The Biggest Marketing Challenge of 2012: How Can You Keep Your Job?

Try Swearing Allegiance to Sales and Stop Being So Parochial

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The New Year promises to be full of events of monumental importance, ranging from a U.S. presidential election to the possible end of the world. But nothing will be more important to every self-respecting marketer than staying employed for another 12 months. It won't be easy, as the successes of this holiday selling season come with hefty costs to brand integrity (see my last essay) and profit margins. On top of that , most of you are going to be asked to do better, and differently, in a worse economic environment, with less money. And those pesky holidays will come back again at the end of it, assuming that Mayan calendar catastrophe doesn't happen.

My not-so audacious prediction is that it's going to be tough to keep your job, which means you've got carte blanche to put in place some New Year's resolutions that can help you stay employed.

I'm talking about making big changes, though not the obvious ones -- like going for that kooky social campaign that you rejected this year because it didn't connect to anything tangible in our physical universe. Your agency can't give you a bigger creative idea that 'll change the game, since using big ideas isn't a game-changer anymore but standard operating procedure. I don't think you can up the ante on challenging your fellow C-suiters to understand more (or complain less) about how hard you work to perpetuate the brand.

No, let's say 2012 will be the year you stop trying to convert your CEO or CFO into a true believer and instead challenge some beliefs of your own. Here are four resolutions to consider:

  • Stop obeying other marketers. We marketing types live in a happy bubble in which no campaign ever fails (they just succeed differently), and we present them to one another, repeat them in different times, ways and places, and then present them to one another to copy again. Remember that nobody is sharing the exact guts of what really worked anyway (that 's like Coke publishing its formula), so whatever you do will be an imperfect simulacra of the success you're hoping to emulate. So resolve to break free from this echo chamber: Ruthlessly deconstruct "successful" campaigns so you really understand what happened, or what didn't. Study what your competition didn't do, and why. Challenge your agency to get explicit on why an idea is uniquely relevant to your brand, and not to the last two clients to whom they tried to sell it, so when it's time for you to sell it internally, you'll know it's truly yours. And that it has a chance of being truly new.

  • Start talking to nonmarketers. Scientists. Historians. Theologians. The marketing industry is particularly parochial, and our conceptual inputs are notoriously marketing-ified or otherwise abstracted by our fellow liberal arts types. We need to tap into primary resources, not the interpreters' versions, and learn more about what we know about large things, like the cosmos, and little things, like the way we human beings work. Check into the maddening recurrence of most historical dreams and nightmares, and what they can tell us about what we're dealing with today. Dare yourselves and your teams to explore and discuss religion, which stands as the most consistently compelling model for community and relationship marketing ever created (yet we're usually too uncomfortable to discuss it from these angles). When was the last time you asked a nonmarketer -- a real nonmarketer, not a regular member of our food chain of idea creation -- to present at a meeting, or simply to talk to you? The C-suite will take you far more seriously if you stop quoting marketers as support for your marketing. Do yourself a favor and stop reading business books exclusively, too.

  • Throw down the towel and swear allegiance to sales. Don't just use PC language and then back it up with those convoluted graphs that show how counting laughs generated by a YouTube video lead to nonbinding clicks on a "more info" button on your company's website. Admit that real sales matter, really, and that a sale constitutes a customer giving your company money, which makes everything else that happens -- i.e., everything you do -- nothing more than prelude and prompt. Explore how you can shift your metrics from measuring intangibles of brand to enabling behaviors that allow the business to enact transactions better, faster and more frequently. In other words, start finding the brand in the business, rather than telling the business to share your illuminated vision of the brand (which they simply cannot see). The brand isn't a qualitative measure of something atmospheric, but rather the aggregate of the things for which your customers pay money, and if you allow this sword to hang over your head the way it does everyone else with whom you work, instantaneously you'll have earned new credibility and camaraderie.

  • Learn to let go. The glib, cool premise over the past few years is to pretend that consumers "own" your brand instead of your business doing so. Not only is this idea utterly inane (because it conveniently absolves companies from being responsible for the conclusions consumers reach about brands), but indulging it obscures a far scarier reality: You don't own the mechanics of branding and marketing anymore. They belong to the entire enterprise, as the collective behaviors of your fellow employees -- from realizing sanctioned purposes like customer relations and materials sourcing, to the less structured actions of tweeting, blogging and generally having opinions that they freely share -- often matter more to consumer decision-making than the entertaining content you invent to share online. Imagine if you reconfigured your approach to marketing planning to encompass all of the real-life behaviors ongoing at your company? How much of your brand in 2012 will come from somewhere in the company other than marketing?

    Ultimately, I believe that the best defense is an offense, and I want all credible CMOs to not only keep their job but to thrive in it. I think doing so will take inventing new and different approaches not just to the tactics of marketing, but to the ways you go about defining your job ... and yourself.

    If the world ends as predicted, though, all bets are off. That social campaign requiring measurement in 11 dimensions is looking pretty entertaining.

    Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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