Recession: The saviour of marketing

By Grant Maxwell – Client Service Director, Uprise Digital

Let’s face it: We’re in a recession. Whether the expert calculations have officially confirmed it or not, it’s pretty clear that the world’s economy is in a big hole, and it’s going to take a lot of collective hard slog over a long period of time to get back to anything like the oft-mentioned but seldom-defined “new normal”.

So who’s going to lead the way?

Looking back to the GFC, there was a saying that got bandied around: that businesses started being run by accountants, engineers – all the sensible, prudent people who held the trust and confidence of the board and the shareholders. Companies set their plans to rebuild in a steady, prudent and completely risk averse manner.

It was not the time or place for marketers – after all, they are just the “colouring in department”, and certainly not accountable enough to steer a company carefully and steadily back to health.

Hence, the second budget to be cut (after people) was marketing. If not the first. After all, it was a luxury to invest in the brand, and a recession is not a time for luxuries.

And so began a period of marketing austerity. Quickly we learned that the only way to win back budget was to be able to show a business case that essentially stated “If we spend $X, we can generate $2X (or better) in sales”.

The problem was that it wasn’t easy to directly measure the impact of marketing spend with any accuracy. It wasn’t how we were used to working.

Fast forward to today. It’s happening all over again. Vastly different cause, but equally destructive outcomes – possibly worse if you believe some of the predictions.

But this time, things are different. This time marketing has the opportunity to lead. Why? Because it has become measurable. The proliferation of digital tools and platforms means that all facets of marketing can now be measured. Measurement leads to learnings, and learnings lead to accountability. Of marketing.

Crikey. Who’d have thought it?

Consider the Kiwisaver situation for a moment: How quickly did the panic set in as people realised that their nest egg could be decimated by the worldwide sharemarket collapse. The experts pleaded with Kiwis to stay the course. Avoid the temptation to move everything to a conservative plan. Why? Because conservative returns are always modest, so in effect you are guaranteeing the slowest recovery of your losses. The growth plans are the ones that are most likely to climb back out quickest. And that’s the goal, surely? And so it appears to be – albeit early days yet.

Could it be that marketing – the new, measured, more accountable marketing – is the “growth” plan for business? The thing that is most likely to expedite a strong recovery? Rather than the tepid, structured, austerity approach of post GFC businesses a decade ago.

I believe that those businesses that recognised the need to make marketing more accountable after the GFC are the ones that will recover quickest from this COVID induced nightmare. They will have the best of both worlds – the higher returns of a marketing led approach, but without the risk that the “old marketing” brought with it.

Because they measure, and they learn. They can confidently stand in front of the board and say “If we spend this, we’ll get the ROI you demand”.

Imagine that – marketing as the most accountable part of a business. It’s possible – in fact it exists for some businesses already. And in a perverse way, we must credit recessions for making it so.

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