Is Marketing Its Own Worst Enemy?

February 1, 2018

by Carla Johnson

People have been talking about marketing’s need to change for as long as marketing’s been around.

We’re told to adjust or perish. Choose between surviving and thriving. Stop taking orders and start creating value.

But marketing has the potential to be much more than any of these best-case scenarios. Which is exactly the point of the latest book by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose. Killing Marketing: How Innovative Businesses are Turning Marketing Cost into Profit explores how what we know to be certain about marketing may be exactly what’s holding us back.

Since the beginning of time marketing has been an expense on the balance sheet of business. But we’re seeing astute brands taking a deviation from this approach and becoming so bold as to establish marketing as a profit center, side-by-side in delivering value to the bottom list as products. Does that mean that marketing as we know it no longer exists?

Robert Rose, Chief Strategy Advisor, the Content Marketing Institute and Founder, The Content Advisory.

I spent time with Robert Rose to ask what the future of business looks like in a content-driven world and if we should get out our “RIP Marketing” signage.

CJ: Should we even call marketing ‘marketing’ anymore? Would a new term help distinguish companies with legacy perceptions about the role from those who understand the bigger potential?

RR: Maybe. And, certainly, there are questions of whether the entire practice needs to be segmented into more manageable pieces. Really, I find many businesses are asking “is marketing too big of a concept for one department?”  You’re seeing this manifest with companies rolling out things like “Chief Experience Officer” and “Chief Content Officer” and “Chief Digital Officer.” But regardless of what it’s called, what’s really lacking is the fundamentals of marketing. In so many ways businesses have institutional amnesia of what marketing’s function even is. And, if they would just get back to the basics, they’d be a lot better off.

CJ: One of the things I love about Killing Marketing is that you show how audiences can become an asset. I think most companies don’t look at audiences, they look at people in terms of where they can get brand awareness at the top of the funnel. These are very different mindsets.

RR: Yeah, we have spent our entire marketing careers trying to figure out how to program our interruptive messages on other people’s platforms. We craft the perfect message for a brochure or catalog that sits in someone’s mailbox or create a 30-second spot on television, write the perfect email, or shootout thirty Facebook posts. Our entire content creation mindset is one of, “How can I fit my centralized message into someone else’s audience so that they might notice me?” The idea that a brand can now actually become the channel that people aggregate around, and subscribe to, is just a fundamentally different approach.

CJ: In most B2B companies, everyone outside of marketing looks at marketing as a tactical group that takes orders. They’re the ones with the shirts and golf balls that you give away at tradeshows. How well is the idea of viewing marketing as a profit center being accepted by B2B companies?

RR: It’s a culture shift for sure. In B2B organizations value has been historically created within either product or subject matter expertise. And so, the engineers, the subject matter experts, the product development people, etc., are the ones used to having the sole responsibility for the creation of value in the business.

Sales is viewed as the engine that retrieves the value the organization creates. And marketing is seen as simply the group that can cleverly “describe” the value of the organization. When the idea of creating value through content comes up – whether that’s thought leadership or some other monetizable method of using content profitably – the organization’s immediate reaction is to try and figure out how engineering, or product, or subject matter expertise can manage that. And, since it’s not seen as core to the business’s overall mission, it’s usually deprecated to a “nice-to-have” or an “if-sales-needs-it” kind of thing.

But transforming marketing into an organization that actually creates value is just a foreign concept to most B2B organizations. However, those that are willing to open to it are seeing some remarkable results.

CJ: You tell a great story of work that you and Joe did with a B2B manufacturing company. They made the investment to hire their first-ever marketing person and at the end of that first year, they saw a 650 percent increase in sales! When they dug into which campaigns brought them success, it turns out, that on their own every one of them was a failure. But everything working together – the campaigns, PR, advertising and so on – is what generated the sales. 

RR: Yeah, the quote that I love is when the CFO said, “What happened? Well, I guess marketing happened.”

Attribution in marketing is something that every business has struggled with since the beginning of our beloved practice. And the first moral of that story is that if you look only at the data points of individual campaigns, you miss the bigger picture. It’s a little like the how do you measure the coastline of Britain problem. If you measure it by the inch it’s exponentially longer than if you measure it by the mile.

The second moral of that story is that measuring attribution by segmenting departments is also difficult – because everyone thinks their efforts are the one that moved the needle. The magic of adding marketing is that when things work together, and in an integrated way, you get a machine that produces more than the sum of its parts.

CJ: So many marketers focus on the metrics and that if you can’t prove ROI, then you shouldn’t do it. But you also tell the story of a company that continued to shrink its marketing investment until it could show ROI, but the result was that the company’s sales also shrunk. 

RR: Indeed, the biggest mistake in the “ROI” challenge is that it’s seen as an efficiency problem, rather than a true “investment.” In other words, the goal with most ROI equations in marketing expense becomes, “how cheaply can I do something?” And, as any investor will tell you, it’s the real rate of return that’s important. If I spend a dollar and get two dollars back – my rate of return is 200%… But if I spend ten dollars and get $13 back my rate of return is only 30% but I’ve made more money. So, judging marketing only by the rate of return incentivizes marketers to not do anything risky or creative – and only make small, and (most importantly), short-term bets. The difference is when we can actually start to look at audiences as assets that actually compound in value over time – and transform marketing from its day trading ways into long-term value investors.

CJ: How do you get marketers – and even executives – who are so focused on data and tracking the numbers, to understand the bigger business objective we need to accomplish?

RR: You have to build a business case that illustrates the long-term value. So, yeah, marketers have to do the math. That’s hard for a lot of marketers because, again, we’ve been so entrenched in this short-term game, and the “hustle” of production that we’ve simply forgotten how to build a long-term investment plan.

There’s a running joke that in the “old days” we used to build 5-year marketing plans, and now we have to build 5-hour marketing plans. But the joke is actually on us – because most businesses could really use a 5-year marketing plan.

CJ: What do you tell executives who are wrestling with this new model of what marketing should look like in their company, which is a long-term view, and their need to maintain or increase revenue in the short term? 

RR: Well, it’s a challenging conversation – because the pace of change really isn’t a one-size-fits-all. One of the things that we consultants can tend to forget is that disruptive change isn’t a cure-all for every business. Sometimes, a digital transformation, or a move to content marketing, or a long-term transition to marketing should come slowly.

But, it is coming. As Clayton Christensen said so wonderfully, “You may hate gravity, but gravity doesn’t care.”

The key I find is changing the question a bit. In today’s world, it’s not really about figuring out some concrete, new, manifestation of the marketing department that will exist in two or three years. It’s rather, asking ourselves, how do we build a marketing strategy that in two to three years can change and adapt quickly into any manifestation it needs. The question, therefore, isn’t what should we change into. It is rather, how do we build the ability to change.

CJ: In the last chapter, you give a slew of stats about how confidence in marketing is sliding fast. Clearly, marketers struggle with getting people outside of marketing to see our role in business differently. But could we marketers be our own worst enemy in changing the perception of what we do? Are we the ones most guilty of not ‘getting’ marketing?

RR: Oh goodness gracious yes. We are our own worst enemy so often because we are afraid to actually change ourselves. We operate from this mindset of “what if we’re wrong?” instead of “what if we’re right?” And, so, we keep doing the same thing over and over because it has institutional momentum.

One of my favorite statistics from CMI’s research this year was the one that more than half (52 percent) of companies continue to do things that are ineffective or inefficient simply because they have institutional momentum. If there’s one thing we simply have to be better at, it’s learning that some of the things we are doing – no matter how long (or short) we’ve been doing them – simply aren’t working.

CJ: If a CMO asked you to give them one thing they can do today to move their team in the direction of where marketing out to be, what advice would you give them? 

RR: Ask your business honestly if they were to full stop production of content today – no more social posts, blogs, white papers, collateral, brochures, web pages, everything – who would miss it? Would your customers call you and say, “I miss your Friday newsletter?” If the only answer is “us,” then we need to really ask ourselves what should we stop doing, so that we might try something new.

Photo credit: Pixaby

About Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands hasn’t gone unnoticed and the latest of her seven books, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketingsets the benchmark for a new era in marketing. Named one of the top 50 women in marketing and the chair of the ANA’s Business Marketing Association, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking.

Today, Carla travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.