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The new permanent crisis of marketing

When I had dinner with my former boss and mentor in Paris a few months ago (formerly vice president of marketing at a US-based enterprise software company, now CEO of a French enterprise software company), he shared a dirty little secret with me: "Forget

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
5 min read

When I had dinner with my former boss and mentor in Paris a few months ago (formerly vice president of marketing at a US-based enterprise software company, now CEO of a French enterprise software company), he shared a dirty little secret with me: "Forget about marketing," he told me, "it doesn't really matter. I spend 80 percent of my time on HR, finance, operations, and sales. Branding, marketing communications, PR - not my priorities." A few weeks later I came across a working paper called "Getting Marketing Back in the Boardroom," and seeing the title gave me chills. Provided that both the practitioner's view and the academic analysis signify a larger trend prevalent in the industry, then the days of marketing as a corporate function might indeed be numbered.

Is marketing dead or does it just smell bad? The new swan song for marketers is ironic as it comes at a point when the power of marketing seems not only so obvious but also so ubiquitous: Marketing is around us 24/7, marketing paradigms have invaded our private lives ("personal branding," "self-branding"), the blurring boundaries between marketers and consumers have led to the rise of the notion that "everyone is a marketer," and the Americans elected a president whose marketing prowess is widely admired (Advertising Age even voted Barack Obama "Marketer of the Year 2008"). And marketers are complaining about losing influence?

It is not the first time someone is ringing the death knell for this profession. Marketing, almost by definition, finds itself in a permanent crisis. Marketers are accustomed to constantly justifying their efforts. Marketing is an easy target because its targets are constantly moving. Audiences are fickle and their beliefs elusive, and marketers' tools are easily outdated. As in the media business, marketers' wins from the past are old news. What worked yesterday can be wrong tomorrow. Moreover, the lack of a formalized set of rules (as it exists for, say, accounting) makes the discipline prone to advice from all kinds of want-to-be experts from near and far. When so much of a profession is based on knowledge (episteme) and not craft (techne), there will always be those who believe they know more (or know-it-all, for that matter).

Marketing has traditionally been closely scrutinized from other corporate functions, particularly sales, not the least because of the inverse proportional ratio between the visibility of its efforts and the intricacy of quantifying their impact. Even in the heyday of marketing, when it was considered the flagship function in most companies and the fastest track for executives to be groomed to become the next CEO, chief marketing officers (CMOs) found themselves on hot seat. From the late 1990s to 2004, Starbucks appointed a new marketing head five times in seven years, and Coca-Cola changed its CMO four times in six years. This trend is mirrored globally: In a recent CMO survey by the Economist, 63 percent of survey respondents said that the global marketing head at their companies had served for less than three years. The average tenure of CMOs at US companies has shrunk to just 16 months.

But something is different this time around. While marketers have always been under scrutiny for what they do - they are now also being scrutinized for what they are.

A number of voices question the marketer's role today. McKinsey Quarterly believes that marketing executives are grappling with the new social media environment, arguing that "many chief marketers still have narrowly defined roles that emphasize advertising, brand management, and market research." And even marketing guru Seth Godin asks whether "your marketing is out of sync."

It looks as if marketing needs some serious marketing. Conferences that seek to redefine (and thus strengthen) marketing's role are burgeoning: The American Marketing Association offers seminars such as "Beyond Marketing 2.0: Harnessing the Power of Social Media for Marketing Campaign Results," Forrester's Marketing Forum 2008 heralds "engagement" as the profession's "new imperative for success," and the (humbly titled) THE Conference on Marketing aspires to be the penultimate forum for marketing leaders who "seek certainty in experimental times."

Pundits warn that this new crisis of confidence may be existential and usher in the inevitable demise of marketing as a corporate function. Today's CEOs are more and more frequently selected from candidates who have proven their value by rising through the ranks of finance, operations, or sales. Marketing is perceived as "soft," as the consolation prize for sales people who didn't quite advance far enough in their own field to rise to the top.

There is growing concern among marketers about losing influence, as many strategically important aspects of marketing are increasingly distributed across other functions in organizations. A recent CMO survey co-sponsored by the American Marketing Association and the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University indicates that many tasks traditionally ascribed to marketing are no longer primary responsibilities of marketers. While marketers in the surveyed organizations oversee positioning (86%), advertising (92%), promotion (86%), marketing research (86%), competitive intelligence (71%), and market entry (67%), more strategic responsibilities such as new products (48%), market selection (48%), customer relationship management (49%), innovation (39%), pricing (22%), distribution (13%), and customer service (9.5%) have moved to other departments. Even more tellingly, only in six percent of firms marketing is considered to be responsible for stock market performance.

Diana Derval, professor of marketing at the French business school ESSEC and author of the book "Wait Marketing," mocks marketers as a nostalgic class: "The only reason marketing still exists is because of the big lobby power of its professional organizations, especially in the advertising industry," she told me. Derval argues that marketing is a science and not an art, and makes a passionately cold-hearted case against the "myth of marketing genius." She contends that most marketing dollars are squandered by "experimental" marketing efforts that fail to scientifically segment and target their audiences. Her skepticism poses some rather disturbing questions for marketers: If marketing is a science, who still needs marketers? Will marketing soon be taken over by non-marketers?

Marketing is indeed in an existential crisis as it faces unprecedented challenges to its conventions. But I would argue that it is accompanied by new, unprecedented opportunities. Companies have to radically rethink how they do marketing - marketing can no longer be viewed as a collection of programs, but instead as way of behaving in a networked economy of "market communities." The industry has reached a turning point that presents a unique launch pad for marketing to reinvent itself - or to paraphrase German filmmaker Herbert Achternbusch: "You don't have a chance so use it!"