Why Traditional Marketing Is Broken (and 5 Ways to Fix It)

This should be the golden age of marketing. We have more tools at our disposal to implement and measure marketing, and, until the pandemic hit, advertising budgets were at record levels. Even with the pandemic, budgets are only down by roughly 5%.
But ask any CEO whether he or she feels that marketing is delivering record levels of business and customer value, and, for most business leaders, the answer is a resounding NO!
So, what’s wrong?
The traditional marketing plan is broken. We sit in endless meetings, debating annual plans – or worse, a three-year strategy – without feedback from the market or the rest of the organization. The resulting marketing plans are long, inward-focused, and detached from customer realities.
The traditional marketing organization is broken. Many marketers work in silos, their loyalties and points of view more closely aligned to their skill sets (communication, social media, SEO/SEM, brand management) than to delivering value to customers and the business.
Marketing execution is broken. Too many meetings, too many status reports, too many work items in spreadsheets rather than in tools that support modern marketing. The result is poor execution and an inability to communicate marketing’s value to the rest of the organization.
How do we fix this? I have five suggestions:
1. Stick with napkin plans.
If you can’t fit your marketing plan on a napkin (or a single sheet of paper), no one will read it. And what do people do when they read a plan? They provide feedback.
Napkin plans get revised frequently. They get refined. And perhaps most importantly, people support what they help create. If many people are able to give their feedback on the plan, not only will it be better but more people will also support it.
2. Organize cross-functional teams.
Instead of organizing teams in silos according to skill sets, try building teams around a critical business issue, and ensure that the team has people with all of the skills needed to address the problem. Some people will complain and say this is inefficient. Web developers, for example, won’t be busy during the planning stages of solving the problem. Trying to keep individual workers as busy as possible focuses on the wrong problem. The goal is to solve critical business problems. Cross-functional teams do this better. Why? Simply put, cross-functional teams reduce conflicting priorities, improve communication and quality, provide a consistent focus on the customer, and generate more innovation.
Don’t assign everyone to cross-functional teams to start. Dip a toe in the water by forming one or two diverse teams to address your most pressing business issues. After you gain experience, adopt what you’ve learned to create additional cross-functional teams.
3. Focus on outcomes, not outputs.
Teams that focus on customer and business outcomes—and are rewarded for achieving those outcomes – produce better results than teams that produce more outputs (advertising campaigns, content, events, etc.) and who are measured on throughput.
The focus on outcomes transforms marketing from a content factory and cost center to a contributing member of the revenue and profitability team. It changes the relationship between marketing and business units, aligning the two on common goals.
4. Double (or triple) your marketing metabolism.
At a 2014 marketing meetup in San Francisco, growth expert Sean Ellis described the impact of increasing the pace of testing at Twitter, while under the leadership of Product VP Satya Patel from 2010 to 2013. By increasing the number of tests from roughly one test every two weeks to 10 tests per week, they dramatically improved the acquisition of new, active Twitter users.
Most marketing teams don’t test enough. This is another way of saying they don’t fail enough. Some of your tests will fail. If they don’t, you’re not taking enough risks. Double or triple the rate at which you test, which I call “increasing your metabolism,” and you’ll see real improvements in your business outcomes.
5. Embrace radical transparency.
Too many marketers measure themselves with what startup trailblazer Eric Ries refers to as vanity metrics. Vanity metrics make marketing “look good,” but do nothing to advance the business. And too often, these vanity metrics are chosen after the fact in order to justify the time and money spent.
Marketers need to change this dynamic. They need to create an atmosphere of radical transparency with the business departments: sharing plans up front, setting goals, explaining that some efforts will fail, but that ultimately, they’ll be accountable for improvements in metrics that matter to the business.
At first, business departments will be skeptical. They won’t believe marketing’s numbers. Rank-and-file marketers will be afraid to be transparent and reveal efforts that “failed.” Management needs to make it safe to fail and encourage this radical transparency.
Advice By Another Name
If some of this advice sounds familiar, perhaps you’re practicing Agile within your organization. These practices (and several others) are at the heart of Agile. For many skeptics, Agile is just another buzzword, or, worse, a constricting approach that may work for software development but would never work for marketing.
Agile isn’t about management techniques like Scrum or Kanban. Sure, those methodologies can help. But if you don’t adopt practices like napkin plans, cross-functional teams, focusing on outcomes, increasing your marketing metabolism, and radical transparency, you’ll never “be Agile,” which is what will get us to marketing’s golden age.
Jim Ewel co-organized the first meeting of agile marketers and co-authored the Agile Marketing Manifesto. Ewel runs an agile marketing consultancy, where he has helped over 60 organizations adopt this approach to marketing. His new book is “The Six Disciplines of Agile Marketing: Proven Practices for More Effective Marketing and Better Business Results.” Learn more at AgileMarketing.net.


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