Pacesetter or passenger?

I was attending a luncheon the other day with several hundred oil and gas industry marketing folks, enjoying the food and experience of dining at one of Houston’s finest country clubs. At my table were four bright-eyed, intelligent young ladies, all employed in marketing communications by a leading oil equipment and services company. It’s hard to guess ages, but they were easily shy of the thirty-year mark.

It took me back to 1992, the year I spent as chairman of the Business Marketing Association. I made an honest effort that year to visit all of the association’s 30 or so chapters and share some of my chairman-like wisdom with BMA members. The title of my talk was, “Pacesetter or passenger?”

The reason I chose that subject was, even 20 years ago, the average age of marcom practitioners was dropping rapidly, along with the relative influence of our members. No longer was it common for marketing communication managers to have titles like senior vice president and report directly to the chief executive officer (who in those days was referred to simply as president). With every reorganization the marcom function was being forced further down the corporate ladder.

As I sat there listening to my luncheon companions laugh and talk amongst themselves, I wondered how much influence they were having on their company’s strategic direction. Were they helping chart the course and steer the ship, or were they just along for the ride?

It seems like an impossible question for people with limited experience in large organizations. Not only are you left out of the sessions where strategy is determined, often you have to make a Herculean effort just to find out what strategies have been adopted. As I advised my BMA colleagues 20 years ago, however, there are several things you can do to insert yourself in the decision-making loop.

1. Understand corporate priorities

It’s hard to master anything if you’re out of step with what top management wants for the company. Understanding the “corporate vision” is not that easy, but by scrutinizing annual reports, long range plans, mission statements and other vision-setting documents blessed by top management, you should be able to pick up clues about issues and initiatives that are critically important.

The most direct way to determine top management priorities is to ask someone. But make sure it’s someone who really knows. A lot of people act like they are “plugged in” to C-level thinking, but they’re not.

And it’s important knowing what questions to ask. You’ve got to do a little homework before you can even approach the wavelength that top managers operate on. It’s best if you prepare questions from your perusal of “vision” documents, ones that will help you understand how things fit in the grand scheme.

2. Prepare a formal marketing communications plan

Most large companies have marcom plans that spell out what they hope to accomplish, how they intend to go about it, and who will have to be reached to accomplish their goals.

And yet it’s always surprising to discover how many companies never bother to link business-level marcom plans with strategic vision issues.

Preparing a formal plan forces managers to share their game plan with you, and it gives you the opportunity to add value by recommending complimentary strategies to support the corporate vision. Make sure your plan addresses all the issues.

3. Take initiative to get things started

Assuming you know what the corporate priorities are and have taken the time and effort to prepare a formal plan, now you can start using time to your advantage.

Stephen Covey, in his classic book, “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People,” points out there is a huge difference in effectiveness between people who exercise initiative and those who don’t — up to 5,000%, he says. Anticipate needs by putting key dates on your calendar and developing timetables so you aren’t caught off-guard.

Using another Covey tip, be sure to block time on your weekly schedule for the important activities that aren’t critical yet, but will be if you delay getting started. If one of your marcom strategies supports a corporate issue that’s beyond the scope of your usual topics, give yourself plenty of time to get the messaging developed.

4. Be an advertising scientist

In research-oriented companies, failure is encouraged because it promotes learning and leads to breakthrough successes later. Scientists develop the “ultimate” solutions by analyzing results and making each experiment a little better than the last. That’s what we should be doing with our advertising and marketing programs.

Many of our advertising forefathers were obsessed with measuring results so they might do better the next time. People like Claude Hopkins, Rosser Reeves, Marion Harper, John Caples and David Ogilvy all made research a key part of their rise to fame and fortune.

I’m convinced that if we, as marketing communications practitioners, are ever going to play a Pacesetting role for our clients, we’ve got to start doing a better job of measuring results and learning from our mistakes.

5. Be a strategist

Marketing communications people spend too much of our time doing tactical things. We worry too much about how to do something better, and not nearly enough about what should be done or why we should do it.

When the discussion turns to pricing, packaging or product distribution, we tune out — because that’s not our job. We’re oblivious to gaps in our product or service offering that put us at a competitive disadvantage. We pay attention to competitive advertising, but only to make sure our ads are more clever than theirs.

And we surely don’t ask field sales people for their opinions on our work because we’re afraid of what they might say. We don’t want them involved at the creative level, because they’ll get things all twisted around. Or so we think.

That’s the mark of a tactician, for sure. Marketing communications people who wish to play key roles in helping their companies achieve marketing success should stop being so concerned about “ownership” of tactical issues, and start looking for opportunities to participate in strategic activities that will make even bigger contributions.

So what’s it going to be — pacesetter or passenger? You can help chart the course and steer the ship or you can just go along for the ride. It’s one of the biggest choices a marketing communications practitioner can make.

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