Ok, admittedly, this is a bit of a rant, but in conversations I’ve had with fellow marketers and communications professionals, the sentiment seems to be the same, so here goes:
What the hell has happened to corporate communications over the past two decades. From where I’m sitting it has experienced a precipitous decline in both the quality of the material it is producing and the ability to develop and manage truly strategic programs. This is not true for all companies, but it seems that the majority have lost their ability to communicate. Why is this happening? I think there are two major factors at play, one is the ascendence of finance and accounting (and by extension sales) as the key strategic and business drivers. The other is the false belief that traditional marketing is dead and all things are becoming dominated by digital/social marketing.
During the down-sizing/right sizing years of the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a fundamental shift in the way that companies determined who was going to stay and who was going to go. Most of these decisions were based on the new “science” of financial analysis and tended to very coldly look at who in an organization directly generated revenue and who represented a “cost” to the organization. While sales, engineering, manufacturing and, yes finance, were all considered revenue generating, marketing, corporate communications, customer service, housekeeping, and many other functions were viewed as simply costs to the organization. Thus began the era of companies outsourcing many of their support functions.
In the marketing realm, this meant that agencies which had traditionally been engaged for advertising and creative support were now the main source of strategic marketing initiatives. Public Relations Agencies were now the primary point of contact for the media and traditional image/brand management went from being a strategic role within the company to primarily an outsourced, agency driven messaging, advertising and communications activity. In some organizations, there was still a marketing communications manger role, occasionally with a small support staff, whose primary job became that of a project manager. Their role was to coordinate and manage agency relationships and make sure that they stayed strategically focused and “on brand”. While this sort of worked initially, over time it began to fail and as a result, many brands began to lose their brand strength and positions in the market.
Why did this system fail? Again, I think there are two major reasons. When many of these companies downsized their marketing communications functions, the person they kept to manage the agency relationships was a long-time veteran who knew both the history of the brand and had a tremendous amount of knowledge about how things worked within the company. They knew who to go to when certain things needed to get done, where to take short cuts and how to manage to a brands core values. Over time, these people either retired or were lured away by big-money at the agencies. As a result there was no one with their level of institutional knowledge to take their place. Often the support personnel who worked with them were either very junior – because they were cheaper – or were contract employees who tended to have short tenures and moved from organization to organization. The apparent result of this loss of strategic institutional brand knowledge was a shift to highly targeted, tactical brand programs that failed to maintain brand integrity over time.
While this was happening, agencies were becoming flush with cash from their clients. With billings going through the roof their capabilities were rapidly expanding to meet the needs of clients who no longer had in-house anything. With this cash, they also began poaching many of the corporate marketing managers with whom they had worked. This gave them greater insight into the clients and often the ability to reach into organizations and develop new business or increase billable hours on existing projects. The “agency as consultant” model was born and grew into a highly profitable business segment. Now agencies were offering companies strategic services that the client had previously managed in-house, but which they no longer had the capability to develop and manage. Sounds great, except that agency relationships can be fleeting. They are considered a variable expense by finance departments and are often one of the first things cut when budgets get tight (and the strategic consulting stuff is rarely prioritized over an advertising or sales program) and turnover in agencies tends to be very high, meaning there is often little consistency over time in either strategic teams or tactical execution.
Admittedly, during this period and in the subsequent decades the agencies have churned out some phenomenal creative work. New techniques for creating ads, more and better marketing programs for clients, dedicated account teams who know every detail of the programs they were working on at any given moment. Agencies also bill clients for every pencil they sharpen, every phone call they take and every meeting they attended. (It may be a bit cynical to say that agencies take advantage of clients who no longer had the ability to do anything for themselves, but I do believe this was often the case. )
When companies realized that they were losing much of their ability to manage their strategic marketing, communications and brand activities they started to re-hire people to oversee the agencies. In many cases, however, the place they went to find people was the very agencies that were responsible for the diminution of their brands. If you look at a current job description for a senior marketing communications person they almost inevitably list “agency experience” as a requirement. Not to say that there are not good people at agencies, but my experience is that they tend to have a very agency-centric view of marketing communications and often have a very tactical rather than strategic frame of reference.
So, the first factor affecting corporate communications over the past several decades is the ascendance of finance making decisions that have effectively eliminated the ability for many companies to develop and manage strategic marketing communications programs. After initially outsourcing the execution, they have subsequently allowed the agency model to also take over their strategic communications role, leading to highly tactical marketing programs, weak strategic marketing and erosion of brand strength. This is not the case with every company, but if you look at the ones who have strong brands, they almost inevitably have very strong internal communications and brand teams.
The other factor was the rise of electronic and social media over the past decade. I’ll lay part of the blame on Microsoft, Google, Facebook and the like. They have spent billions of dollars convincing companies that all they need to do is advertise online and all of their troubles will be solved. And it’s cheap too! I’ve had countless meetings where people talk about how print is dead and direct mail is dead and that everything is moving to the web and you can crowdsource everything and Twitter is the best way to get your message out, etc., etc. To this I say “No! No! No! and No!” Electronic media, social media, twitter, search, SEO, etc. are all new tools that have to be incorporated into an integrated approach to marketing communications. They do not replace traditional marketing tools, they are additions and supplements.
There are agencies and service providers who have built their businesses based on convincing corporate decision makers that they can save money and be just as effective using electronic assets – which require no more than an employee or two to manage – than they can be with traditional marketing methods. Inevitably, they will pull out a host of examples of how this company or that had some bonanza revenue increase, or got X-thousand new Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers, all for just pennies invested. And yes, there are a few shining examples of social media/web success, but dig a little deeper and you’ll usually find that there are few business results you can directly attribute to social media, or the success was a one-off and has never been repeated. As a stand-alone tool, electronic media is not very effective unless you are only counting hits, followers, “likes,” etc.
I have spent most of my career working in B2B environments and find that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, more effective than a fully integrated marketing program that focuses on sales enablement and utilizes all of the tools at your disposal to help drive the customer to purchase. The most effective programs also use the key strategic attributes of the brand to reinforce that the customer is making the right decision. The only way that a program like this works, however, is if there is someone within the company who is able to manage the integration of multiple agencies, development of multiple online and printed collateral pieces and the incorporation of brand pillars in the program.
One of the toughest parts about developing integrated marketing programs these days is convincing people who have spent the past several decades in an outsourced, electronic media world, that there is business value in investing in strategic communications and marketing. The only way to do this is to have the experience to know how each piece of the marketing puzzle goes together, how they support each other and how to measure the return to the business on the entire program. Is it easy? No. Is it generally something that you can learn on the fly, or in an agency environment? No. Is it something that you can do on the cheap using only a limited set of tools and no investment? No. Is this a big part of what’s wrong with marketing communications today? I say, yes!
What’s wrong with marketing Communications today? It got hurt badly when it became viewed as an expense rather than a valuable resource to companies and subsequently outsourced. Today it is being seriously compromised by the loss of institutional knowledge when agency people were hired into companies to run marketing communications. And it was further eroded by the emergence of electronic and social media that were promoted as replacements for traditional marketing vehicles. The result is a fundamental inability to develop, manage and internally sell the value of strategic, integrated marketing and brand development to the broader organization. When that happens we get what we often see today, tactically focused marketing, mixed brand messages and customers who have no brand preference or loyalty.