Marketing is everything or everything is marketing

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20 years ago the Harvard Business Review published what became one of the most influential pieces of business thinking on the subject of marketing. We examine how much of this is still relevant today and speculate about the trends shaping the future of marketing.

‘Marketing is everything, everything is marketing’ by Regis Mckenna was written at the absolute zenith of post-war mass marketing. In an age that was pre-internet, pre-social media, predatabase and pre-marketing analytics, McKenna’s ideas now seem very prophetic. And it’s no surprise the author went on to become included in the San Jose Mercury News‘ Millennium 100 as one of the 100 people who made Silicon Valley what it is today.

From big marketing to little marketing. Perhaps the only change to Mckenna’s original title would now be the addition of a single word – “little” – since today marketing is about every little thing; littler audiences, littler offers, littler messages, littler media – and tellingly, littler budgets. A function that started life being the organisational face for mass audiences now has to be a slightly different face for each sub-set of audiences that are getting smaller all the time.

Marketing’s nay-sayers argue that the boundless multiplicity of audience definitions in a digital age is beyond marketing’s ability to keep up.  Its evangelists argue the opposite, that marketing stands in the face of organisational incoherence that will arise if there’s no clear plan to work with the worlds of Twitter and Youtube. So who will be proved right and what will the status of marketing be by 2020?

One of the biggest problems marketers have always faced is that nobody really knows what they do, apart from other marketers that is. The function of marketing has in truth never been resolved, as it varies widely from category to category and brand to brand. In some organisations its role is to act as the voice of the consumer, in others it is seen as a type of organising principle for the business, like a virtual glue that keeps businesses and brands focused on customer needs.

This ambiguity about what marketing actually does is contagious. Research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing shows that of all the operational disciplines marketing is the least understood within the organisation. Imagine the same thing being said about finance, operations, sales, IT or HR.  No other discipline has such constant pressures of self-justification, no other such endless speculation about its financial outcomes or its effectiveness at linking with other business activities.

In some respects criticism of marketing is inconsiderate. Since it is equally true that few other disciplines have to embrace the type of systemic change that marketers now face. All its life marketing has been at the hot seat of innovation and new ideas, in many cases driving new fads and techniques to engage audiences. However the temperature of this seat has risen exponentially. By 2014 21% of all marketing spend will be devoted to interactive channels (display, mobile, email, social,, search) and both the tools and the language of marketing will move on accordingly. According to Steven Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation, they already have. Rosenbaum says “newsmastering”, “curation”, and “engagement marketing” are now the dominant trends in online marketing, terms that would have made little sense even just a few years ago.

To add to the problem of ‘what’ marketing does and ‘how’ it is done is added perhaps its biggest challenge, which is ‘who’ does it. As an operational competency marketing departments have become notorious for the speed at which its key officers move on and its key workers become seasonal sub-contractors brought in according to need. A discipline that badly needs its advocates is in effect starved of evangelists …

An even bigger element to the ‘who’ problem is that Regis Mckenna is still quite right to argue that marketing is everyone’s business. In fact, the democratisation of media created by the internet means that marketing has literally become everyone’s business. The maxim that new businesses are 1% innovation 99% marketing has been given a much longer shelf-life by the explosion of free marketing channels, in turn making a sensitivity to marketing a key competitive weapon.

Where is the payback?. One of the bigger ironies about marketing is that CFO’s are more likely to have a positive view about what marketing achieves than CMOs. Again, research by the Chartered Institute of Marketing shows that financial people have a surprisingly good appreciation of the importance of satisfying customer needs and a higher appreciation of the information produced by marketing departments on this subject than many CMOs. So why has marketing been dogged by an endless debate over the returns it generates and is there any likelihood that the next 10 years will see greater clarity in the debate about where marketing makes money?

Cynics might argue that any discipline that has to devote so much energy to proving its financial worth doth protest too much. And whilst the growth in recognition for marketing effectiveness has undoubtedly helped sustain marketing activity in established industries, this hasn’t dispelled the notion that the converse  (marketing ineffectiveness) can be lying in wait around the corner.

The good news is that if there is any certainty about the next 10 years it is that the information and intelligence generated by marketing activity will become a lot more sophisticated. Will Schnabel of Silverpop, the US digital marketing platform, says “smart marketers are acknowledging this and focusing on buyer-centric marketing programs that serve up the right information at the right time and in the right format.  And marketing automation is key because it enables you to effectively deliver behavior-driven, one-to-one messaging on a large scale”.

The bad news is that the same people that have to make sense of all this new data are the ones that populate the down-sized, outsourced operations that exist today.

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