Is this the eve of a marketing renaissance?

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley on why now might be the time for marketing to regain its influence in strategic business decisions.
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By John Bradley and Carrie Bradley

The long-term decline of marketing departments (and their agencies) from being in the business strategy driving seat to being the annoying kids getting up to mischief in the back has been a well-charted path. The rise of digital should have armed marketers to drive their businesses online, but it took a pandemic to get that message through to the decision-makers.

Instead, conference after conference took place in the tactical weeds of last-click attribution models and whose garden was walled or not – topics the rest of the c-suite quite rightly had no interest in.

But there are signs the tide may be finally be ripe for turning.

During last week’s online Festival of Marketing in the U.K., more than one keynote speaker honed in on the issue of marketing’s strategic impact within the c-suite. This has been high on The Bradley Group’s agenda for years now in our training and consulting practices, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed it to the very top for everyone.

The high-profile academic Mark Ritson here laid the blame for marketing’s lack of c-suite heft squarely at the feet of marketers themselves.

“We are always guilty of making the CFO the bête noire,” he said during a Q&A session during the festival. “We say, ‘the CFO is making us short-term, doesn’t understand the value of marketing, boo, hiss’….what we are missing is it’s our job to represent what we do because we are marketers. When the CFO doesn’t get the value of branding, doesn’t allow us to propose the budget, it is not the CFO’s fault, it is our fault.”

He is, of course, completely correct. A strategic marketing department is not one that produces lots of documents with the word ‘Strategy’ in the title, it is one that interprets what is happening in the outside world, comprehends the strategic implications to the entire business model and communicates the desired courses of action in terms the c-suite can comprehend and be inspired to act upon.

Over time, these core skills have eroded to the point where many marketing departments have become strategically impotent, a failing painfully exposed during the previous eight months. What consumers are thinking and feeling about brands, or ads, or packaging, or social media – never sell-out topics in most c-suites – has slipped further down the agenda since virtually all businesses were plunged into rudderless unpredictability.

However, now more than ever before, the mantra of every problem being a disguised opportunity is true for the discipline of marketing. All businesses, whether decimated or riding undreamt-of highs thanks to the pandemic, need a strategic marketing function at the heart of their decision-making.

American professor Scott Galloway argued during a Festival panel that such a role might present itself as Chief Intelligence Officers, whose role is to position themselves as “the person who is responsible for informing every part of the supply chain and understanding how the business maintains margin and differentiation.”

He may well be onto something. In our experience, the genuinely strategic marketers we have encountered within the c-suite excel at all three of the attributes required in Galloway’s CIO role: a deep understanding of how the totality of their business operates and makes money; financial literacy; and how to drive change through convoluted, arthritic decision-making processes.

Virtually every CMO in the country has the opportunity to regain the strategic hot seat because virtually every business has been massively impacted – positively or negatively – by the outside world that is post-March 2020. What every business sorely needs right now is what marketers and their agency partners bring to the table: knowledge of the external consumer world, a deep knowledge of the operational inter-dependencies within their own business and the ability to comprehend and communicate financial implications.

We predict 2021 will be a watershed for marketers. There will be those who can make the leap back into driving business strategy, helping their businesses survive and ultimately thrive in the most trying circumstances. There will be others who will continue to be sidelined, most likely permanently, from c-suite influence. But are these not the very circumstances in which marketers and their agency partners claim to excel: do or die – Fortune Favours the Brave?

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley are managing partners of The Bradley Group.