As marketers return to their seats after the summer break, Russell Parsons highlights three areas the industry needs to focus on in the four months left of 2020.
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September has always carried a sense of renewal. However distant you are from school days; the month is as an opportunity to start over after the reflection holidays afford. There is an added poignancy to the beginning of the transition from summer to autumn this year.
For some companies it marks closure on the chaos of the last five months as lockdowns worldwide ease. Others will be gearing up for a high stakes fourth quarter to try and mitigate losses in the year to date. All are taking stock.
For marketers approaching the final four months of the year and beyond, it’s also chance for a fresh start. Time to assess what old habits should be dropped and what has been lost this year that should be picked back up. Here is what I would add to the to do list:
We have all retreated to our bubble in the last 5 months. At home, we have wrapped ourselves in the comfort blanket of family and nostalgia. On social media, we have sought satisfaction from those that share our world view. At work, an inordinate amount of time has been spent pouring over spreadsheets in search of a silver bullet solution to survival and recovery. If not leaning into a database, time has been spent consumed by Zoom calls about company concerns.
My advice? Stop hoovering up data gleaned from meaningless feedback forms, close the spreadsheet and step outside of the bubble. Real life is out there, not in excel, and not in video conferences with colleagues.
This year will only have exacerbated the slavish devotion to decision making by data that has beset marketing over the last ten years. Big data based on past behaviour is useful to a point, but we can all likely agree customer behaviour this year is not going to be indicative of what’s next. It offers little by way of insight.
Lockdown has likely widened the disconnect between marketers and their customers. The chasm between how marketers believe customers behave and how they actually do has existed for some time. It’s a consequence of over reliance on data, yes but also accepting what Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson says should be 101 for every marketer – “you are not the customer”. It has manifested itself in poor media planning choices with millions ineffectively invested in channels where marketers and agency colleagues were spending time but customers weren’t, as found in this 2018 study by Ebiquity for Radiocentre.
I am not pitching for everyone to spend the next 6 months on fieldwork but with so many distractions, there’s even more danger of insular thinking. Of making decisions based on your own thoughts and feelings, or those of your peers. Of pursuing efficiency through data at the expense of insight.
Strategy is about deciding where and how time will be best employed. You can only do that with proper investment in market research.
It’s more important than ever to understand customers. To go and find out what they think, feel and desire. That can’t be done exclusively via excel, feedback forms or a poll of peers.
Open the door to future talent
In reacting to the giant dent Covid-19 has made to revenue and profit, companies have cut staff costs. Marketing and marketers have been hit particularly badly. Thousands of experienced and capable marketers are out of work.
At the same time, companies are closing the door on would-be marketers. Research from Hays, a UK recruitment firm, found the percentage of firms recruiting trainees and apprentices has fallen to 19% since lockdown.
As staffing accounts for a huge chunk of operating costs, difficult decisions must be made. The case for investment in long-term talent through apprenticeships, traineeships or paid internships becomes a lot more difficult to make in straightened times. However, closing the door to future rising stars will hurt the desirability of marketing as a profession. And, crucially, the diversity of those entering the industry.
According to 2018 research by Marketing Week, marketing as a career option ranks low among young people of school age. Further research found the vast majority entering marketing are undergraduates with degrees other than in marketing who reported their current career choice was far from their first.
This doesn’t add to up to an engaged, demographically diverse talent pool. Schemes like apprenticeships, which are typically for non-graduates and are paid positions in pursuit of a qualification, and paid internships are a way of engaging more people from more backgrounds at a younger age.
The case for diversity in teams is clear. More perspectives equal more insight. In the UK at least take up by employers of apprenticeships has been low. For those able to, invest in the future now. There’s never been a better and more necessary time to.
Focus on what’s important
Talking to Marketing Week earlier this year KFC’s marketing director for the UK and Ireland Jack Hinchliffe gave this sobering assessment of the impact of Covid-19.
“There is nothing like having to rethink your entire year’s plan to really understand what’s important for the brand. It’s an exercise in ruthless prioritisation.”
I have heard this a lot from marketers this year. The need to focus on what drives revenue, prioritising what drives outcomes for business, understanding what is meaningfully effective and leads to profitable growth. Sub-text: the time for eye-catching innovation that might win you awards for creativity isn’t now.
Many marketers are guilty of being distracted by shiny new things of little aid to growth. From AI to AR and VR, Blockchain to Badoo, a lot of time and effort has been spent getting to grips with tools of execution that don’t move the dial. As the former WFA president David Wheldon once said, “marketers should stop being the dog that barks at every passing car”.
Don’t lose the innovative spirit and willingness to try new ways of working that has taken hold this year. Equally, don’t lose sight of the need to discover, to find new voices, to focus on the bottom line.
September is as good a month as any to reset.