Dissecting the Skills and Capabilities of Modern Marketing
So, you think you’ve aligned the appropriate marketing model to your firm’s needs. But, do you have the skills and capabilities you need to get what you want for your practice? Let’s find out…
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Jason Mlicki: All right, so last time we talked I think I made a mistake. Do you know what that was?
Jeff McKay: No, not you. No.
Jason Mlicki: I think the mistake was, I actually set a topic for this podcast, so we have to talk about what we’re about to talk about, whether we want to or not.
Jeff McKay: And whether or not our listeners want to hear about it?
Jason Mlicki: Correct. So whether they want to listen to this or … So it might be, actually, from the time that we recorded the last one that everyone decided that is a terrible topic, but now we’re stuck. So anyway, when we left off last time, we talked about the two schools of marketing thought. At the very close, I said, “Okay, next time we get together, let’s talk about the skills and capabilities underlying each of the two schools.” So that’s what we’re going to do today.
Jeff McKay: All right.
Jason Mlicki: Correct me if I’m wrong. Maybe we should give a 20-second overview of each school, just to refresh people’s memory, so if they listened to the last one two weeks ago and they hit this one again, they’d refresh their memory real quick. So maybe 20 seconds, growth school, productivity school. What are they? What’s the difference?
Jeff McKay: You know what? I think this would be a great test to see if the great Jason Mlicki has actually learned and internalized this.
Jason Mlicki: Dramatic pause. Okay, I’ll do my best.
Jeff McKay: I don’t want to put you on the spot.
Jason Mlicki: No, I’ll do it. It’s actually fun. To me, and in fact, going into this discussion, I just jotted down a couple quick notes. To me, the growth school is all about defining how and where we want to go to market and what our big opportunities are in the marketplace, developing IP around those, so developing intellectual property and intellectual capital that enables us to really go to market in a very strategic and thoughtful way, create products and services that are designed to solve unmet needs, and then take that downstream through thought leadership and digital marketing that’s going to move the needle and sort of shape how we as a firm approach the market. The marketing function is very in tune with where the business is trying to go, and in many cases sort of leading it there.
And then I would say the productivity school is more like a sales support function. Marketing is really more to support the partners and business development managers in their efforts to go and close business. So they are there to facilitate RFIs and RFQs, to develop proposals. You like to use the phrase “to make things look pretty”. I like to say “make things more useful or effective.” So I don’t know, how was that?
Jeff McKay: That was pretty good. That was pretty good.
Jason Mlicki: So, I passed the test?
Jeff McKay: I think you did. I think you did. In my mind, the growth school sees marketing as a revenue generator, and the purpose is to maximize profitable growth. The productivity school sees marketing as a cost center, and its purpose is to keep highly-compensated consultants, accountants, and lawyers productive and their utilization high. And then everything kind of cascades out from there.
Jason Mlicki: Well, that was a lot better. Could we just edit out what I said, and just replace it with that?
Jeff McKay: No, I think those details are important, and we’ll get to those, why, on this conversation.
Jason Mlicki: All right. Let’s do it.
Jeff McKay: Let’s keep going.
Jason Mlicki: Also, I don’t want to forget that what I love about your description of the notion of marketing as a cost center and keep highly-compensated people’s utilization high, is we also want to talk about metrics eventually. Not today, but eventually. I think we both agree that just the notion of utilization is one of those things that we want to bring into dialogue. I’m going to suggest we start with the skills and capabilities of the productivity school of marketing, because I think we both have a sense that it’s the skills and capabilities that are most familiar to a lot of firms, because it’s what they have now, potentially. So maybe we start there, and then from there we go to the growth school. And then we, I don’t know, see where we end up.
Jeff McKay: In my experience, productivity school, in most traditional professional services organizations, while all of these firms are kind of filled with generalists, there are three basic skills that are hired for and rewarded, and they fall into these kinds of broad categories of design, make things pretty, communication-
Jason Mlicki: You realize you’ve just massively offended my whole creative team, right?
Jeff McKay: I got that. I got that.
Jason Mlicki: Up to you.
Jeff McKay: And we’ll actually talk about that shortly, because my goal is not to offend, it’s to elevate.
Jason Mlicki: I was teasing. That was entirely just a joke.
Jeff McKay: I know. I know, but it’s important. It’s an important distinction, and I want to get to it before we’re done with this conversation. So design, communication, and then normally some kind of event management or project management competency, because it’s all about GSD, get shit done, for the partners. And those are the skill sets that the productivity school looks for and pays for.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I would say that when you first said it, my inclination was to say there’s a fourth, and it’s proposal development, but I guess you could argue that proposal development is really a wrap of all three on some levels, because usually the firm that has a lot of proposal developers … and they may even have that title … they are sort of required to have a mix of communications and design skills to be successful.
Jeff McKay: And project management, because they really have to herd cats to get those things done on a timeline. And I would even argue, if you’re a productivity school, and you want to save some money, just hire yourself a proposal coordinator and get rid of everything else. You couldn’t do any worse in terms of growth, because all you’re doing is responding to RFPs that happen to come in. I don’t know how many of those RFPs are the result of some kind of strategic marketing, but if you were doing strategic marketing, you probably wouldn’t be doing a lot of proposals, because you’d be sole source.
Jason Mlicki: That’s a nice big promise. I guarantee there’s some firms listening to this podcast that don’t even see that as a reality. They’re like, that’s impossible. And I guarantee there’s some firms on this going, of course, that’s exactly what we do. So let’s talk about the skills and capabilities underlying the growth school then, if we’ve kicked the tires on the first one enough.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I think we have. I think there are a long list of competencies that fall under a marketing umbrella, and we could spend the whole day kind of delineating those things. I actually have a marketing capabilities gap assessment on prudentpedal.com that people can look at and see these specific skill sets, but I think it’s easier to group them into some bigger buckets that are more relevant. I would put them into these buckets, as we did the same with the productivity school.
The first one was strategy, and I’m not just talking marketing strategy. I’m talking business strategy, growth strategy, HR strategy. I think being able to have your arms around all those elements is key, and it’s key because it allows you to be in the fray and arguing about the strategic direction … not arguing, fighting for rationalizing the firm’s direction. And if you don’t have those strategic jobs, you shouldn’t be there, and you shouldn’t be there. So you have to have strategic jobs. It’s having run something, from a business perspective, is the only way you’re going to begin to understand those. Reading a book or an HBR article is not going to be the way.
The second is leadership, and leadership is so important, because I think growth school leaders change the way things operate. They don’t accept the status quo. And leadership is about having people follow you because they believe in the direction you’re going. If you don’t have those leadership skills, you’re going to get run over very quickly in a professional services environment.
The third is operational, and I would think most marketers have a fairly good handle on marketing operations, project management, allocation of resources, from a marketing perspective. And I think that is probably one of their biggest strengths, regardless of which school they come from, but they need more broad-based, operational issues or skill sets.
And then finally … and you know this better than anybody, Jason, given your depth of experiences in this … marketing is digital. Everything that marketing does goes through the internet, some form of technology, whether that’s CRM or marketing automation or social. How all those pieces fit together as the retail front, if you will, for professional services firms can’t be overstated. If you don’t understand marketing stack, SEO, inbound, and the modern marketing organization, you can have the greatest strategy, you’re not going to drive growth. So strategy, leadership, operations, and digital are the key skills.
Jason Mlicki: I have two comments, actually. The first one is, I think there’s a fifth skill that actually warrants being its own skill. My hunch is you’ve sort of wrapped it under one or another of these, but I’ll just call it loosely IP development, the ability to identify unique and powerful points of view on the issues that the firm does. The marketplace point of view that the firm has on the work it does, and translating that into high quality thought leadership, and then getting that thought leadership into the market, primarily digitally, which is in your fourth skill set, but then also, certainly, offline as well. I think that’s a core skill, and I would argue I think it’s separate from strategy and leadership, in that there’s been a lot said about brand as publisher for the last five or seven years or whatever, and I think it sort of falls a little bit into that skill set, that notion of how are we going to develop really powerful points of view and take them to market? I think that’s a critical skill, to have any real meaningful success and demand gen for a firm like this.
Jeff McKay: I couldn’t agree more. I think you articulated that beautifully, and I think these skill sets that I mentioned get turned into that. The way you said that really struck me, because without that skill, you’re going to fall back into the productivity school, because all you’re going to do is take what a consultant is going to give you and say just package it up and take it. It is that ability to push back on that consultant’s thinking in saying, “why is that important? Why is that important to our market? Have you considered-”
Jason Mlicki: “And what proof do we have that your prescribed remedy is the best one, or effective?”
Jeff McKay: Yes. “How does that affect X, Y, or Z? What are the ramifications of that? How would a competitor react to that?” I mean, there’s so many follow-on questions that should be asked, almost in a peer review way, of intellectual capital being produced. And I think that intellectual capital being produced, or IP, is not just a thought leadership white paper, it’s the solutions themselves. How do we take those to the market? I don’t know how many clients I’ve had, and definitely in the firms I’ve worked for, when firms try to productize something, the failure rate of those is so high, because while the consultants understand certain dimensions of their service, taking it to market is often a much more complex thing, and they don’t have the skills to develop it.
Jason Mlicki: It’s funny, because I couldn’t agree more that product development is absolutely part of IP development, but the interesting thing to me is, I guess I’m not convinced that, even as raise as an issue, it goes beyond just necessarily … if you’re really trying to truly productize something … I would actually argue that if you think about thought leadership in general, there’s a lot of thought leadership that really is just firms that want to show a client that they’re really smart about this issue, whatever that issue might be. But they haven’t really gone the next layer down to say well okay, not only are we smart about this issue, but we actually see the problem more clearly. We’ve mapped a very discrete, understandable solution to this scenario.
I think that too often, the firm just sort of says well, as long as we show we’re really smart on this, eventually they’ll call us, and then we can sort of custom engineer a solution as needed. I just think there’s an opportunity for them to go one layer further. It’s not quite productization. It’s not going all the way to say you need to productize this. It’s just to say you need to be clear on how you’re going to solve the problem that you’ve so eloquently identified in your …
So that my first comment was I think IP development needed to be in here as a skill. My other comment, actually … this is just a comment … I think it’s really interesting, is that when you map out the … We frame this as the skills and capabilities, and the revenue generator group, it’s skills. It’s like we need these skills. It’s strategy, leadership. It’s conceptual, it’s not necessarily I hire a person for leadership, necessarily, or I hire them for ops. You might. You might hire those things, absolutely, but it’s not really that clear.
On the cost center side, or the productivity side, they’re very clearly capabilities. We need a designer. We need a event manager. We need a dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. It’s just a comment, not necessarily a question, but it’s more just, I thought it was really interesting that on the growth school side, it’s sort of we conceptually need these skills, and we’ll figure out how we structure an organization around what needs to get done. On the other side, it’s more like we need these hands, we need these people that do these things and have these … Does that make any sense?
Jeff McKay: It makes a lot of sense, and if you ask most partners about the skills on the growth side, they would say those reside in the partnership and the leadership team, not in marketing. I just don’t find that to be true, because they don’t have the time, they don’t have the capacity, and the majority of them, outside of some specific industries, they really just don’t have the business acumen. They’re really smart people, and they’re very technical, and they can go very deep in their discipline, but they’re not very broad or deep in business aspect, or as deep and as broad as they need to be. I’ve just seen that play out, even in the top firms. They just don’t have the time. There’s not enough time, and nobody smart enough to go that deep in all those areas.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, fascinating. I’ll always remember this conversation I had. It’s been probably six or seven years. When we first went in this direction to be a expert niche agency working with professional services firms almost exclusively, we came at it with a very sort of strategic approach to how you think about how you’re going to market, around positioning and all those types of things.
I’ll never forget, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s sort of a business development person who’s had a lot of experience selling into these types of clients that you and I both have, and he said to me, “Jason,” he’s like, “most of these leaders don’t think that strategically.” He’s like, “You gotta realize, they’re truly tactical thinkers.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? These guys are running multi-million dollar, 50, 70, 80 million dollar practices, or whatever.” And he’s like, “No. Most of their work is, they’re solving problems for clients. That’s what they think about.” He’s like, “Take it more tactical. Just tell them to build a list of clients they want,” he’s like, “and then you get to strategic issues that way.”
It’s interesting. I don’t know why I bring that conversation up. I remember him saying that to me, and it just took me aback. And I think you’re kind of reinforcing that, saying yeah, for the most part, that’s just not how they’re hard wired, which is going to sound a bit insulting to any leader in a firm. I don’t think either one of us mean it that way.
Jeff McKay: No, it’s just the nature of the job. You just don’t have the capacity to do that. And I think the best leaders recognize that, and they say, “Hey, I am not deep here. I need somebody else to help with it.” And they’re not necessarily rewarded to do a lot of those jobs either.
Jason Mlicki: Let’s jump to the other side of the curve here for a sec. Now, okay, so if those are the skills and capabilities I need, how do I assess what I have? I don’t know necessarily what I mean by that. There’s probably two levels to this. There’s assessing sort of the organizational structure that exists for marketing in the context of the practice, and then there’s also, maybe, the talent underlying that. I mean, presumably, assessing the talent in the productivity school is a lot easier, because the expectations are much more straightforward. Assessing what I have to compete in a growth school is little trickier, right?
Jeff McKay: Yes. Well, I’ve found the best way to assess is determining … Let me take a step back. Most marketing firms, or marketing organizations in these firms, are pretty lean. Like I said earlier, most people are generalists. Maybe they have a particular discipline that they started out in. More often-
Jason Mlicki: Do you mean the firms are generalist, or you mean the marketers are generalists?
Jeff McKay: The marketers are generalists, so they kind of touch a little bit of everything out of necessity. They’ll probably come in from an event management or a design or, probably more often than not, a communications perspective, and then where do you go from there is the next step. But I think the best place to start, and I talk about this in the optimal marketing organization, is the skills you need is not just determined by the school, but where you’re trying to get to. You’re going to have to choose from one of four buckets of kind of marketing priorities at any given time, unless you have limited resources. It’s either you’re going to be focused on demand gen-
Jason Mlicki: You mean unlimited resources, right?
Jeff McKay: Unless you have unlimited resources, yes. Yes. Which we know nobody has. You’re either going to be focused on demand gen, which is really building awareness for a product or service in the market. You can be focused on lead gen, where you don’t need to build awareness, you just need to cut through the noise and have people choose you versus a competitive set. You’re going to do sales support, where you have strong brand, and clients know they need it, and really all your partners need to do is pick up the phone and call for the business. Or you’re going to be having to develop new products and services.
You’re going to fall into one or two of those buckets as your primary focus, and the skill sets that you need in each one of those will differ, based on your school and what you’re asking marketing to achieve in one of those. I’ve found that’s a much better way to hone in on what do we have, what do we need? But you have to start somewhere with where are we trying to get to?
Jason Mlicki: Wouldn’t most firms have different pockets, so the practice are in different quadrants at any point in time? I’ve got three business units, and one of them is in the demand gen model, and one is in a sales support model, based on where they are in their life cycle and the life cycle of the expertise they have and the services they provide relative to where the market is, right? I mean, so wouldn’t you always have a little bit of mix here?
Jeff McKay: You stated that like a very traditional professional services firm would, and I think most people would say well, yes, that’s how you would do it. I would say no. I think that’s a archaic way of doing it. It makes no strategic choices. It says all these practices are important and worthy of support and investment, and again, when you have limited resources, you can’t drive growth as effectively, spreading that out. So I would argue that the sales support section, if you’re growth school, that’s not where you want to be making investments, either in bodies or dollars. From a marketing perspective, demand gen is probably where you would put it, but you’re going to have to make-
Jason Mlicki: So, let me just crawl back out of my cave here real quick. You’re saying basically, again, given limited resources, you’re just going to have to pick. You’re going to have to say okay, we have to go put all of our energy towards demand gen over here, because that’s where our biggest opportunity lies tomorrow, and you know what? That ship sailed over here. Practice B, guys, sorry. Hate to tell you, but that expertise, the need for that in the marketplace is dwindling, and so we’re going to put more energy over here.
Jeff McKay: Yes, and that’s the hardest conversation for firms to have. But if you look at any firm, historically speaking, Arthur Andersen and the Big Four accounting firms had to do this. Audit became commoditized, consulting became the big thing, and that was never reconciled. Created the divorce of Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting. We know what happened there. The HR consult-
Jason Mlicki: Is audit really commoditized, though? I mean, they’re still making a crap-ton of money on audit work, right?
Jeff McKay: That’s a podcast.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, we could totally do a sidebar, but yes, consulting work was driving way bigger margin than audit, but I mean, let’s be honest, you’re still making a fortune. Anyway, sorry.
Jeff McKay: It’s okay. And the HR consulting saw the same thing. Defined benefits plans were supplanted by 401(k)s, and firms were making a lot of money off of pension funds and actuarial work around those. Well, those things just started falling away, and the growth started to come from more of the softer side of the house and compensation model. To be spending lots of money in defined benefit plans is not going to pay good long-term dividends. You can go through almost every industry where there’s been the turnover of one historically growth driver into something that was not.
And it’s hard for firms, because the defined benefits or the accounting is still the cash cow, and they don’t want their profits redistributed. That’s the nature of it. And sure, you can extend the life of some of those services, but it’s going to be minuscule growth compared to some alternative solution being developed. And those are hard decisions to make, but they have to be made.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. Okay, so we’re running out of time. I want to try to kind of summarize, maybe, the approach to assessment. If you’re listening to this podcast, and you’re thinking to yourself okay, I’m falling into one of these two schools, and you’re saying okay, I think I want to go down this path, maybe that’s actually the wrong place to start. Maybe the right place to start is to say what I really want from my practice, what do we really want from a marketing perspective? And then from there, then derive what are we trying to do here? Do we need to create demand? Do we need to generate leads? Do we need to develop new products and services? And then that’s going to lead you into the capabilities you need. Is that, maybe, the better way to think about it?
Jeff McKay: I definitely think that’s the better way to think about it, and I would take it even one step further, Jason, that I don’t know that I would necessarily think solely in terms of capabilities and skills, but in terms of roles. We don’t have time to talk about it on this podcast, but I think talking about the roles you need in your firm and on your marketing team, for a modern marketing organization with a growth marketing school mindset, is a conversation worth having, because I think the roles pull together the capabilities and skills with those areas of focus in a way that would be valuable for people to hear.
Jason Mlicki: I can agree to talk about that. I think that I would argue that skills and capabilities obviously sort of sit above roles. Like you said, we have to be figuring out what we want to accomplish, what skills and capabilities do we need in order to accomplish that, and then lay that down into what are the roles that we need to structure in order to get thing done all the way through? I am not going to commit us to do that at the next podcast necessarily, but I am going to commit us to talking about that. I would be interested to have that conversation, so my assumption is, people would be interested in hearing it. But yeah, maybe we should not commit straight up that we’ll do it next time, but maybe we will. I don’t know. Let’s keep it interesting.
Jeff McKay: That sounds good to me.
Jason Mlicki: All right, man. Well, this was great. I really enjoyed this discussion a lot, and took away some good things that I can bring with me when I join the modern world and come out of my dinosaur-ridden, cave-infested … We had fire. We just found fire. It’s awesome, so we’re pretty excited about that. Anyway, there’s hope. There’s hope. Once you have fire, everything changes. So you know, things are looking up. Anyway. All right, we’ll talk to you next time, man.
Jeff McKay: See you, buddy.