Being the Smartest One in the Room Gets Old

Why Doesn't Our Expertise in Communicating Extend to Those Closest to Us?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
I had to talk a top marketer friend off the ledge last week when her CEO had come back after umpteen presentations, backgrounders and ROI models to ask for another explanation of a campaign's goals.

"It's like talking to a child sometimes," she said.

"A well-paid one," I added.

Much of the CMO's lot is contending with the latest misunderstanding or nagging disbelief of our fellow C-suiters. It's 2010, and we stand on the shoulders of marketing giants and a century's worth of branding genius, yet the schnooks in the offices down the hall think it's OK to not "get" what we're doing or, worse, rip an article out of some magazine that makes the back of a cereal box seem like heavy reading and wonder why we're not doing the exact same thing.

Being brilliant marketers that we are, we sure do a bad job of marketing ourselves to our fellows, don't we?

Oh, I know there are exceptions, and you've probably got vivid memories of sharing some idea or a huddle on fourth and inches, but we're out of sync with one another more often than not. The commonly accepted reason is that our work is just sublimely difficult to grasp, and that we need to constantly do a better job of educating everyone. Brands are like the subtle nuance of a painting that appears to outsiders like a brown smudge on canvas. Marketing is poetry when their appreciation of rhyme invariably starts with the words "there once was a lady from Kent."

No other corporate function requires initiation or, conversely, the people running your supply chain or HR departments could never get away with such condescension. They don't remind us that we don't grasp Six Sigma methodology, or haven't studied behavioral psychology and thus can't fathom what they do. Granted, we also don't tell them how to change the tolerances on some widget because our teenager told us something the night before. But I'd bet that many of the CMOs I know who feel chronically misunderstood are the same leaders who think non-marketers are incapable of understanding it in the first place.

It's funny because most of the creatives at our agencies think we're about as cool as paperweights. CMOs with budgets are the dorks who're barely tolerated by the cool kids because we have the keys to dad's car. I mean, we're the ones who have to carp about presentations, backgrounders and ROI models ... just like the execs who drive us nuts. I sometimes think that we appear to our agencies as non-marketing executives appear to us. At best, we play constantly shifting roles in a netherworld between disbelieving corporate compatriots and sometimes disingenuous agency friends.

So what's a CMO to do? I informally polled some of the best of breed to identify three things they do to stop the madness:

First, ask questions instead of give answers. Questioning trumps answering every time, so those barrages of metrics you spew at your CEO are just ammunition for a subsequent analysis. Ask first and always; nobody wants to know that you're just certain some new social stunt is brilliant, but, rather, that you have the same sensible concerns as they do. Put yourself in the habit of constantly reviewing and throwing out the thorniest questions before someone throws them at you.

Second, take the conversation outside of marketing. The C-suiters who used to eat with you at the exec lunchroom (back when it existed) think they know more about marketing than you, just like your agency friends snicker behind your back because you don't follow some apparition who tweets about brands as tachyon particles. You need to get them thinking about all the subjects that relate to marketing but aren't marketing itself: culture, science, whatever. Change the subject.

Third, give them projects. Tasks. Ask for their help with your questions, and ask for their questions, too. Your CEO is dying to be needed for something other than global mergers and SEC investigations, and every minute your agency is developing thinking for you is a moment it isn't telling you what you should think. Risk being open to everyone's ideas; the ugly reality is that they might actually know things you don't, and your career is one giant social experiment anyway.

So don't be the smartest marketer in the room. Don't be the dumbest, either. Be the most engaged executive on the planet.

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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