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Okay, the headline is a bit inflammatory to get your attention. But the truth is just as shocking. Adobe’s survey of experienced U.S. marketing professionals actually says: “most marketers say about themselves: we don’t know what we’re doing.”

That’s right, of 1,000 marketers responding,

  • only 9% strongly agree that “I know our digital marketing is working.”
  • only 40% think their company’s marketing is effective.
  • and 82% learn on the job with no formal training.

Wow. It’s been more than a year since Adobe released it, but I’m still pondering the implications of 1,000 established marketing professionals professing a profound lack of confidence in their organizations’ (and their own) marketing chops — especially as it relates to digital.

A big part of the problem is the pace. Nearly 75% of the respondents said marketing has changed more in the past two years than in the prior 50! Business demigod, Jack Welch, famously commented, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” Well, crap. What marketing organization is NOT suffering Welch’s rate of change imbalance? It’s no wonder marketing leaders are suffering a crisis of confidence.

Nearly 75% of the respondents said marketing has changed more in the past two years than in the prior 50!

How do we steady the boat in these uncertain times? I want to suggest three timeless principles that continue to work, no matter how confused the seas have become.

1. Lead With Brand

What makes your organization unique and desirable to do business with? How do you codify and articulate that “special sauce?” How do you organize the company’s thoughts and deeds as a result of this self-knowledge?

Your brand is the single best lens through which to organize your marketing activity. It always has been and it always will be. You see, the human mind cannot make discernments about absolutes. It cannot determine what is best. It can only make comparisons (and oh, how it loves to compare). It only sees differences, which is where brand discipline shines. A great brand creates crystal-clear distinctions. It forms the compare/contrast framework your customers want and need in order to decide. It saves mental real estate.

A lot of great thinking and writing online explores how important it is to inform new, free-form communications, such as social media with a brand strategy. In a recent SMACtalk Live podcast, the hosts discuss the importance of executing against a brand strategy, brand voice and brand personality in social media. Harder than it looks!

How do you know if your company has a crystalline, cogent brand strategy? Try this test: ask 10 people in the organization “what is our company’s purpose?” If you get the same answer from every one of them, you’re golden. If you get more than three answers, let’s talk.

2. Analyze That

Many marketers today are agog at all the data that can be produced from digital marketing performance measures — and just as buffaloed about what to do with it.

Those with roots in direct marketing, however, are seeing their decades-long discipline get jacked up on steroids. Now you have real-time data regarding customer behaviors to the nth degree. On our team is a former VP of Rapp Collins, the world’s largest direct marketing company. Her assessment: “Digital today is mostly like everything in direct. Measure everything. Be accountable. A/B test and go with the winners. Care about ROI more than awards.”

Direct marketers have obsessed over lifting response rates by the tenths of a percentage point for decades. After all, .001% of 10 million is 10,000 additional somethings — customers, sales, inquiries, etc.

For the first time in marketing practice, a breathtaking degree of accountability is available. Are you availing yourself of it? Every new business discussion and every annual review conversation now starts with, “what has to happen in your business during the next year for you to be successful?” The answer gets drilled down into the measures and objectives for the marketing, lead-generation and sales program.

Our answer was to enthusiastically embrace this fabulous transparency and visibility into our marketing programs’ effectiveness. It’s pretty damn scary to begin — not everyone in the communications and creative industry has been subject to such performance scrutiny growing up in the industry. (Check out this post from our creative director, Wade McCune; he and I share common sentiments, having grown up in the creative department.)  But then a wonderful thing happens. You experience regular feedback on your programs. You know exactly what’s working and what’s not. You watch the points accumulating on the scoreboard, and you know just which passes, tackles, blocks and trick-plays put them there. Not only that, your clients get addicted to the data … and soon you are having more substantive, strategic and smart conversations together than ever before.

3. Create In-between

Fay Jones, the world-famous architect from my hometown, once said that he could not create without boundaries. That the constraints — the budget, the site, the owner’s taste and temperament — were the raw material of his stunning and original designs.

So it is, with marketing and the dual constraints of brand strategy in one corner and marketing analytics in the other. Effective marketing today must be driven by the power of story (informed by brand), whose effect is measured and reported by the numbers.

For both the marketing strategist and the creative director, these balancing centers of energy (brand clarity + accountable metrics) will drive the breakthrough solutions that get traction online and offline.

I’m reminded of two recent programs our team put together for very different clients in very different situations.

The Barber Law Firm was celebrating 100 years in business. It had been a century of keeping their heads down, their noses to the grindstone and their business to themselves. That worked okay, until all of the other law firms decided to get aggressive about marketing, telling their stories and grabbing clients; until Barber wanted to diversify and grow.

Along with a comprehensive identity redevelopment, website rehab, and an extensive thought-leadership effort marked by extensive speaking and writing, we helped the firm conceive of and initiate the Barber Century Fund — a commitment in the next 100 years to endow an $8 million permanent fund that would kick off philanthropic dollars in perpetuity. The Century Fund is a creative breakthrough that just keeps on giving.

For The Athletic Clubs, brand research and strategy underscored that no fitness center can win simply with the shiniest, newest equipment or most extensive facilities today. It must be able to make a promise of an emotional and lifestyle payoff to its members. At The Athletic Clubs, the difference is the people, services and facilities creating “a place where you can work on becoming a happier person,” as one client phrased it. The counterweight to the warm-and-fuzzies is that The Athletic Clubs — even with an industry low attrition rate — must sign a steady stream of new members to stay healthy themselves.

Working within these boundaries, our creative team conceived and launched a highly effective development campaign titled “Play On,” a program that codified the community spirit and emotional payback of membership. The program has been in the market less than a year, and the clubs have already registered some of the highest, new-member months on record. The 2015 Arkansas ADDY judges commended the club’s web site with a Special Judges Award of Excellence. As a number of the club’s members said to me and Melissa, “you nailed the club, the ethos and the reason I belong perfectly.” That’s dead-on brand work that delivers accountable results in action.

The Adobe survey can be viewed as a sad state of marketing affairs. Or it can be seen as a rallying cry to marketing practitioners to embrace accountability for our own performance, to actively learn something every day, and to apply that insight and measure results tomorrow.

P.S. If you want to download a copy of the survey, “Digital Distress: What Keeps Marketers Up at Night?”, which Adobe is distributing freely, you can get it here, or at Adobe’s website.


Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

More posts by Martin Thoma

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