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One CEO’s Thoughts On Marketing, Communications And Proof of Impact
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One CEO’s Thoughts On Marketing, Communications And Proof of Impact

In the ongoing discussion over marketing and communications measurement, there’s one voice notably absent: that of CEOs and CFOs.

Holmes Report

In the ongoing discussion over marketing and communications measurement, there’s one voice notably absent: that of CEOs and CFOs.

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to have an impromptu 1:1 conversation with one of the toughest CEOs in the technology sector.   We had some time to kill in between press interviews, in a city famed for beautiful parks and beautiful weather. He wanted to take a walk, and he invited me along.

After a mile or so – after we’d covered off on the remainder of the press tour -- he unexpectedly offered to answer any question I had on my mind.  How often does that happen? Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I opened the proverbial can of worms: what did he need to see in order to feel really good about investing more in marketing and communications?

Asking that question turned out to be absolutely one of the most pivotal things in my professional life, and what he said to me over the ensuing 40 minutes has directly informed how I think about marketing and communications today.

After we parted ways that evening, I returned to my hotel and furiously wrote it all down. Here are some of his thoughts, rendered pretty much verbatim:

• “Guys like me [CEOs] ask ourselves this question all the time about all kinds of different organizations in the company: ‘If I fired all of you tomorrow and liquidated your function, how much of this ‘fill-in-the-blank’ would I miss out on?’”

• “A lot of times, it seems that PR people depend on getting lucky.  That’s it. It never feels very intentional – they just sort of fall into goodness, or they don’t. If they do, they’re geniuses. If they don’t, they blame it on someone else – the reporter, the product, the company…anyone but themselves.”

• “Communications is a lot like sales, except without the quotas. You guys need quotas. You need clear ‘pass-fail’ goals. Quotas would make you better, more effective, more planful, and people would begin to see that it was skill, not luck.”

• “Imagine that you and I are playing pool. You knock two balls into two corner pockets with one shot. If you called it ahead of time, I have to believe that it’s skill, particularly if you do it again. If you didn’t call it ahead of time, I call it luck. I expect everyone who works for my company to show me real skill first – once I know you’re really good at what you do, then I can appreciate you getting lucky every now and then. I need lucky people, but they’ve got to make their luck or I can’t depend on it, can’t trust it.”

• “You guys say you can’t force a reporter and analyst to write something. Well, ‘no duh,’ right? It’s a free country. But remember, sales guys can’t force a customer to sign the PO either, but they still have to meet their quota. Or I fire them. Marketing and PR guys always have excuses, extenuating circumstances. You want my appreciation and bigger budgets, but many in your profession run away from the explicit accountability that comes with a real mathematical definition of success and failure.”

• “My top concerns are revenue, margin and cash flow. Everything else in the company supports those three things or doesn’t. Show me concrete, real systems and data on how you are helping sales to drive positive impact in any one of these areas, and I’ll be impressed. Any two, I’ll be amazed and you’ll get a raise. Three?  You guys can have all the money you want.”

• “I know that communications makes a big impact. I’ll stipulate that.  Any public company CEO with a brain who spends time with customers knows and believes that. But this is not about belief – it’s about facts and data and proof.”

• “I expect you to be able to look at all of your tools, channels, whatever, and make investment decisions on what mix is going to deliver the right value. Over-spending on any one component is not just bad for business, it tells me that you don’t really understand where you’re getting your value from.”

• “When we stand up in front of the board and ask for investment in this line of business or that one, we use data to predict what it will mean to both sides of the income statement. You guys don’t do that – you just want a lot more money, and in the other column you put all sorts of non-financial numbers [like Volume and Tone and Share of Voice]. If that’s all you’ve got, ok, but I can’t stand up and ask for a big increase in your spend based on that, even if I believe it would be beneficial to the company. So what happens? Simple. I keep the marketing and communications investment low enough to be an easily defensible line item in SG&A [Selling, General and Administrative expense].  And, honestly, we will keep doing that until you guys give us a reason not to. The ball’s in your court.”

Indeed.

Since Barcelona 2010, the Measurement Movement has put the cart before the horse, debating questions such as “what is Engagement?” and “what is a Press Hit?” Agencies and vendors have dominated the work groups – so it should come as no surprise that the focus has been primarily at the tactical end of the stick.

The problem is that CEOs and CFOs aren’t really interested in these intramural conversations. When they are exposed to it, they typically shake their heads with incredulity right before their eyes glaze over.

I recently discussed the Measurement Movement with a healthcare industry leader, who made a telling statement: “Your colleagues need to understand that we [business leaders] expect marketing and communications to understand our standard of proof and meet it, not develop their own.”

Double indeed.

Given this, it seems clear that a comprehensive survey of public and private company CEOs and CFOs would be the right place to start.  And once the findings are gathered, let’s publish them for all to read, absorb and contemplate.

We stand at a very important crossroads as a profession. The statements, doubts, and questions enunciated nearly ten years ago by that CEO are just as compelling today – and are just as much in need of an answer.  Let’s start there, and work back to what it means for our profession.

Mark Stouse is VP of global connect at BMC Software and can be reached at @markstouse.

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