Weakening Economy Strengthens Resolve Among Marketers at ANA

Upbeat Mood at Conference as Speakers Stress Importance of Simplicity and Efficiency

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"We tend to complicate things. Simpler is better, simpler is more profound."

Call the Association of National Advertisers' 98th-annual conference in Orlando, Fla., the anti-ROI gathering. The "Keep it simple" statement from Procter & Gamble's outgoing global marketing officer, Jim Stengel, set the tone for the meeting.

The emphasis, in these uncharted and perilous times, was on peeling back the complications of getting to the marketplace in the most direct and efficient way. And don't be afraid to fail in that effort, speakers emphasized.

Mr. Stengel talked about what he'd learned in his 25 years at Procter. Getting complicated, he said, means wasting efforts on quick fixes. "We tend to focus on activities that are not directly related to things that drive the brand," Jim said. "So much spending goes against things that are short-term and tactical and do not build long-term loyalty and relationships with consumers."

Claire Bennett, senior VP-global marketing at American Express, said even though her early business experience was in the financial area, she believes ROI yardsticks can be "flawed," depending on what model of return is used, such as short-term against long-term.

Bob Liodice, president-CEO of ANA, made the point in his opening remarks that many CMOs are not in alignment with their bosses. Marketing directors are bogged down in tactical issues such as administering branding guidelines and counseling divisions, whereas CEOs are focused on growing the top and bottom lines and building shareholder value.

"This disconnect is a key reason why the average tenure for a CMO is just 22 months. But ... there are many cases where marketing is totally in sync with the CEO's objectives: driving business and brand growth. As CMOs consistently deliver broad-based growth, we expect their time on the job will take a dramatic turn upward," Bob told a packed house.

Most CEOs, however, seem focused on delivering quarterly results. Ironically, in times when short-term numbers are going to look terrible, CEOs may come to realize that their only option is to emphasize long-term growth. Maybe marketing ROI will be recalibrated to reflect such goals.

I got the feeling that marketers, at least the ones doing the speaking at the ANA confab, were not in hunkering-down mode.

Joe Tripodi, chief marketing and commercial officer of Coca-Cola, was downright feisty. "When you start to believe your own bullshit, that's the death knell," he said. Marketers have to be true to their companies' DNA and go where "the consumer allows you to go." He added: "Don't be afraid. Go to the edge of the abyss." Above all, "Don't panic. The world won't end. Be true to your brand, be true to yourself."

Mark Addicks, chief marketing officer of General Mills -- not too many years ago an inward-looking company -- espoused using "brand champions" to help develop the brand and determine what role it can play in people's lives. He also looks for "bigger-platform ideas" built around higher levels of benefit. And when he talks about growth, he's referring to how many households are converting to his products.

Instead of looking for ways to downsize after its Pillsbury acquisition, General Mills instructed its marketers to look for the best practices at Pillsbury and adopt them. The company is also a big advocate of benchmarking, because "the process forces you to bigger questions," Mr. Addicks said.

I was struck by the upbeat mood; speakers seemed almost energized by the economic chaos swirling around them. As Becky Saeger, exec VP-CMO of Charles Schwab put it, employees and clients seem "more engaged and motivated -- not always in a positive way." She said, "Now is the time to deliver on the promise of the brand and for what you've been grooming the brand to be."
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