Dear CMO:

Marketing is dead. Ask anyone. The current business press and the vast community of marketing pundits are in lock-step agreement that marketing is dead. And buried. I understand from Booz Allen’s Strategy+Business that marketers’ skill sets are out of date, that the marketer of the future comes from a decentralized and team-based management environment, and that the old models of influencing markets — based on mass media — are dead and that new media, much of which is as-of-yet undiscovered, is the new thing. Next, I understand from the Killer Innovations podcast that the marketer of the future is a Masters of Fine Arts major. And, to add insult to injury, Nirmalya Kumar’s new and excellent book “Marketing as Strategy” advises us that marketers are no longer welcome in the executive suite or at the senior staff level because they lack the gravity of their counterparts in operations, sales, and finance.

Not surprisingly, marketers themselves report that only 9% are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their careers, compared to 35% being ‘extremely dissatisfied’. Apparently being at the butt-end of the corporate pie-fight isn’t satisfying to people with 18+ years of education.

While ritual suicide is an option, an alternative to this often irreversible step is to peel back the onion, understand the bias of the propagators, and label the lot of it complete hogwash. Hogwash. The current spate of self-flagellation is unfortunate and probably not over yet, the demise of CMO Magazine notwithstanding (the only advertiser I can think of who would have found this title appealing for their media planning, given the state of its readership, was Prozac).

There is nothing wrong with marketing. There may be something wrong with marketers, but the discipline is fine. Why is this avalanche of bad press all hogwash? Let’s take this one step at a time. The truth will come out.

‘One Venti bathwater, marked with new economy foolishness, hold the critical thinking’

So, according to Strategy+Business, all that brand management experience you’ve been accumulating over the years is obsolete. It’s not about understanding your market, or handling the people, strategy and money or producing great creative that reaches your market where they are most apt to react positively towards it. It’s about… what, exactly? Oh, I see. You need to understand online media, you need to be closer to your customers’ wants and needs, you need to do math… you know, when you actually look closely, apparently not much has really changed at the high level. Just the tactical level. Yes, media choices have evolved and the ability to gain more customer insights are greater than ever. I thought this would be good news.

And in this ‘new’ age of accountability, rapid prototyping, in-house creative control and mathematical prowess, how completely impossible it is to measure with any financial certainty the results from most of these new media choices? What exactly is the ROI of a blog? How about a two minute media snack on iFilm or YouTube? Do you want to put an integrated marketing campaign replete with data traps behind this test? That’s a lot of work for a quick ‘what-if’. I thought testing was all about quick action and resolution. If you hear the sound of a consultant somewhere choking on bathwater, this is probably the reason why.

Consider this article, and all those which fall in its footsteps, debunked.

‘Yes, but is it art?’

Do you subscribe to Killer Innovations? At the moment, I do. And I’ve been told that Masters of Fine Arts are the new wave of the marketing suite. I’m all for innovation, but to check facts, have you ever met a Masters of Fine Arts candidate? They are interesting people. They are, at their very cores, creatives. They are artists. They are conceptual thinkers. They can create representations that speak to your market’s emotions, given guidance. I would call on an MFA in an instant to help breathe life into my product’s positioning.

But I don’t want one running my business. I’d never feed one to a salesperson. And I’m not sure I’d put one in front of the board. This is not criticism. I’ve managed creatives my whole career in one form or another. They choose this career path for a reason — they don’t want to do what I do for a living, which is fine by both of us.

MBA’s exist because we’re wired to solve complex problems that lie at the core of the modern enterprise. Marketers emerge from this curriculum because we’re wired to solve problems that involve the causes and effects of human interaction — how people respond to stimuli, from words to sounds to images, but not necessarily the creation of the stimuli itself.

Measuring the ROI of One Hand Clapping

Want another reason why this marketing-bashing is completely and irretrievably wrong headed? You can’t name another department in the company held to the same degree of financial accountability and discipline.

Can the head of sales tell you the ROI of having a western regional sales manager? If that person was eliminated tomorrow, what would happen? How many regions have open sales positions where the sell through remains stable despite the hole in the org chart? Why the failure to justify channel partner entitlements handed out like so many after-dinner mints? Sales doesn’t know. And the point is never pressed.

Can the VP of Operations provide guidance on the financial return on one dollar spent in his department? Yes, I know, if they don’t ship it, you won’t get the revenue. But that’s not an answer. Most of Ops can be outsourced — so prove to me why they shouldn’t be.

Finance will throw SOX compliance in the air like witch doctors warding away evil spirits, but can they justify the ROI of a sprawling organization that outnumbers sales three-to-one?

Engineering? Human Resources? Manufacturing? None of these groups are called upon at budget time to justify themselves in financial terms. There may be
exceptions to this, but I’ve never, ever seen them.

But marketing must. On a project by project basis. And, not surprisingly, we do. We’ve been conditioned to financially justify our existence on a quarterly basis. And we’re the only ones.

Upstairs, downstairs

The next executive who smugly gets up in front of a microphone and says something along the lines of, “… marketing is too important to be left to marketers, haw haw…” needs to spend six months running shows and events, a re-education process that would make the poor bastard wish he was vacationing in the rough with the Khmer Rouge.

I don’t think marketing has let management down; but I’m not sure the opposite isn’t true. Why? We lack a no-brainer metric. That’s it. It’s just too easy to measure sales by looking at revenue, when in reality it is a function of product viability, price elasticity, available inventory, consumer demand, launch success, and other factors that go far beyond the sales guy’s pitch. Operations can easily be measured as the percentage of order completion or other simple metrics, but these, too, are functions of forecasting variance, inventory levels, SKU rationalization, and others, none of which are caused by the Ops team. Finance can try to own something like DSO which can just as easily be attributed to sales terms and relationships. But what about marketing? There just isn’t an easy metric to look at, is there? And making one up does none of us any good. Just look at the compound fallacies above.

Evolution is good. Revolution is over-rated.

What tools do modern marketers need? Next generation versions of the ones they have today. There are new media choices available to you, from viral video and media snacks to SEM to integrated product placement to blogging, that go beyond ‘old media’ and you should test all of them if they make sense for your brand. Some will live beyond this fiscal year and some will disappear because they’re meaningless and over-hyped.

Next generation ‘customer insights’ go beyond focus groups and surveys. Thankfully. The tool set now includes anthropology — it’s not that consumers lie, it’s just that they just can’t tell you what they can’t tell you. So watch and learn. Psychology is an emerging field for the marketer and will play a role soon, but probably not yet. Neural mapping is still a bit too scary to most, but knowing that the amygdala gets increased blood flow when your customer sees the new packaging is a whole lot more convincing than having them tell you what they think they think you want to hear.

Marketing is dead. Long live marketing.

So what’s the future of marketing, if we’re all obsolete? Good news. You can’t save your way to growth so the answer is profitable demand creation. And this is where marketing lives.

Marketing is a fun place to work because best practices evolve. This doesn’t make the discipline obsolete. It makes it dynamic. So refrain from diving lemming-like off the cliff and accept that new choices are available to the smart marketer. This is a good development, not a sign of the coming apocalypse.

The next time you see, or read, or hear any of this pointless self-degradation aimed at the marketing community, say something in your brethren’s defense. In the words of a great 21st Century philosopher, “Never let a stupid comment go unpunished.” The marketing discipline isn’t dead. It’s alive, evolving, and as misunderstood as ever.

Hang in there & best regards.

Copyright © 2006 Stephen Denny