Are You Open to the World or Trapped Inside a Marketing Bubble?

To Be Innovative and as Successful as Possible, You Need Input From Outsiders

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I had conversations with two very different CMOs last week. One was collaborative and wide-ranging; we spent an hour and a half talking about many of the subjects that touch on marketing, as well as about marketing itself. It had taken us about three weeks to book the time on his busy schedule. I think we both benefited from our dialogue; he took copious notes, and I captured mine later. I want to talk to this guy again.

The other meeting, which the CMO had postponed twice (I'd first scheduled it in August), lasted less than half an hour. We shared our time with his smartphone, which he dutifully checked the many times it beeped, and he was clearly preoccupied. His contributions to the conversation were either to challenge me to "net it out" or tell me he didn't need what I was selling. Only I wasn't selling anything, but asking for his insights. As he got up to race to his next meeting, I knew I'd have no reason to seek him out again.

So which CMO are you?

The first one lives in the world as it is and has found ways to stay engaged and open to it. He has the capacity to influence the way we approach brands and deliver marketing, let alone deliver tangible results for his business.

The second one lives in a marketing bubble in which he lives and dies according to the machinations of brand and marketing, full stop. His brand doesn't lead his category in sales or profits, though some of his campaigns might get heralded at marketing events. That's because he's always chasing the latest fad or trying to copy his competitors' successes. His C-suite seems terminally unimpressed and with good reason: He is nowhere near as successful as he could be. I wouldn't bet money on him holding his job for long.

The two conversations got me thinking about how an otherwise smart guy could get so lost in the marketing bubble, and I was reminded that Neo in "The Matrix" lived in a dream world before waking up and seeing the world as it is . I've come up with at least three telltale signs that indicate that , like Neo, you should "choose the red pill."

You make yourself too busy. There'd be something wrong with you if you didn't bemoan the fact that you're busy from the moment you wake until the second you turn off the light at night, but complaining isn't the same thing as doing something about it. Choosing to be "too busy" -- you keep meetings short irrespective of substance, have no patience for nuanced answers to complex questions and touch lots of things in a small way instead of a few important things in a big way -- is by far the dumbest, most self-defeating decision you can make, because it makes every other decision less thoughtful, creative or complete. And it is a choice, not a condition inherent in your job description.

You spend an inordinate amount of time in the company of other marketers. Since you're so busy, the content that gets into your bubble has to be restricted to that which can be immediately applied or otherwise consumed by you or your department. This means market-ready material. So you likely stick to your fellow marketers -- you read their books, follow their examples and buy their interpretations -- instead of looking yourself for their source materials and influences. Need to innovate? Marketers can help you do that . Want to model new campaigns? Just ask fellow marketers. Got a problem that defies solution? Ask a marketer.

Numbers become your chains. Your fellow C-suiters and the enterprise at large understand that you live in your bubble but don't understand what goes on in it, no matter how many times you try to educate them. So they insist on evermore specific numbers as the lingua franca of cause and effect, even if you know in your gut that not every marketing dollar should be expected to link directly to a sale. You continually fight a rearguard action on your budget, with the branding items always getting challenged first. It may be that nobody trusts those measures of likability and mindshare that you get from your agency, but instead of looking to find new metrics in operational performance -- like the ability to recruit better and longer, or more efficient and flexible vendors, for instance -- you just repeat yourself.

What would life be like after swallowing that red pill? I can look to that first CMO with whom I met for the answer. You'd find time to think and engage on subjects that made you not just a more successful marketer but a more interesting person. You'd talk to people with skills far beyond their ability to sell marketing ideas to you (that thoughtful CMO makes a point of hiring people who aren't marketers, per se, but experts in fields that impact it). And you'd realize that true marketing leadership has nothing to do with copying what's happening inside the bubble -- or reporting back to it, no matter how good it feels -- but requires doing things that are truly different and new.

Living your life lost in "The Matrix" can be comfortable in its own way, but isn't that movie getting old?

JONATHAN SALEM BASKINis president of Baskin Associates, a marketing decisions consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonathansalem.
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