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  Tom Agan The Prison of Marketing
by Tom Agan and Scott Siff
June 2, 2008

What is the single biggest issue facing senior marketing professionals today?

Could it be developing new approaches as the traditional mass-media centric model of marketing becomes increasingly obsolete?

Or is it perhaps demonstrating marketing's return on investment to satisfy those pesky questions from finance about which half of the marketing budget is wasted?

Or is it even as basic as keeping their job, given that the average Chief Marketing Officer of a publicly traded company lasts less than two years before leaving the position?

All of these would be great guesses. And they would all be wrong.

Senior marketing people at big companies have a dirty secret. They are prisoners. They are stuck in a jail with walls and barriers almost as impenetrable as Alcatraz.


According to more than two dozen interviews with senior marketing leaders at large global companies around the world, the number one problem they face is organizational silos.1 These silos slow decision making and make it difficult or impossible to reach a consensus on critical issues such as brand values, communications strategies, new offers, and messages.

As one would probably expect, silos often exist between marketing and other functions, such as finance, human resources, sales, and operations. Yet what surprises many is that within marketing itself silos often exist as well—between research and communications creative, or between corporate and business communications groups, or among regional marketing teams.

The results are generally easy to see—as the organization proclaims different messages, based on different strategies, from its various groups and functions. Public relations, advertising, executive speechwriters, sales, and investor relations each tend to create messages that address their respective audiences, but they generally fail to take the extra step and marry them with common themes that best reflect the value and essence of the business in its totality.

The result is that companies rarely speak with one coherent voice. And the consistency of the brand—one of the key drivers of value—is undermined.

And marketing, charged with developing and executing coherent positioning and communications, ends up spending an enormous amount of time struggling against the cacophony of voices within its own company, often begging and pleading with others to get into line.

The political world identified and solved this problem years ago.

When President Reagan took the White House, his team recognized that part of the problem faced by the Carter Administration, an incumbent that they defeated soundly, had been the lack of a coherent message, which created, in turn, the perception of a lack of leadership. To address this, the Reagan administration was the first to implement a "message of the week" to align all communications around one idea. The impact was dramatic. Reagan, in contrast to Carter, was seen as a competent, focused leader, in large part because his team was seen as "on message" on a weekly basis. Moreover these weekly messages almost always reflected the overarching conservative principles of the president, thus reinforcing his distinctive political brand.

In President Bill Clinton's administration, messaging was taken to a dynamic and more strategic level, through better research techniques. Rather than testing messages in isolation on variables like appeal, as is done at most companies today, the White House's current and potential messages were tested in head-to-head comparisons against current or potential opposing messages. Then after being exposed to the pro and con messages, the respondents were asked to choose one—an approach that gave a vastly more accurate and precise picture of public attitudes. By gaming out multiple attack and response sequences simulating all the expected paths the issue might take, the White House could see how public attitudes and policy fights would play out, often before the first message ever came out. This kept the White House as much as two or three steps ahead of the opposition, and created a focused and effective White House leadership team that was able to win immensely difficult battles over balanced budgets, NAFTA, impeachment, and welfare reform.

While new research techniques that dramatically improved the usefulness and reliability of the results were essential to this success, there were also critical structural reorientation and process changes that made it possible.

In a political campaign and in a well-run White House, there is "the communications team." It includes the senior people from advertising, speechwriting, PR, strategy, management, policy, and research. They all sit at the table, decide the strategy, and then decide how to execute on the strategy in the most effective way using each of the different communications channels as a tool. Everyone at the table accepts the reality that "everything communicates," which means they have to agree on one message.

This consolidated organizational structure for managing communications is intimately involved in the research process itself, whereas before this research did not play nearly as central or useful a role.

Everyone on the communications team can, and is encouraged to, suggest strategies and messages—and that full range of perspectives is put into the research, in an open and transparent process. That way, everyone gets their ideas tested and, when the research comes back, they know what messages won and lost; and—most importantly for attaining buy-in and agreement across the group—they know that their ideas had a full, fair, and objective vetting.

The results are powerful, crisp communications that have an enormous impact in projecting competent leadership, building reputation and brand value.

Now over ten years later the corporate world is starting to catch up. But it has a long way to go, largely because of a self-imposed Catch-22. Through habit and inertia, most marketing people use obsolete research techniques. They still test messages qualitatively; or in isolation from the competition (monadic) in terms of appeal; or they judge them against historical, and largely irrelevant, benchmarks. They fail to test in the competitive context that frequently yields results three to four times more accurate than these older approaches. As a result, the CEOs and other senior executives, lacking accurate and reliable research to guide their decisions on messaging, are (rightfully) reluctant to make the organizational and process changes needed to let the marketing executives own and guide the full spectrum of the communications agenda.

For the companies that manage to break out of this status quo gridlock, the impact can be spectacular. Several years ago now, IBM, facing immense problems, settled organization-wide on one messaging platform anchored on eBusiness. This central message significantly improved perceptions of a teetering giant. More recently you see companies like P&G invest considerable time and effort to clarify and make distinct the core idea and message behind each of its laundry detergent products with again positive results.

The business world, in general, badly lags the political world in using the latest and most effective research techniques and in making the commitment to align communications around research results. Better research and organizational changes are the two inter-related keys that would allow marketing to escape from its silo prison. If companies, and marketing organizations in particular, took these twin simple lessons of the political world and implemented them, they would find their organizational cultures far more focused, effective, and respected; and brand communications would realize their full potential value.

1 Interviews conducted by Dave Aaker, former Emeritus Professor of Marketing at University California Berkeley and Tom Agan.

   Tom Agan is formerly Managing Director of Penn, Schoen and Berland in New York and is now Executive Director, Head of Strategy at Interbrand in New York.

Scott Siff is the Executive Vice President at Penn, Schoen and Berland in Washington, D.C.
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The Prison of Marketing
 There seem to be some serious typographical errors in this article. I am interested in the content and am having difficulty extracting the meaning from some sentences. Can this be fixed? 
Katie Chalmers, Lead Officer Design, Fife Council - June 2, 2008
 "A lot of marketing efforts are wasted when investors and senior management are pressurized to make decisions to get short term performance looks good.
Inconsistent in message communication is not effective and acceptable, but it is less damaging than the above" 
Richard Lo, Consultant - June 2, 2008
 Continuity of message is absolutely foundational to brand leadership. While seemingly redundant to those inside creating the messages, to our audiences, the repeated communication instills total comfort. Socrates once said ... "we are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence in not learned, it's habit". Provide consistency, provide comfort and you'll have a lifelong friend, or customer. 
Michael Ladd, President, Smith-Winchester, Inc. - June 2, 2008
 Bottom line Senior-Level Executives care about two things "The Numbers" 
Dianna Harper, President/Owner, Think Image Inc. - June 2, 2008
 Thanks for your quick response in making corrections 
Katie Chalmers - June 3, 2008
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