I spend a couple of hours each week helping less experienced chief marketing officers (CMOs). They usually seek my advice looking for quick wins, tips and hacks.
By now, I’m used to their sigh of disappointment when I share with them what I’ve found to be the four-part formula for marketing success. It includes no hacks, trickery or sorcery. Just four, time-tested elements I’ve found you absolutely must get right to build a successful marketing operation: strategy, execution, people and creativity.
Here’s what it’s not: pulling together an odd mix of campaigns in hopes of them coming together. They won’t.
Strategy can be difficult to achieve but should always be simple to articulate. What’s “the big idea?” If you can’t easily explain it, you probably haven’t found it yet. I’ve found it useful to have a “big idea” for my overall strategy and for smaller components of it, like trade shows (why will people line up at our booth?) or content (what will make them download it?). There should be a simple way of describing what success will ultimately look like. Then reverse-engineer your tactics to get there.
Different is better than better. I explained one aspect of this in my recent article on the unwritten rules of business-to-business (B2B) branding and why you should break them. Now I propose being different in your overall strategy. Unless you want to be a “me too” company, you’re probably better off choosing a strategy others haven’t tried rather than attempting to be 10 times better than another player already using the same strategy.
Plan for galactic scale. You don’t need to understand all the details just yet, but you should be able to grasp the big picture of what your success will look like in one, two and three years. You’ll likely change a few things on the way — maybe even big things. But without a firm grasp of what future success looks like, you’re unlikely to put the right wheels in motion to get you there.
Open-water diving lessons often start with “Plan your dive; dive your plan.” The same truth holds for your marketing. Execution excellence starts with detailed planning and key performance indicators (KPIs).
How detailed should you be? Our events manager is measured on the number of event-driven opportunities we create and tickets sold to our annual event. Our weekly marketing team meetings start with reviewing every KPI we’re tracking this quarter. How well are we doing? How much have we advanced since last week? What bottlenecks do we need to solve for? We currently have 10 quarterly KPIs, each with an owner whose compensation is tied to this number. That’s how we create accountability.
I’m a big believer in the “fail quickly and learn from it” approach. Constant experimentation is the basis for fast empirical learning. We could argue until the cows come home on which subject line will perform better, but a simple A/B test gives us the answer and allows us to move on. Does someone have an ad creative idea? Great! What time can it go live? If it works, we scale it. If it doesn’t, we kill it. Rinse and repeat.
Hiring mistakes are painful to correct. We’re all human. So when things don’t work out for a new hire, we’ll give them another chance. And then a performance plan. And a final warning. By the time we’ve come to the conclusion things aren’t going to work out, we’ve wasted nearly 12 months we’ll never get back.
Don’t compromise. Hire the best people you can. You’ll need to reach out to the best candidates because they might not be actively job searching. This is hard work, but in my opinion, nothing else you do will yield higher returns. Candidates for junior positions are often surprised that I take the time to interview them. I respond that there’s no better use of my time. If we hire them and it works out, they’ll make our company millions. If we hire the wrong person, we could lose millions. Once you look at hiring through this lens, you’ll quickly realize the resources you need to invest in the process.
If your company is growing fast, hire overqualified people. Within a short time, you’ll promote them to fuel your growth. They’ll evolve from individual contributors to managers. It’s far easier to promote the people you have on your team than to parachute external managers.
Hire people better than you in at least one key skill the team needs to succeed. I struggled with this in the early stages of my career. I felt that I needed to be the best at every skill my team needed. I eventually realized how crippling that approach was and started hiring amazing people who were much better than me at their craft. That’s when things really took off.
To run an amazing marketing organization, you don’t have to be the best marketing operations person. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest writer. You only have to know how to hire, motivate and coordinate the efforts of amazing people who can do all those things.
Don’t wait for your muse. Get systematic about your creativity. We hold regular creative brainstorming sessions on everything from our next event’s swag to our social media videos. Some of the best ideas have come from team members who don’t regularly get to flex their creativity muscles.
You never know where your next brilliant idea will come from. Get everyone involved. Make it fun. Follow up on the good ideas to motivate everyone to contribute more. There are no stupid ideas at these meetings and nothing gets knocked down. We list everything on the whiteboard, then prioritize by voting and taking into account production considerations. Some of our best work was created this way.
Marketing teams fail in many different ways, but the best ones I’ve seen or experienced firsthand always got these four elements right: strategy, execution, people and creativity.