of course I’m not advocating irresponsible or unaccountable marketing spend because that’s one of the things that gives marketing a bad name at the executive table – but we need to remember that marketing is not an entirely rational exercise like accounting or finance, and not everything can be justified in a traditional ‘numbers’ way.

“It didn’t work last time” 

The other phrase that I hear a lot, and which also irritates me is the “we tried that two years ago and it didn’t work” comment.  Just because something didn’t work two years ago doesn’t mean it won’t work today. Test and learn does not mean test it once and if it fails don’t ever go there again. Things change – very rapidly. Testing and learning is actually about test, learn, refine and test again – that’s the virtuous cycle that we’re taught. Not test, learn and give up.

Exploiting vs exploring

Part of the reason that we marketers are becoming more risk averse is the short-terminism that is prevalent in business today.

All of us in business face this very real challenge. As chief executives and senior management teams, our success, our rewards, our incentive structures are generally based on short- rather than long-term goals—showing that we can deliver the monthly sales target or the quarterly earnings plan or whatever it might be. So, when the pressure comes on, the focus inevitably becomes about the here and now. Which means that we trade off more risky activities with the potential of longer term return, for less risky activities that have a higher guaranteed return in the short term.

I recently attended the Institute of Directors Conference where there was a very interesting presentation about the balance (or perhaps the lack of balance) between the time spent on what was called “exploiting” (maximising the business as it is today) and time spent “exploring”  (which is all about experimentation and changes of direction and higher risk appetite). The argument put forward at the conference, and it was hard to argue against, is that most businesses spend too much time on exploiting conversations, because of the need to deliver results today, and no where near enough time on exploring.

The challenge I put out to marketers is to be the champions of the explore culture. This is an area that marketing should own. We should be the ones who come forward with thoughts around the future and battle against short-term thinking. It’s also part of the way that marketing can elevate its importance at the board table. In my experience, boards do actually want to hear about the explore stuff – and they regularly complain that they don’t get enough of it. Marketers should drive this.

No boundaries

It’s my belief that marketing is an organisational competency not a function or role. One of my favourite quotes is from Dave Packard of Hewlett and Packard fame who once said, “marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department”.  

Within most organisations there are some areas that are clearly discrete functions and sit within functional teams and can only really be done by those functional teams. But marketing is not one of those.

We all know that our impression of a brand and our affinity or loyalty with a brand has to do with the collection of experiences we have with that brand—not just by the marketing that comes from that organisation. In fact, many would argue that the marketing piece is way down the list of important factors. There are plenty of studies that show that our likelihood to recommend a brand has very little to do with marketing in a traditional sense and much more with the customer experience at critical moments of truth.  

Regis McKenna, the Silicon Valley marketing guru, wrote a well-known article on this subject many years ago, in which he basically argued that “marketing is everything, and everything is marketing.” He argued that marketing is actually what business is all about.

There’s a couple of interesting implications coming out of that.  

The first is that all parts of an organisation need to understand that they are part of the collective marketing effort – and that marketing can’t be left to the marketing department alone. Marketing is all-pervasive in any organisation and should therefore be part of everyone’s job description. Whatever our role in the organisation we are marketing in some way, shape or form.

And the second implication is that marketers need to do a better job of viewing their role as a cross functional one. You will never do great marketing by sitting in the marketing department. And that’s because producing ads isn’t what marketing is about; the customer experience is actually what defines great recommendation and referral.  Yet how many marketers spend their time actually deeply understanding the other functions of the business and helping those functions to deliver that great customer experience?

Marketers must therefore focus on being the model for collaboration and co-creation.  Marketers must be the integrators within an organisation.  Marketers need to be the customer champion, the process champion, the brand champion – marketers need to define the way a company does business not just the marketing that it does.   

We, the influencers

And finally, we marketers need to do a better job at building our influence within our organisations.

How do we do that?  Well, part of it  (surprise, surprise) is about marketing ourselves better. We need to do a better job of defining what the function of marketing is within our organisations; we need to demonstrate that marketing is everything.  We need to be the integrators, the collaborators; we need to take ownership for more than just the traditional marketing stuff; we need to be the innovators and the explorers.

We also need to have a strong business perspective, and be able to hold our own with the likes of the finance and operations and IT departments.  Having somewhat glibly said that measurability may be killing marketing, we do need to be careful not to take that to extremes. Clearly irresponsible and unaccountable marketing is not what we’re after. But we should also be advocating for a balanced scorecard and for ROI that is not one dimensional. We need to be able to argue our case from both a rational and emotional perspective.  And importantly we need to be able to influence other areas of the business – to be advocates for customers and the customer experience.

The belief that marketers need to market themselves better, and that we have more value to add to business in general, is part of the reason behind my decision to take up the role of Chair at the Marketing Association. The MA has a critical role in assisting marketers to elevate their importance within the business community, and I am very much looking forward to working with the great team at the MA to achieve that aim.

  • Lance Walker is the chair of the Marketing Association. 

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