Is the age of the marketing department over?

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
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Picture yourself in your company’s conference room. The blinds are drawn for the overhead projector, killing all natural light. There is a plate of crumbs where the biscuits used to be. Coffee mugs have been drained. Souls have been destroyed.

It’s your marketing department’s strategy presentation. It has taken two years of planning and far too many meetings for the next five-year plan to become a PowerPoint presentation and it feels like another two years remain until you can leave the room. This deck of box-and-line diagrams stating one vacuous truism after another resembles some kind of inept homage to Mondrian.

The customers it describes resemble no one you know — or want to know. By the end of the presentation it occurs to you that it might be best to simply fire the entire marketing department. Surely everybody would be happier?

A little harsh, perhaps, but also more than a little true.

Start with a skeleton

As Jack Welch, the chairman and CEO of GE for 20 years, told Alastair Campbell in Campbell’s recent book Winners: And How They Succeed, it is vital not to overbrain things to the point of inaction”. In 2015, there remain far too many departments in far too many companies that still don’t seem to have got the message, the chief marketing and strategy officer among them.

In 2011, Eric Ries published The Lean Startup, in which he argued that new businesses today need to start with a skeleton and then to layer on muscle and tissue only as they become successful. Try to avoid fat though; if you’ve come to the stage of the two-hour marketing meeting, it may be time to hit the gym. The lean start-up is agile, responsive and experimental, the exact opposite of what big business marketing teams have become.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Steve Blank argues that the traditional approach — the elaborate plan, the pitch and, finally, the product — has been replaced by a “business model canvas”. This is a much more flexible formula in which the endlessly gestated, long-winded, decided-by-committee marketing plan gives way to a series of hypotheses for a “minimum viable product”. Instead of pay-cheque-justifying middle-managers deciding the right course of action, it is clients and customers whose opinions have the greatest impact. As the MVP approach gains more traction, the course of action becomes apparent.

In other words, you don’t spend two years coming up with a plan only to find out it doesn’t work. You throw out numerous feelers and educated guesses, see how they perform, respond to feedback and then get your “just good enough” product out quickly.

Trial and iteration

Instead of a slow and unwieldy marketing department, what companies need is a team of experimenters; a small group of empowered individuals that can dream up and execute concepts quickly in a culture of trial and, to use another piece of industry terminology, iteration.

I learnt this when I set up my own business. We had no charts, no diagrams and no guff. It is far more important to experiment, to test, to refine and to retrial than to spend years generating plans. Try stuff out. Experiment. If it works, improve it. If it doesn’t, bin it. It’s only based on data that I will invest resources and budget into something. As the saying goes, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

It is not only start-ups that can employ this formula. Google has taken Welch’s message to heart, shedding its excess flab with a microscopic marketing team that accounts for less than 1% of its global workforce. Yet it delivers the same level of awareness as Microsoft’s vastly bulkier team.

Matt Brittin, EMEA Business & Operations President at Google, says: “Global distribution, marketing and talent were once the preserve of the multinationals but today are available to everyone through your phone. It’s small businesses which are learning how to put these to work fastest. They try, learn, and scale up.”

Real-world examples of this model are everywhere. Look at Pebble, the bestselling watch of all time. Or the Raspberry Pi, which has sold more than 5 million units in three years. And consider Roominate, a start-up designed to inspire girls’ confidence in science and technology. Its dollhouse kit appeared on the market just three weeks after the process of testing and iterating.

In this new world, we need to strip off the excess and aim for a more agile, versatile and experimental formula. The age of the marketing department is dead. The age of experimentation is alive.

Author: Belinda Parmar OBE is the CEO of Lady Geek, author of The Empathy Era, and a Young Global Leader. She tweets at @belindaparmar

Image: Pedestrians walk underneath a giant new advertising screen in Times Square, New York, November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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