How marketing departments can boost their failing grade

From earning business influence to giving agencies tactical work, John Bradley and Carrie Bradley have ways to earn extra credit.


By John Bradley and Carrie Bradley

As part of our quest to keep our collective finger on the global pulse, every month we take part in a Zoom meeting with expert marketing academics and practitioners from around the world. The topic of the last meeting was, “How will future history judge the performance of the marketing profession during the 2020-2021 global pandemic?”

The answers were fairly unequivocal. We collectively agreed on a D-minus.

If this lowly score surprises you, bear in mind that “future history” is not the same thing as “advertising awards panel.” There is good work being done at the tactical level, there always is. But measured by the impact marketing has in the now-virtual c-suite, there can be no question that the marketing profession has lost ground.

We collectively determined there were three over-riding factors at play in this loss of influence at the business strategy level: the rising prominence of disciplines more focused on business continuity; a reduction in marketers’ ability to be the authentic voice of consumers (and value chain intermediaries); and the longer-term perceptual change of marketing in the c-suite from brand builders to sales activators, something that compounds the other two factors.

Let us consider each in turn.

Firstly, there can be no doubt that the pandemic has completely changed the nature of business strategy discussions. Initially, for companies making and selling goods, it was supply chain that stepped up, ensuring continuity in the supply of raw materials and packaging. For services companies, IT was the go-to function to enable the dispersal of call centres, service centres and the like to a working-from-home configuration. But, as the pandemic wore on and the initial Zoom novelty wore off, HR professionals suddenly found themselves the centre of attention in coming up with company-wide solutions to burnout. Marketing’s contribution to all this? Sidelined, replacing HR and IT as the last to speak and the least heard.

Secondly, an interesting consequence of corporate travel bans has been the impact on marketers’ ability to bring back intel from the field. Good marketers were never in the office much anyway. They were out visiting call centres, meeting with customers, listening to consumers, shopping with consumers, filling dishwashers with consumers. The insights gleaned from such interactions were used in two ways: food to nurture future programmes, and ammunition to launch at other business functions to get their acts together in delivering the current standards of products and services. Both these critical business interventions have now all but ceased, along with the business-wide influence for the marketing function they used to bring.

Finally, these seismic shifts have been compounded by an own goal long in the making. Binet & Field’s recommendation of splitting marketing spend 60/40 between brand building and sales activation has been a much-valued finding. But, unfortunately, that’s not how it looks to everyone else in the virtual c-suite. Time spent, activities launched, measures of efficiency and effectiveness do not split 60/40; it’s more like 5/95. Marketers today look and sound like tacticians, not strategists, a problem made even worse by the loss of productive time in the field.

All the time filled gleaning those valuable insights about the present and the future has been redirected to even more agency pestering. “Give me five ideas by end today for tweets about World IBD Day” fired off to the agency has replaced “Why is our stock rotation so bad in Retailer X?” impaling the regional sales manager.

However, the obituary of marketing has been written more than once before, and the discipline has evolved to head off irrelevance, as it must do again. A D-minus can be turned around by gaining extra credits.

Those extra credits, we believe, lie in finding new ways – and time – to radically increase engagement with the rest of the business and with consumers. Since time is finite, our favored great leap forward lies in delegating tactical sales activation to agencies – trust them to spread their wings, and hold them accountable if they don’t, supported by a new effectiveness/reward model.

For what can happen when marketers just talk to themselves, Gillette is bottom of the class. While they were commendably making ads about male toxicity, they completely missed the two biggest category trends of the last decade: a new business model – DTC – and two new consumer preferences – beards and body-shaving.

Don’t let that happen to you. Marketers, of all people, should know that reputation, once lost, is very hard to recover.

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