Responsible for everything, accountable for nothing

I once had a guy work for me who had made a cross-functional move (remember them?) from HR into marketing. He stuck it a couple of years before heading back, his parting shot being that 'a brand manager is responsible for everything, but accountable for nothing.'

I once had a guy work for me who had made a cross-functional move (remember them?) from HR into marketing. He stuck it a couple of years before heading back, his parting shot being that ‘a brand manager is responsible for everything, but accountable for nothing.’

He was referring, of course, to the nannying role that marketers must play in the Herculean task of aligning the disparate business functions behind an overarching consumer strategy. Though what he would make of it now, from his lofty position on the HR totem pole, defies imagination.

Marketers as nannies has been a part of the job since P&G first defined the discipline in the 1930s, but has subsequently become infinitely more complex, to the point where one must question its ongoing

validity. What used to be an ability to run a multi-disciplinary project to time has now become an almost impossible task akin to herding a vast litter of naughty cats. There are just so many more individual components in being able to present a coherent and cohesive face to the consumer today compared to when the role was defined.

Firstly, the amorphous ‘trade’ became a multitude of different channels and then customers, each of whom had their own strategies and needs which, if not understood, opened one up to the accusation of ‘marketing being out of touch with the sharp end.’ The alleged solution to this of a trade marketing department has proved not only a disappointment, but a positive hindrance. I have yet to meet any head of marketing who isn’t either: a) arguing with the head of sales as to who should own them, b) planning to reorganize them if she owns them, or c) ignoring them if she doesn’t own them.

This exponential increase in the complexities of the job has been further compounded by the parallel fragmentation of the media world coupled with the resulting explosion in agencies, consultants and the like who realize that the future is in specialization as they greedily circle the festering carcasses of the one-stop agencies.

So here’s my big theory on the upshot of all this: The job of brand management has now become too complex for any one person to be good at all of it. It is simply impossible to understand every single component, let alone run around directing and reconciling every detail. What suffers is the softer side of the job, understanding the consumer.

Brand managers would once spend hours in research debriefs, quizzing the moderator on points of interpretation, out of which would come a deeper understanding. That degenerated firstly into a habit of not reading the full report, but relying on whatever charts the moderator had deemed fit to present. Then requests came in to reduce the presentation down to the management summary. Now, I am reliably informed by horrified long-serving members of the research community, marketers gloss over the management summary and simply ask: ‘What should we do?’

The answer is for the brand manager to cease to try to do everything: to become the conductor rather than trying to play every instrument. This would necessitate a combination of internal delegation and external outsourcing. Disband trade marketing and set up an activity management function, leaving them to run implementation. Appoint a lead agency for every project, leaving them to manage the other agencies. Spend your time understanding the consumer, and then evangelizing the learnings to an aligned group of senior-level partners – a brand ‘board of directors.’

The term brand management is an abuse of the term ‘management’; the current reality is brand micro-management. But then if it was called that, anyone who had any brains would be clamouring for a job in HR.

Twenty-plus years in marketing were enough for John Bradley; he left to do other things that interest him. He writes this column to help the next generation of marketers simplify an overly complex profession. He values and responds to feedback at johnbradley@yknotsolutions.com.