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The marketing decathlon

If a marketer wants to master the profession’s various disciplines, they must focus completely and ignore distractions
Marketing is replete with tasks where the tiniest detail can have weighty implications
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

If marketing were a sport, it would be the decathlon. Marketers have to be accomplished in a range of sub-disciplines as diverse in their way as the 100 metres and the shot-put. In a recent interview, Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer at P&G, argued that “today’s brand manager needs to have skills in social, search, consumer understanding, design, advertising, product development – the whole thing.”

Except that isn’t the whole thing, since it doesn’t even touch on the more classical disciplines of segmentation, portfolio analysis, internal marketing and pricing.

Marketers can feel justifiably proud of their all-round prowess, but they should stop confusing ‘multi-discipline’ with ‘multi-tasking’.

Perhaps they could take a tip from the real decathletes. Olympic champion Ashton Eaton does not suddenly hurl the javelin half way through the 400 metres, or carry the discus into the high jump; the tests are separate; the focus demanded for each is total.

The marketing propensity for blurring the disciplines, doing a bit of that while engaged in a session of this, is most obviously seen in the brand workshop.

A dozen top people fly in from distant corners of the world at considerable expense to round on a vital aspect of marketing strategy. Look around the room, though, and half of them are mentally somewhere else, on the laptop or smartphone.

When running workshops, I have always taken a hard line on two-timers. Originally, I would walk round the table with a big ruler, in a kind of branding version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Now I find shame a better deterrent: “Gary, we’ll all wait for you until you’ve finished your email.” Gary’s mumbled injunction to carry on without him is silently ignored. The result is that I get crossed off Gary’s Christmas card list but the group gets his full attention back.

Doing two things at once means that you’re skimming both. In a workshop, with others around you to take up the slack, this might not be terminal; in other areas, where the buck stops with you, it could be. The final pre-production meeting, the strategy session on social, the go-ahead to invest in a daring innovation: marketing is replete with tasks where the stakes are high and the tiniest detail can turn out to have weighty implications.

So be ruthless on yourself and on others in these marketing set-pieces. Close down all personal devices. Drill down into the numbers. Separate fact from opinion. Ask for clarifications and, if necessary, clarifications of the clarifications. Play devil’s advocate. Ask yourself if there might be a better way to solve the problem or spend the funds. Focus, focus, focus.

Underpinning all this should be training for the whole team in each of the disciplines you deem most important to your brand – plus some more generalised learning, such as a mini-MBA, to promote the intellectual equivalent of fitness.

It’s a different way of working from the one most of us are familiar with – flitting between tasks on the run, goaded by the constant prodding of technology. It is unlikely to come easy at first. Just remind yourself, though, it’s the decathlon we’re talking about here, not Jeux Sans Frontières.

Steve Jobs – “simple can be harder than complex”

Steve Jobs “simple can be harder than complex”

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Steve Jobs

“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.”
Tony Robbins (US motivational speaker)

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
Alexander Graham Bell

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.”
Bruce Lee

“One of the keys to thinking big is total focus. I think of it almost as a controlled neurosis, which is a quality I’ve noticed in many highly successful entrepreneurs.”
Donald Trump

“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
Zen Proverb