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Three steps to stasis

Like toxic interactions in medicine, each one alone can improve your team’s work, but taken together they can kill productivity.
Once, there were deadlines: brutal, bricked-in dates when stuff had to be ready, come what may
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.

There’s something about modern marketing practice that makes the production of meaningful outputs slow. Not just a bit slow; grindingly, achingly, glacially slow.

That planned Q3 launch gets delayed until Q1 – because it can’t just bounce into the holiday-fest that is Q4 – and from there it slides again, and drifts once more, until it ends up in Q3 after all. But next year, not this.

That global research initiative that was supposed to be debriefed around now is still marooned at the objective-setting stage.

Those new packs are on their way, just as they were when you last asked.

Managers in search of the ‘something’ that stalls marketing progress to the speed of rock erosion will be hard put to find it. Because invariably there is no single pernicious factor at work. Instead, it’s a combination of practices, procedures and norms that contrives to exert its gravitational drag.

What makes it insidious is that each single element in the combination is a good thing when considered alone. It’s a bit like in medicine, when Drug A is known to be efficacious against a certain condition, and Drug B is every bit as potent for another, but when both are taken at the same time by the same patient, you get some kind of disastrous outcome.

In medicine they are alert to it, since the stakes are high. They’ve done their homework. So, any overlap of those two otherwise marvellous interventions would be strictly contraindicated.

Well, it’s time for us to do our homework and look at the elements of our current practice that we accept and promulgate and hold in high esteem and ask ourselves if they might be disastrous when combined. Here are three that I suggest are tugging us back when, in our innocence, we put them together in overlap.


Contemporary marketing cultures are highly collaborative, with leaders reaching further than ever in the quest for reasoned consensus. Today, marketers at all levels can give voice to their views and expect them to be considered seriously; and it’s not unusual for marketing teams to consult representatives from adjacent functions, such as sales, R&D or even HR, before crystallising important decisions.

There are cynics who lampoon consensus as a means of ducking hard choices – a way not to be the one carrying the can. But when I think back to how it was when I was new in the industry, in testosterone-fuelled hierarchies, where it was extraordinarily exposing to be the only one out of line, it’s clear that progress has been made.

Collaboration does have its practical difficulties, though, not least of which is the challenge of getting everyone together at the same time. Recently, the CMO of a Scandinavia-based global brand told me the workshop couldn’t happen in July, since Sweden basically takes the whole month off, nor in August, because that’s when France and southern Europe go absent. Which means two months have passed and we’re not yet out of a single continent.

So, collaboration, even on its own, might come with a side-effects label that reads: may cause sluggishness. But the trade-off is worth it because although decisions take longer, they stand a better chance of being implemented, since all key players have been involved from the get-go. The real problems start when this first, and seminal, good thing gets combined with one or more of the other two.

Flexible working

Businesses seem to have decided that marketing is one of those functions that can be conducted pretty much anywhere, since it’s about what’s going on inside heads, rather than any practical engagement with corporate fixed assets.

For employees this is an unalloyed good, fostering a better balance between work and other aspects of daily life. And for managers it means the headache of hiring scarce marketing talent is ameliorated by the possibility of offering more flexibility than the competition.

Combine this with a collaborative culture, though, and the result is the endless wheel of Zoom. This cuts across urgency by making it easier for people to ‘jump’ to the next call before decisions are done. You can’t sort of follow them down the corridor and try to round on an issue that, with their say-so, you could quickly sort. It’ll have to wait.

The lionising of flexibility also has a linguistic, not just practical, effect. Once, there were deadlines: brutal, bricked-in dates when stuff had to be ready, come what may. Now, the language of flexibility prefers ‘timelines’, with their horizontal bars and coloured zones and moveable ‘target milestones’.

Timelines are flexible. And flexible is good, no? But notice how they are flexible in only one direction – later, not sooner. Perhaps they should mention that on the side-effects label.

Data-based decisions

Data is meat and drink to other corporate disciplines such as finance and operations but its rise to prominence in marketing is relatively recent. If we’re honest, a lot of marketing was once about hunch and bluster, and if we’re more honest still, there are some who would still have it that way.

But when the stakes are high and the board is being asked to sanction serious spending, the data to back it up will need to be there.

Whose data, though? That becomes the question when multidisciplinary teams are gathered to embark on a marketing assault. There will usually be a ton of it out there, much of it on consumer attitudes, and all of it up for debate. One region will point to findings from a buying behaviour audit, another will venture interpretations based on a global U&A study. Meanwhile, sales teams will claim that they, alone, really know what’s going on in customer hearts and minds.

A sensible way through might be to assign a smaller team to trawl through all existing data and research and extrapolate seminal themes. It rarely happens. Instead, the answer is invariably more research.

A selection of medical tablets spilling from a open bottle.Now it becomes a waiting game while objectives, targets, methodologies and budgets are endlessly discussed. And don’t underestimate the proclivity of research companies, sensing the culture of openness within the team, to add an additional layer of obfuscation by proposing to explore ideas of their own, based on what they believe does, or doesn’t, ‘work’.

Yes, data is good, but it is fiendishly hard to get the dose right.

I am only too aware that it is easier to describe these seemingly reasonable steps to stasis than it is to resolve the tensions between them. For what it is worth, though, I offer this simple corrective to help focus minds the next time you embark on a major marketing initiative.

The first decision made by the team will be the precise delivery date, and all will agree on its immovability. Everybody will be reminded of that date, in every meeting and every correspondence, through the simple expedient of it becoming the initiative’s code name.

So instead of calling it Project Mountain, or Project Athena, or Project True Blue, as happens now, it will be known, more prosaically and naggingly, as Project September 17/23.

No matter what workarounds might need to be deployed, no matter which competing interests might get in the way, no matter whose ego might end up getting bruised, all agreed outputs will be completed by that date. There will be no deferral. That, if nothing else, is strictly contraindicated.