Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Marketing Leadership Just Icing On the Cake?

Several years ago, when I was a Marketing Director at a large consumer products company, I found myself having to deal with frustration among Brand Managers in my group regarding the extensive review and approval process built into the planning cycle.   It seemed, to many of my managers, that after all their months of hard work building their individual annual marketing plans, the approval process through the Director, VP, Division GM, and President was onerous.  Each layer would review and politely make change after change until the manager’s original plan was only vaguely recognizable. 

My explanation of this process (handed down to me) went like this:   marketing planning in a large company is like baking a cake.  The manager is the chef - building a compelling growth plan for the upcoming year.  Charged with the hard task of building the guts of the business plan, they are the Cake-Makers mixing the unique ingredients together and cooking it perfectly in the oven.  But they are only building the cake itself, without decoration.   Once the fluffy, chocolaty cake is ready, they would present it to their Marketing Director who was charged with examination and then adding his/her thoughts to the plan.  This was like adding the frosting.  After any recommended changes were made, - they would both then take it to the next level (Marketing VP) for examination and the addition of new comments and revisions  - which would be the icing colors and the little balloon cake decorations.  After any changes and improvements, of course it is then taken to the President who finally would add just a few overarching comments as to the validity of the plan within the overall corporate strategy – thus, adding the cherry on top.   

The point I was trying to make was that a cake really isn’t a cake until all the steps are finished and the cherry is applied.   There were two truths to this analogy.   First the goal of management is not only to critically review, but to offer real enhancements.  Secondly the later stages are designed to make the end product far more valuable than the original.   While the original manager tends to believe that all value comes from the cake itself, there is much value added at later stages.   

I admit this analogy was simple and bordered on patronizing (hardly stuff for the Harvard Business Review) but the point hit home.  Managers understood that executives had a real role to play and senior executives needed to realize the importance in recognizing the feelings of the managers who created the cake and also the executive role of adding value to what has been created – not asking for a pumpkin pie just because they could.

Is There Still Time for Cake-Making?

Big companies may still operate like this in their marketing departments. It is likely more true in companies in which there are relatively big investment to gain incremental market share but have stable/mature category.   But there is a fatal flaw to this traditional hierarchy – first, it pushes decision making too high in the organization.  Executives become super brand managers and subjective opinions rampantly replace the facts and original ideas.  Secondly, there is a huge sacrifice of decision making speed where it takes a year to build next year’s plan.   Lastly, and importantly, exciting plans get watered down in committee thinking where the safe and tested trumps the new and different. 

Let’s hire the right managers and teach them to make cakes right from the start, rather than building them slowly and painfully.  Management’s role is to hire chefs, get them the best ingredients and ovens in which to cook, and enjoy the feast of an authentic homemade, but not perfectly decorated, delight.

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