A friend of mine in New York got a well-deserved new job about two weeks ago, and I called him up the other day to ask how things were going.
"Good," he said. "But I'm not sure about my boss."
Uh-oh, I thought. Bad moon rising (or for those of you with marginal hearing, bathroom on the right).
"What's up?" I said.
"I don't think he has a handle on strategy and tactics," he answered. "Everything he thinks is strategy is tactics, and everything he thinks is tactics – well, that's tactics too. He's got a billion ways to get things done but no idea where he's come from and where he's going."
Heard it. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that refrain I'd have enough for a peppermint latte at McDonald's, but only for a limited time.
One of the major ailments afflicting marketing directors is their embrace of the "director" at the expense of "marketing." Along with the secret handshake and the now-obligatory iPad some marketing directors are presented with a game of Risk on their first day, one of the fancy ones that looks like your dog-eared copy of New Mexico Statutes, 1956, only this game has “design” and “point-of-sale” and “brand management” and “corporate communications” and “marketing research” instead of Europe and Asia and the rest of the Risk worlds to conquer.
Once presented with this game, the average marketing director does about what you’d expect of it (marketing directors, like so many other people in marketing, being not awfully far down the road out of childhood): She plays with it the game all the time, like a steampunk version of Angry Birds, and draws boxes and concocts spreadsheets detailing utilization of resources – her resources, because they are her small plastic pieces – all to a near-total neglect of the actual objectives of marketing direction, which is to – say it with me – direct marketing. And that means furthering the direction of the overarching brand – corporate image, mission statement, divisional imperative, what have you – through specific substrategies, including individual brand management and marketing, and then executing those specific substrategies using a variety of tactics.
It's nothing more than the old targeted application of common sense, but in the service of an overarching, all-encompassing strategy. As the master marketer Thomas Carlyle called it, “On earth, the broken arcs; in heaven the perfect sphere.” On the ground you may only see a piece of the marketing strategy, but you see the whole thing when you get far enough off the ground. The trick is to shed the lead boots of marketing administration and ascend to the realms of true marketing direction.
It’s not easy. A marketing director has to know the big picture before she can tackle any of the little pictures, but when she’s thrust into the position what does she see? A whole bunch of little pictures with their mouths open, waiting for her to regurgitate dinner. The actual rising-above requires nothing more strenuous than thinking, but the thinking requires time, and there never seems to be any time whatsoever – especially when she could be playing Angry Birds. Or Risk.
However, without that breath to ascend and grasp the larger picture, you are sentenced to forever matriculate at the Firesign Theater School of Marketing, whose motto is, “How can you be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?” I know I’ve said in the past that a good marketer can be dropped into a metaphorical desert and market her way out of it (see Menard, D. L., “Wherever You Are, There You Is”), but you need a compass to get out of that particular nowhere, and that compass is called having the overall brand strategy ensconced firmly in your noggin, and letting your direction – your way out – flow from there.
Without that, it’s like you’re going on a trip, and you know you’re taking a Prius because it gets 60 MPG highway and you really like the new ad jingle, and you’re riding on Goodyear Assurance TripleTreds because it might snow, and you’re going to take I-94 for a stretch because it’s really straight and the trucks stay away during the week, and then turn off on Highway 29 because it’s pretty, and stay at a Holiday Inn Express because you like the breakfast, and drive six hours before letting someone else drive six hours, and stop every four hours for gas and .. well, you know, and buy exactly 1.65 roller dogs during the trip – all without knowing where you came from and where you’re going.
Choosing a road may seem like a strategy, but it’s a tactic. Knowing that you have to get from Tehachapi to Tonopah is a strategy. Once you know that, everything else is just execution and details.
There’s no excuse for a marketing director – or anyone in marketing, really – not knowing overall brand direction. It tells you what to do -- down to the nth detail, if you let it.
Look at it this way: Do you go off blithely in other facets of your life and hope you wind up somewhere appropriate? When you drive to the grocery store do you drive west hoping to find a grocery store because you like driving west, or do you drive to the grocery store? When you shave your face or your legs do you just start shaving anywhere, figuring you’ll get to the right spot in time? Completely daft, yet I can’t count the marketers who just go gaily marketing away without knowing where the merry pharalope they’re going, until they wind up in some salt marsh and have to call on sales or the CFO or someone to bail them out.
If the marketing director is responsible for overall brand identity, it's her responsibility to communicate it to --and beyond that, inculcate it in -- her department and all regions and realms that her scepter touches, including the mail room. If the person responsible for overall brand identity resides above the marketing director but south of the mail room, it's again the director's obligation to snatch that identity and inculcate merrily once more.
The real trouble starts when the neither the marketing director nor anyone at any of the layers above is thinking big brand thoughts. These cases call for a little subversive action.
Someone has to think higher brand thoughts, and if the marketing director is too tied up in her game of Risk and her spreadsheet with the stages and gates done up in carmine and chartreuse to do it and a sub-direction person has to pick up the standard, then they have to carry it with all the Salvation Army tambourine-beater spirit they have in their soul. If that's you, and you have to shout it from the housetops, shout and keep shouting. If it gets you in trouble with the boss, keep shouting, If it costs you your job ... it won't cost you your job. At some point short of that the marketing director will hear all the commotion and realize she'd better get behind this or be ready to do some 'splainin', Lucy.
What happens sometimes is that no one has a brand idea. Maybe a brand has been around forever and is operating in a sort of self-perpetuating catatonia, like George Will, or is functioning with a giant inflatable marketing director, like the autopilot in Airplane! but with prettier spreadsheets. Maybe a brand has been mandated from above to plug a perceived hole and is just commencing on a brutish life of insufficient sales and insufferable bickering about positioning. Maybe the keeper of the brand has moved on. It's not wrong to try to fill a total brand-identity vacuum, but it can't be done half-heartedly, or by substituting short-term tactical thinking for the strategy that's needed.
Marketing is too important to be wasted on things that shouldn't be marketed, or sent off on summer-camp branding exercises that fade as soon as fall rolls around. The only way to maximize marketing's impact is to have a clear idea of what needs to be marketed in the first place. Is that so hard? Apparently it is.