Monday, October 19, 2009

How Marketers Increase Their Value

Some time ago, consultant David Maister posted a provocative question on his blog: "Who are the marketing experts in professional businesses?" He noted that he would be hard pressed to offer evidence of any real marketing breakthroughs among professional service firms. "I can think of many professional businesses built by the professionals themselves (i.e., the marketing amateurs)," he wrote, "but it's very unclear (at least from the outside) what marketing professionals have contributed."

If you are a marketing professional, you are probably taken aback by such comments. But does he have a point? It's illuminating that among the many comments Maister received to his blog posting--including from such notable marketing experts as Seth Godin, Suzanne Lowe, and Charles Green--none really took exception! As a marketing professional myself for over 20 years in the A/E industry, I must confess I find it hard to argue with Maister.

I could point to several evidences of marketing mediocrity in our industry that seem to support Maister's point. Who's to blame for this is a matter for debate. I suspect it's a combination of marketers not getting the job done and their having too little influence in their respective firms to make a real difference anyway. The bottom line is the marketing function is not having the substantial impact in our business that we witness in other industries.

I know that many, if not most, marketing professionals in our business feel somewhat under-appreciated and, in some cases, disenfranchised. They often work on the fringe of shaping corporate strategy rather than in the mainstream. They may have marketing degrees and expertise, but find themselves merely providing specialized support to the engineers and architects who really determine marketing strategy.

The recession has provided further evidence of this diluted role. In many firms, marketers have been among the first positions to be cut. Think about that: When getting new business emerges as the biggest challenge, the first casualties are those specifically assigned to that task. Obviously, company management hasn't viewed their contributions as essential. Is something wrong with this picture?

One of the outcomes I'd like to see from this economic downturn is a transformation in our business development approach. We have relied too long on the reactive, seller-focused, sell-when-I-get-the-time-or-it-becomes-urgent model. The time has come to incorporate real marketing expertise in positioning our firms for success in the New Normal. Do we have enough capable marketers to step up to that role? And are managers ready to let them?

If you are a marketing professional aspiring for a bigger role, let me suggest the following strategies for elevating your value to the firm:

Establish yourself as the marketing expert. For the most part, engineers and architects still call the shots when it comes to determining how the company will market and sell. Some of these individuals possess strong client skills and are adept at bringing in new business. Yet many more have deficiencies in these areas, and almost none of them have real expertise in marketing. There's an obvious need here.

Unfortunately, most marketers have failed to establish themselves as the definitive experts in their own field. Some simply lack the expertise; others don't seem to know how to leverage it. Of course, it's not all their fault. Their employers don't always lend an open ear to their ideas. That's why you have to be as compelling as possible.

My boss once complained, "I hate to have a disagreement with you because you've always done all this research to back up your position."

"Then don't disagree with me," I responded (smiling, of course).

If you're going to be the marketing expert, then make yourself irrefutable. Dig deep to uncover the best practices, related research, success stories. Be sure it's relevant to our business (see next point). Win people over by impressing them with the depth of your knowledge about your craft.

Learn everything you can about our business, and about business in general. Perhaps the biggest obstacle most marketers face is a limited understanding of the business in which they labor. If you want to be viewed as a strategic asset, you need to know the business. I recommend reading extensively, asking lots of questions of your technical and management colleagues, sitting in on strategy meetings, getting involved in professional associations--whatever it takes to build your business expertise. You should also look outside our profession as well, because we can learn a lot from other industries. Yet you'll need to have a feel for what will work in our industry (and your firm) and what won't.

Develop your strategic thinking and problem solving skills. The best marketing people I've known were skilled strategists and problem solvers. Though they may have lacked technical expertise, they played an important role in defining corporate (and even project) strategy. This "outsider's perspective" can be extremely valuable. Marketers are often very good at synthesis, the ability to see the big picture and fit all the pieces of a problem or solution together. This can be the perfect complement to your technical colleagues' analytical strengths, which apply a different approach to problem solving.

Strategic thinking and problem solving skills are to some degree innate, but you can develop your abilities in this area. One of the best ways is to carefully observe those who are really good at it. Hopefully you have a few in your firm. Watch how they ask questions, search for answers, break down problems, evaluate solutions, weigh the ramifications, predict the outcomes.

Impact the content of the message, not just the presentation. Marketers often depend on their technically-minded colleagues to give them the core content for their proposals, brochures, and other marketing materials. The marketer is then relegated to the role of editing and graphic layout. But the strategic value of the marketing specialist increases when you significantly impact the content. This is when I really began to excel as a proposal writer, when I could reinterpret, reframe, revise, and challenge what my colleagues had written. Why is this important? Because marketers should be better communicators and bring a different strategic perspective, as noted above. This obviously requires experience, but you can start working in this direction at any stage of your career.

Earn the right to say no. Many in marketing roles have little more say over their work assignments than administrative staff. This is probably necessary early in your career. But eventually you have to be able to have some say over what you work on and how you go about it. The reason this is important is because you are the marketing expert--at least, that's what you need to be. Marketing will not be the strategic asset it could be as long as engineers and architects are dictating how it's done. But since this is a technically-driven business, you have to earn the right to drive the marketing agenda. This comes as your colleagues see that your ideas and strategies work.

Build your network. The power brokers in our profession are those who have strategic relationships. If you are not in a sales role, you can still network to develop relationships with potential clients. Or you can focus on nurturing other important relationships--with teaming partners, subcontractors, vendors, etc. To really succeed as a marketer, you need to distinguish yourself both in what you know and who you know. Get involved in professional associations, be consistent in keeping in touch with those in your network, become known as a helpful resource so that others want to talk with you.

Above all, demonstrate that your ideas work! I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. As a marketer in our business, you generally have to work harder than your technical colleagues to gain respect and make a strategic contribution to the firm. This requires that you be diligent in increasing your knowledge, developing your skills, and learning and applying best practices. There is no substitute for success when trying to establish your indispensable value to the company.


Suzanne Lowe said...

Mel, great points here. I mean that.

But you may be setting up marketers to be even more marginalized if you suggest it's all up to them to increase their value. (It's *way more* complex than marketers being "as compelling as possible" or "establish your indispensable value to the company.")

PSF managers must share accountability for improving the effectiveness of their firms' marketing, selling, and client-service processes, skills and suport functions.

I think you should write a post about how PSF executive managers could do this. I made several suggestions about it in my book The Integration Imperative.

But other minds (yours!) can add to the discussion.

Unknown said...

You hit the nail on the head by saying marketers feel "somewhat under-appreciated and, in some cases, disenfranchised." That sentiment has resulted in a lot of job hopping amongst other things.

You have some great hints. Unfortunately, it took quite a few years for me to realize that it should be a good idea to pay attention to the technical aspects of my firm.

Mel Lester said...


No disagreement from me. To be sure, A/E firm managers are a big part of the reason why marketers don't have more impact. My post was more focused on what marketers can control. But your suggestion to write another post directed towards managers is a good one. Thanks for the feedback!


Matt Handal said...


I thought your article was spot on. Our success can not depend on others. It has to depend on us.

This inspired me to write a piece at my site.