Why Your Marketer Doesn’t Understand Your Firm’s Business
A lot of partners express frustration, either directly or implicitly, that their marketers just “don’t understand the business.” Is this a real problem? Or, just misaligned expectations? In our first episode, we dive head first into the issue. And, explore what it means — both for partners and for marketers.
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Jason Mlicki: Hey, Jeff. How are you doing?
Jeff McKay: I’m doing well, Jason, and you?
Jason Mlicki: I am great. So, what are we going to talk about today? We’re going to talk about why your marketer doesn’t understand your business. Is that what we agreed to talk about?
Jeff McKay: That’s what we’re going to talk about.
Jason Mlicki: That’s what we’re going to talk about.
Jeff McKay: It’s a very emotional discussion.
Jason Mlicki: For you or for me?
Jeff McKay: For listeners.
Jason Mlicki: For listeners, got it. It’s funny, because you had written an article on this, and you said, “Hey, read this article, and then we’ll talk about it,” and, of course, I’ve been a little overwhelmed this week, so I did not read the article. I have some hypotheses, but I guess I’m curious … Well, maybe the first question is, what makes you say that marketers don’t understand the business, and how pervasive is this problem, I guess maybe is the big question?
Jeff McKay: That’s a great question. Let me throw one back to you. You have worked in professional services for quite a while. Have you ever heard a partner, a business leader say, “I don’t think our marketer understands our business”?
Jason Mlicki: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody explicitly state it to me, but I have certainly heard it being implied from leaders, you know, when they’re trying to describe their frustration with the performance of their marketing effort or whatever. So I’ve definitely heard it. I guess to answer my own question that I posed to you, I don’t know that I know how pervasive that would be the case. I guess I don’t have any hypothesis on that. Do you? Do you think that’s something that’s more frequent than not, or is it half the time, or …
Jeff McKay: It would be a great research question to ask. I think the answer’s probably somewhere in the realm of the soft bigotry of low expectations. It’s one of the those things that only the most aggressive and, I think, boisterous partners or business leaders would say, and I don’t think they would ever say that to a marketer, at least verbally, but I think it’s communicated regularly and consistently non-verbally in a lot of firms.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, now that I can totally agree with, in that they’re not giving the marketers organizational authority to make big, strategic decisions. They’re not even giving them authority over their own spend. We see that with marketers, where they might have a budget, but they still have to go get approval to spend the budget that was agreed upon, right?
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: When you posed this topic, or when this topic came to be, as we’re talking about it, I’m thinking to myself, it reminds me of your optimal marketing organization framework, in that I would think that if you have a growth-oriented marketing model, that you would never feel this way as a partner or principal, because you’re giving the marketer domain to create future growth and future value for the firm. If you’re operating under a productivity school, you probably feel this way a lot, because you’re putting them in a box and asking them to support your sales function solely, and then you’re shocked when you push them into a downstream function, and then they don’t have the … They’re not pushing back with upstream ideas. Is that a valid comment or an invalid comment?
Jeff McKay: I think that’s absolutely right. I think it does start with that marketing school of thought. What is marketing’s function? In most professional services firms, the line are very smart people. They’re very technical, they’re very savvy. They go very deep into very obscure areas, whether that’s accounting, tax, IT, and they take pride in that work and have spent years accumulating that knowledge.
Jeff McKay: And I think that leads them to believe that non-technical people can’t understand the business. And I think there’s two dimensions to the business, and it gets misdefined. One is the technical nature, and they’re right. Most non-technical people who are not doing that technical work every day and getting continuing education in that technical work every year are never going to achieve the same level of understanding of that.
Jason Mlicki: Nor should they, right?
Jeff McKay: Right. I agree. The other part of that, though, is understand the business. The business, no matter what you’re selling, is business. It’s about identifying client needs, developing solutions to those needs, and then developing on those solutions, right?
Jason Mlicki: So two sides of business. So, there’s a technical side of the business, you’re arguing. The technical skills that are the domain of the practitioners, but then there’s the business side of business, which is just how you take those skills to market, create demand for them, and open up opportunity and revenue for the firm. I guess the question I would add on that, then, is the issue that the marketer doesn’t understand the former or the latter or both? I assume it’s the former, right?
Jeff McKay: In my experience, it’s both.
Jason Mlicki: Really?
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Wow.
Jeff McKay: But I think most business leaders make the comment in the context of the technical side, because I think most of the technical people are weaker on the business side as well, but they don’t admit that, and I think just like technical people having to learn to sell or avoiding selling, the business side is-
Jason Mlicki: Having to learn to avoid to sell?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: Is that what it’s about?
Jeff McKay: It’s the exact same thing, right? Selling is a skill. Business is a skill, and I think they need developmental work in that side just as much, if not more, than a marketer, but I don’t think they’re as self-aware about that, and it’s easy to say, well, they’re just marketers, they don’t understand that. In my experience working across so many different types of firms and so many different geographies, that partners wrestle with the business side. Just a simple thing for marketers, I don’t even want to say that. It’s not simple. It is complex. It is a skill in order to intelligently and strategically segment markets. I think strategic marketers see the importance of that and have the capability of doing it. Most partners and business leaders see segmentation as functional buyer, industry, and company size, right?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, but I feel like we’re getting a little off-topic, right? Aren’t we? Aren’t we? I mean, maybe we’re not, but so you’re saying the business leader looks at segmentation as a demographic problem. What are the demographic segments that we want to go after? And a great, growth marketer looks at segmentation as a psychographic, behavioral problem. How do we segment into the types of clients that we’d like to attract based on how they’re looking at the market and how that shapes our view of it as well? Is that what you’re saying? Or did I misunderstand you entirely?
Jeff McKay: No, I think that’s in large part. I just throw that out as an example.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, okay, I’m sorry. I get it.
Jeff McKay: So, a partner said, “Hey, I have my arms around this business dimension of market segmentation in order to drive growth better than my marketer, because of my technical understanding I know”-
Jason Mlicki: the buyer?
Jeff McKay: Who the buyer is. I just don’t see that play out intelligently beyond just that kind of broad-based demographic segmentation, as an example.
Jason Mlicki: That’s a valid example. I think of firms that I think struggle even with just broad-based demographic segmentation. They’re not really sure where they want to compete, what types of clients they really want to bring to the table. It’s fuzzy. They might have a loose understanding, but if you ask them who are your ideal clients, there’s just way too many firms that really don’t have any answer to that.
So, there could be an organizational design issue, as we posited with your optimal marketing organization in that podcast. Could be a cultural issue, right? Maybe the organization has the right structure, marketing’s in the right place, but they have no organizational respect, so even though you have the talent and you’ve got the right structure, you don’t have culturally the willingness to let them lead in their domain.
Could be a skills issue, right? Meaning that you just don’t have the right person in the right seat. Could be a behaviors issue. They’re just working on the wrong things for one reason or another. I’m throwing all these out there, I guess, to kind of have you say, well, let’s rein it in. What do you think are the main causes of this problem? Setting aside how pervasive the problem might be.
Jeff McKay: I think you’ve touched on some of the important ones.
Jason Mlicki: Or am I missing one, so there are other ones? You’re like, oh, Jason, you missed a big one.
Jeff McKay: Well, I think the one that firms like to use is, “We just have the wrong person in the role.” Right? This is why you see that phenomenon of firms selecting marketers that are strategic, and then they’re practical. They’re from professional services, they’re anything but professional services. This is the easiest one for firms to just glom onto. Wrong person, get rid of the person, and get someone new.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, bad hire, do it over again.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, but that confuses the person in the role to a large degree. Right? So I think that’s the most obvious one. If they are to hire a strategic marketer, that’s kind of a starting place, but most firms don’t do that. They hire or evolve narrow roles. It’s how marketing evolved. They move an executive assistant into event management or start managing CRM or they hire somebody that handles communication or design, and that person has some management ability, and they kind of build out a communications team behind them. But they still are communication or non-business based.
The right person or the type of marketer who’s going to understand it is more business-based, right? they’re not communications people. They’re business people. They’ve come up through operations or technology or sales or have broader-based experience in the functional areas. Very seldom do you see that. The one exception might be putting in a partner to oversee marketing and designating that person as a business person, but we’ve kind of already covered that. It’s a different type of business person when you do that. Then they seem to be weak in both areas, but they have enough in both to get them into the role.
Jason Mlicki: You know, as you say all that, it strikes me that … Well, there’s a couple things that come out of that to me. One is, when this issue’s come up for me, I sometimes think it’s a sense of unrealistic expectations. The partner is frustrated that the marketer is not more strategic and not more pushing the envelope of where the firm should be going and helping set strategic direction. What they want is a CMO, but what they’ve hired is more a director level or below. They’ve hired someone who’s tasked with present value, tasked with today, and they want someone who’s tasked with tomorrow, but they haven’t really hired for what’s in their head.
I kind of have this sense that maybe there’s also another reason, which would be unrealistic expectations. The other thing that your comments raised in my head was, how frequently in the professions and professional services firms marketing and communications are sort of just melded together? I don’t know that there’s a clear understanding. The flip of this would be that I don’t know that a lot of practice leaders really have thought deeply about, especially in smaller firms, that those are two separate skills and functions. You go to a university. There is a marketing program and there is a communications program. Those are run in separate colleges at Ohio State for instance. They’re a world apart, but I don’t know that firms always realize that. I think they think of them as the same thing.
Jeff McKay: No, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that’s the root of the issue. What is marketing? What is marketing? It goes to the two schools of thought. One, it’s a communication function. The other, it’s a strategic growth function, and the partners think they have that covered, and they just don’t.
Jason Mlicki: So, I have a big question for you, then. If I’m a partner listening to this podcast or I’m just a partner in general or I’m a senior leader at a firm and I’ve got this feeling, hey, I think that my marketer doesn’t get this business, what should I do? Where do I start? What should I be thinking about, maybe, is the broader question?
Jeff McKay: Wow. That’s a great question. I think the first question, and I sound like a broken record on this, is, what are you trying to achieve, right?
Jason Mlicki: For our younger listeners, a record is a thing that used to play music back in the 70s and 80s. I’m teasing. Keep going.
Jeff McKay: What are you trying to achieve? What role is marketing going to play in that? You have to fundamentally answer that. If it’s going to drive growth and then, what does that mean? I don’t think most firms jump in there, and we’ve covered some of that on other podcasts and a lot of our thought leadership. It’s got to be clear on where you’re going, and then what type of marketer are you going to need to get there? What does the role look like? I’ve outlined key roles that you need on marketing with a big M, not a little M, as in the function that you need in order to drive growth.
Jason Mlicki: So you have to have clarity on what your expect of marketing, clarity on where you’re trying to go, and hence, what you need from the function? Those are the three first things, and then what were you going to say after that, I’m sorry?
Jeff McKay: And then you have to have the courage to hire somebody to fill that, right? Because somebody that gets into this role that’s actually going to have an impact is going to have gravitas. They’re going to have an opinion. They’re going to push back. They’re going to challenge you, and that’s what you want from a person in this role. They want to say, “Hey, that’s not going to work,” or “You’re going to go off the cliff,” or, “That’s not a good use of firm resources. There’s a better way of doing it.”
This role makes the partners stronger. Not just insulting them, making them stronger. Being part of the team that makes them better. I don’t think most partners, and I keep saying that, think that way. They call marketing in when they want to make something pretty that has already been thought out, already driven through, and it just needs to be pretty.
Jason Mlicki: It reminds me a little bit of thought leadership, how thought leadership gets developed. I know from our research and our work with the Bloom Group and Bob Buday on this topic, one of the things that we found through research and a lot through his experience, as well, is just that the firms that are most successful with thought leadership tend to give more responsibility to the marketing function. Meaning that they’re more comfortable bringing in someone who’s got the ability to help shape the ideas, so the partner says, “Hey, I don’t need a writer. I need someone to come and help me shape my idea. Help me figure out, really, is this a compelling argument? How do I craft it into a unique point of view? How do I turn that into prose?”
So that they’re hiring .. Bob always likes to say they’re hiring idea developers, not stenographers. I think that on some levels, I wonder if the mindset that we talked about earlier, this notion of the marketer doesn’t understand the business from a technical aspect, because you hear that a lot. The partners saying, “Nobody else can write this. I’m the only one who could possibly write this. They don’t know how to do this.”
But the firms with the most successful thought leadership programs tend to take another tack. They give, actually, more participation, because they know how to tell a story, and I wonder if … I don’t know where I was going with all that, but I think that it’s a similar issue, where this feeling of maybe not letting go. Not wanting to let go of something from those senior leaders’ perspective or the subject matter expert’s perspective.
Jeff McKay: I think that’s exactly right. It’s peer review, right? One-to-one, peer review of challenging thinking, putting it through a crucible of both solid business thinking, but also a client perspective. Why would that be important to a client? What client would that be important? Well, if you’re positioning that way, what would a competitor say about that? Or, what’s an alternative thought to that? I mean, there’s a whole litany of questions, critical thinking questions that are needed in that case. I think, you know, what you and Bob did around that is a microcosm of what we’re talking about here, because it all starts with thought leadership.
Most of the clients I work with have a strong point of view, but unarticulated point of view, or an incomplete point of view. The value that they see from what I bring is really tearing those ideas apart and then rebuilding them in a way that their ideal client will actually connect with them and have those ideas resonate.
Jason Mlicki: I think what you’re articulating in this podcast is that that’s what they’re expecting from their marketing function, and for one reason or another, they’re not feeling like they’re getting that. I wonder, so, when we first started this discussion, I’ll admit to being a little bit feeling like it was a little bit attacking of the marketing functions in a lot of the firms that we both deal with. It’s almost criticizing the people in those roles, and it scared me a little bit. But as we’ve been talking about it, I wonder if on some level, do we have it backwards? Is the issue not that the marketer doesn’t understand the business, but that the leaders of the firm don’t understand what to do with marketing?
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Maybe that’s too extreme just to jump onto the other side of it, but maybe there’s two sides to this story. Side one is that the marketer’s not totally getting it for a whole list of reasons, but the other side, too, is that the partners aren’t getting it either. So there’s really two dimensions here.
Jeff McKay: Yes, there always is, isn’t there?
Jason Mlicki: Well, you know, you always got to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand what their perspective is.
Jeff McKay: I think they both … Kind of like Republicans and Democrats, right? If they actually sat down and talked and tried to understand the other person’s perspective, they could get a lot more done. But I think there’s some personal responsibility on both side’s parts, and the marketer has to have a desire to learn business. But a lot of marketers self-define as, “I’m a designer. I’m a writer. I’m a fill in your blank,” and they don’t have a desire to learn anymore.
Partners or line people could say the same things. Technical expert, I’m a partner, just do what I ask you to do, because they don’t want to delve into that. But what they both want to do is help the firm grow and be successful, so by aligning around that goal and actually sharing some goal related to that strategic impact that helps the firm grow, you can begin to bring those together. Partners, I think, need to make time and be very purposeful in developing the marketer, right?
Normally, when there’s an industry show or something that a marketer goes to, if they even go, they’re normally setting up a booth and standing in a booth. Well, maybe those roles should change, and the partner should stand in the booth, and the marketer should be in the continuing ed classes learning how the new tax law is going to impact business, or how this new technology might be applied to operations, or how a new building material might be applied to architecture, or whatever the case may be. But you hardly ever see that. Nobody proactively does it, nobody wants to fight on either side to actually get that done, and I think that’s where you’d start to see change.
Jason Mlicki: There’s an old discussion in the marketing community about alignment of sales and marketing, and this is sort of the same thing. It’s like, how do you get alignment between marketing and the broader leadership of the business? You’re saying that they need to find a way to meet each other in the middle, because I think it’s an interesting comment, because when I listen to marketers, they have ideas of what they think the firm should be doing, and they get frustrated that they don’t feel like the senior folks are listening.
But maybe the flip of that, to your point, is, leaders are frustrated because they don’t feel like the ideas they’re bringing back from their sources of learning on what’s changing in the marketplace, that the marketers are interested in listening. It’s sort of a chasm between the two that they need to find a way to close. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty good spot to end. I don’t think you could summarize this whole podcast better than I just did, could you? Is it possible?
Jeff McKay: Well, I would just say this. You know where I think it begins, and where it starts to come together, is around marketing ROI and metrics, because if you don’t have facts, if you’re not objectively saying this works, this doesn’t work, we tried this and this was the results, then it’s just all opinion. But until you start grounding it in some kind of performance other than number of whitepapers produced, then you’re not going to make much of a headway. But it is a mindset shift, and I think that’s the hardest thing. Marketing and professional services is a communication function. Until that changes, you’re going to have the status quo.
Jason Mlicki: In God we trust. All else, bring data. All right.
Jeff McKay: Thanks, Jason.