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CEOs want marketing to be “in business,” not just “in the business”

I’ve been polling C-suites on their relationship with marketing and communications for the better part of a decade. This blog series focuses on specific problems I’ve observed, as well as solutions that I’ve seen work for my teams and me.

Problem: You haven’t walked in their shoes, and it shows.

By the time they make the move into a corporate role, many B2B marketing and communications pros have spent a lot of time in agencies of one kind or another. They are steeped in their chosen profession and imbued with talent and skill. Many are brilliant by the time they make the leap.

The problem is that most have never run a business and know little about what it entails. What’s more, “growing up” professionally in an agency has unintended consequences – most agencies interact with their client’s businesses at arm’s length and through a glass darkly. The culture tends to emphasize billable activities rather than business impacts. Net/net, after the first decade of professional life, there’s nothing in the average marketer’s background that would have prepared him or her for the realities of running a business.

That lack of preparation becomes a huge freaking problem when they come face to face with their new CEO or CFO, who have spent their careers being immersed in the triumphs and traumas of building a business. Here are several specific gaps that many leaders have told me that they see in their marketing and communications teams – see if any of these resonate with you at all.

  • Lack of knowledge. You’re an expert on messaging, PR, web, or demand generation, but you know nothing of running a business beyond a few buzzwords and terms of art that you’ve heard along the way. You do not know, nor have you probably asked, how the company actually makes its money.
  • Lack of understanding. You haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins, as the old saying goes, and you don’t really understand what they need from you. This is often made worse when you talk as though you do understand, but you don’t. One example often cited by CxOs is when marketing and communications promotes tactical metrics as “proof of ROI.” When you do that, they know you’re using a buzzword without understanding what it means.
  • Lack of empathy. Because you don’t know what business leaders have to grapple with, you ask them to do things that would be great for your functional goals but disastrous for them or their business. And because you’ve probably never been a quota-carrying sales person, your appreciation for what sales really needs from marketing and communications is often second-hand or even purely theoretical. As a result, too many marketing teams — with the best of intentions — run campaigns that fail to connect with the reality on the ground.

In my experience, these three “fails” are singularly destructive. They demolish both personal and organizational confidence and credibility, not to mention any hope of close collaboration for the benefit and advancement of the company.

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Solution: Admit your ignorance and do something truly disruptive about it.

There are 5 steps you can take almost immediately to begin to really boost your game.

  • Become literate in business. As I’ve discussed in other blogs, learn the fundamentals of business finance. Truth be told, this is actually pretty easy.
  • Focus on the P&L. Learn exactly how your company makes its money. (Tip: you won’t get most of the answers you need from the product teams.)
  • Get very close with Sales people. Many companies have hyper-intense, 1-2 week “Sales Foundation” classes for new field reps — ask to join.
  • Listen to customers as much as possible. Use focus groups only when there’s no other option. Set aside 4 hours per week and spend it in the back row of customer briefings, listening to what they say.
  • Commit to the process of changing yourself. Let it be known that you want to expand your horizons in these ways, and you’ll be amazed at who steps forward to help you.

If you want to go even further, here’s an idea that many might consider radical but is actually right on the money, both literally and figuratively.

I got it from the CEO of the company I worked for at the time. He wanted to make a point to a bunch of marketing leaders, and this is what he said: “Everyone in Marketing should spend a year in Sales, carrying a bag and talking to customers everyday. Then they’d understand what’s really going on.”

Too radical? Tough to accept? (Imagine how that sounded to marketing pros in 2005!)

But that’s exactly what I did in 1992. Today, I can say that making the move into the business was the best investment I ever made in my career. I got a very intense education in what it means to be in business. Its impact on me has proven as indelible as any tattoo.

For example, I gained a new appreciation for what it meant to not make quota, not only in the conventional Sales sense, but also as a leader who needed to make payroll. My vision of things became significantly enlarged. I began to understand how hard it is to balance everything that a business is, particularly all of those often zero-sum investment choices that must be made in a small but rapidly growing enterprise. I also began to see how everything correlated, and I began to take note of cause-and-effect in my daily walk on the business path.

Before I knew it, I was seeing life through the eyes of a business leader, because that’s what I had become. Today, that shared perspective still is very present in my conversations with CEOs and other leaders, even though I earned it years ago in a much smaller company than the ones they lead today. Plainly put, it helps me help them more effectively than I otherwise might have.

Those eight years leading a business were a religious experience, and I emerged a convert ready to spread the message. After I left the company in 1999, I re-entered the marketing and communications profession. But I had changed dramatically. I had been spun around and completely reoriented. From that point forward, I no longer thought as a “functional leader.” Instead, I operated as a business person who happened to specialize in marketing and communications. This may sound glib, but it’s the best way I’ve found to express the transformation that occurred in my professional life.

The result was a completely different approach, one that focused on business drivers above all things. That’s hard enough in B2C. It was really hard in large-scale B2B. In fact, no one – not even the business leaders who bemoaned the lack of “proof of impact” – believed that it could be done.

Today, I’m pleased to say that we’ve done it. We have a proven methodology, manifested in a cloud-based system that correlates investment in Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) channels to both functional outcomes and business impact, including revenue, margin and cash flow. This system, now largely automated, has been deployed, tried, tested, vetted, audited and generally put through the mill in multiple public companies. We continue to work to improve and enhance its accuracy and functionality. Thanks to certain enterprising reporters, it’s been getting a lot of attention this past year, which is very cool.

But here’s the main point: there’s no way I would have pursued — much less figured out — those connections to business impact if I had not first disrupted myself and pursued what it means to be in business instead of just being in the business.