Your Marketing Team Is Working Too Hard

First, I promise not to say "Work smarter, not harder" at any point in this post. While there is truth to the cliche, it's a phrase that is so overused that it's essentially meaningless without additional context.

In the corporate environment, we see over and over again that instead of striving to use laser-focused marketing strategies to cause real business outcomes, team/department cultures are built around production quantity and busy-ness. That is, rather than saying "We need to achieve X for the business, so let's work on Y marketing activities," the mindset is increasingly "We have 15+ marketers on staff, and we have to justify that our department size and budget are warranted, therefore we need to squeeze as much "stuff" out as possible. The more visible to executive leadership, the better."

I get it -- I worked in that environment for 10 years before breaking free, and I know that it's incredibly difficult to swim upstream and fight the bureaucratic culture that creeps into marketing departments. Even if you know that the right thing to do is focus on less tasks with higher quality, it's impossible to do so when everyone around you is focused on self-preservation, and doing more more more, rather than better better better.

As one of my favorite authors, Mike Michalowicz says, "More is not better. Better is better."

If any of this is ringing true for you, don't feel bad -- you're not alone. We have worked with many organizations, and have found that this is a normal side-effect that comes with running a department of a certain size. But just because it's normal, doesn't mean it's right.

Why do we fall into this trap?

As previously mentioned, it's often a side-effect of a bureaucratic environment. Employees (even management and leadership) are trained -- through the expectations of their up-lines -- that being an effective employee means maximizing personal effort and output. Simply put, they want to see you break a sweat! Even if your tactics fall short, you receive praise for putting so much effort and skill into the work. This praise can lead to pay raises, promotions, and other rewards and recognition. Business results, in this system, are often an afterthought that take the backseat to self-preservation. It's not that we don't care about results -- we do. But consider the following scenarios: 

  • Employee A busts their ass and works 60 hour weeks for a month to launch a new social media campaign. They focus on doing all of the 'right' things -- they collaborate with leadership for feedback, they utilize the budget they were given, they leverage the talents of the most prestigious design firm in the area, and they launch an incredibly high profile campaign that is seen by millions, and draws in several key new accounts.
  • Employee B works 35 hours per week, takes full hour-long lunches, and has time to pick up his kids  from school every day. He also collaborates with leadership to gain valuable guidance on corporate vision, but spends his time focused solely on 1 thing: achieving business goals. He leverages market analysis, data insights, and technology trends to identify the most promising social media marketing activities based on the company's goals. Armed with this knowledge, he organizes a team to deliver only those tactics that have a high probability of effectiveness, and focuses on processes and organization to ensure that the team works efficiently. His efforts are not visible to millions. In fact, the visibility of this campaign is a fraction of Employee A's. But the business impact is the same -- several new key accounts are closed, and the revenue for the business is increased.

From the outside looking in, it's obvious that Employee B's methods are the most efficient, effective and sustainable. We all know it, and can see it clearly. So why, then, does it feel like the majority of enterprise marketing departments operate more like Employee A? Constantly pushing employees to do more, push harder, use more muscle, and spend more?

On the inside (i.e. among his peers and leadership), Employee B often looks lazy. If you are putting in 60 hour weeks, but watching your coworker leave the office at 4pm every day, you (and by "you", I mean anyone who is human) will look down on their 'lack of work ethic.' If you are a leader, it is very hard to make the case to promote an employee who openly works half the hours as their peers -- whether or not their results are the same.

And this is where the vicious cycle begins. Employee B thinks, "I was able to achieve the same results with less effort, but my coworker (Employee A) was just promoted because of their 'work ethic'." They now have two logical choices: 1.) Leave the company, and look for an opportunity that rewards results rather than brute force; or 2.) Fall in line with "success traits" within the company -- pull longer hours, spend more money, and achieve the same results. Either of these choices are bad for the company -- because they both lead to a marketing team that all act like Employee As.

And there you have it, that is why your marketing team works too hard, and will continue to do so until you (their leader) change the culture.

Start By Acknowledging Your Own Insecurities

Here's the secret: The "more is better" expectation doesn't actually exist -- we all make it up in our own minds, and project it on our leadership based on our own insecurities. Nobody really wants their direct reports to simply produce more. But it's human nature to react this way when our value is questioned. And when this happens at the highest level, the false interpretation of expectations moves like an avalanche down the entire chain of command. Here's another scenario:

CEO: "We need more revenue, and I can't see how our current marketing is helping us solve that problem."

CMO: "We may be able to find some efficiencies, but what I heard is that the marketing department simply needs to perform better."

VP - Marketing: "The CMO isn't impressed by our efforts -- we need to push harder, and really show them what we can do!"

Marketing Director: "No pressure, team, but leadership is watching closely and expects a lot from us!"

Marketing Manager: "What can we do this quarter that will really 'Wow' our leadership team, and show them just how talented and ahead of the curve we truly are?"

Marketing Team: "We need to launch amazing campaigns, saturate every marketing channel, and make sure our work is visible! We want the CEO to be pleased when he sees the amazing billboard on I-75"

Do you see how the message erodes more and more at each level? The CEO is simply asking for better results, but by the time the marketing team gets the message, it's misconstrued and has lost its true intention.

All the while, Employee B is in the background saying (to deaf ears), "The CEO didn't ask for an awesome billboard -- he asked for revenue. Can't we just reverse-engineer what drives revenue, and work to optimize those efforts?"

The CEO and Employee B are the only 2 people in this scenario who are truly on the same page, and it all stems from the first projection of insecurities at the CMO level. Just like the kindergarten telephone game, each time the message reached the next level, there was another level of insecurity attached to it -- distorting the original request more and more. So much so, that by the time it reached the front-line marketing employees, they felt strongly that the best course of action was to really nail the creative execution of a campaign that may or may not move the needle. Based solely on the messaging they received (and the culture around them), they aren't wrong.

So what can we do to stop this? No matter what level you are on, acknowledge your insecurities, but build a team and culture based on the following statement: 

Marketing is an investment. The goal of marketing is to perform business activities that return more revenue to the company than their cost.

There is no other justification for marketing -- period. Don't say "brand awareness." That's a cop-out. Brand awareness is often used as a scapegoat for marketing tactics that can't be easily measured. But if we're being honest, the only reason brand awareness is important is because ... wait for it ... it is expected to return more revenue to the company in the long run than its cost. That's right. Even if you say "brand awareness" is the goal, it still MUST be quantified for anyone in an Executive Leadership role to take it seriously.

Build a Results-Focused Culture... And Mean It

Building a culture within your marketing department that prioritizes achieving results as efficiently as possible takes courage. The workforce has been programmed to idolize traditional traits of work ethic: long hours, personal sacrifice, stress and more. And I'm not saying that these can't be signs that an employee's intentions are good. Rather, I'm saying that they are not necessary for success, and when they become the measures of success among your staff, your company will fall into the trap of working too hard for too little results.

The first step to making this transition of culture (after recognizing it) is to be crystal-clear about expectations and goals of the team. In my post about building marketing team charters, I lay out a guide for doing this. If you, as the leader, aren't explicitly setting and communicating quantifiable (and achievable) goals and objectives, you will have a team of very smart people all running in completely different directions, based on their own interpretations of your expectations. You should be able to state plainly why the marketing team exists, and what it is responsible for contributing to the company's mission. Only from there should channel strategies and campaigns be created.

Compounding small results are more beneficial than sporadic big wins

It's common for marketing departments to focus on the big things. A brand launch, a multi-channel campaign, a huge media-buy, etc. We all want big budgets and flashy tactics, right?

Sure. I won't lie -- those tactics are exciting. Even more so when they are successful. But building lasting success in marketing isn't only about the big wins. It's about acting with focus and discipline every day to keep the entire program moving forward. Publishing a blog post every week, never missing a team stand-up meeting, optimizing PPC campaigns daily, regularly drawing insights from web analytics. These are just a few examples of the small things that, when done consistently over time, add up to a world-class marketing program. When you build a culture around doing the small things right, you will be amazed at the results that come naturally. The best part? When these small things are systematized (not automated -- please don't confuse the two terms), they start to feel like second-nature. Not easy, necessarily, but also not overly difficult.

Is hard work really that bad?

No. The ability and drive to work hard is a virtue (in my opinion). But the point I hope I've made here is that while working hard on the right things is productive, working too hard on the wrong things (or for the wrong reasons) is problematic. It leads to burnout and poor performance; high turnover of good employees (and low turnover of bad employees, which is even worse); and generally ineffective marketing programs.

Work hard. But make sure you and your team know exactly what you're trying to achieve, and how your efforts are advancing the cause.

Digital Team Charter Template

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About the Author
Justin is the owner/founder of Fox Consulting Group, and a lead consultant for strategy engagements.

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