One of the problems I’m constantly running into is inadequate staffing, funding, and marketing support. It is particularly bad in tech companies because it seems like the entire industry is a poster child for the Dunning Kruger effect — when someone who lacks competence in a subject area believes they are an expert. This also happens often in politics.
I was reminded of this problem when Microsoft’s Chief Brand Officer Kathleen Hall, one of a few highly qualified marketing executives in tech, was recognized as Creative Marketer of the Year by Cannes Lions for her effective work during the pandemic. I’ve held three marketing jobs over the years, ranging from marketing director and market and business analysis to product marketing.
What has always struck me as odd is that while marketing is arguably the most powerful tool driving revenue and profit, it is also one of the first departments to experience cuts in a downturn. And,for some reason, people seem to believe it doesn’t require any real skill or knowledge. Done right marketing isn’t easy, and it requires a great deal of skill and knowledge.
Marketing Done Right
What fascinates me about marketing, and corporate behavior in general, is that the industry doesn’t seem to learn from the successes of others. For instance, Apple had all but gone under when Steve Jobs was brought back to save the company. Initially, all he could do was marketing as it took years to fix the products, but marketing (including a very timely investment Jobs got from Bill Gates) changed the perceptions of Apple, allowing it to recover. Jobs consistently used image over fact to turn Apple from a company that was sure to fail into a company that seemed unbeatable. He did whatever it took, including taking the iPhone name from Cisco, and during a photoshoot, refusing to take a headshot without the iPad in full view. Jobs showcased what you could do with marketing and then with products designed to efficiently market. Nearly a decade later, Apple is still essentially living off the products Jobs created and hasn’t had a real hit since.
The most impressive example of marketing success I viewed first hand was with IBM. To turn around IBM, which was also failing at the time, Louis Gerstner created a marketing organization that rivaled those from product companies like Nabisco and Proctor and Gamble — revitalizing IBM’s brand and making it relevant again. And like Tim Cook did when he defunded Apple marketing, Sam Palmisano, the CEO who replaced Gerstner, gutted marketing and sold off the most visible part of IBM — at the time their PC arm. As a result, IBM’s growth slowed substantially, and the firm has nowhere near the clout and presence it once did.
And, of course, my most troubling example is Microsoft and their initial success with Windows 95 and the Xbox, which both received large marketing budgets and impressive execution. But, they subsequently had their marketing budgets chopped, so neither product gets the interest they once did. What was particularly fascinating about the Windows 95 event was that the amount of demand they generated created a support problem, but rather than fixing that, they instead decided that demand generation was the problem and discontinued what remains one of the strongest and most successful marketing efforts in the history of the company. This would be like having a winning race car that is so fast that the pit crew gets overwhelmed, and then rather than beefing up the pit crew, deciding to slow the car to not get as stressed and then losing races.
Why marketing is problematic is that to be done right, it requires expertise in several areas. Human behavior, market research, how to successfully select and manage ad agencies, and craft and measure a successful campaign. It also requires the knowledge and support of senior management who understand marketing’s power and how long it takes for a campaign to be executed fully. For example, when Microsoft marketed the Microsoft Phone, they had an excellent campaign. Still, management didn’t realize that they needed to run it for a long time to have full impact. However, they lost interest before that happened. This multi-billion dollar effort failed, which arguably was the major cause of their then CEO losing his job.
The Need for More Senior Marketing Executives
We need more people in senior marketing positions like Kathleen Hall and more efforts to recreate Steve Jobs’ success at Apple and Louis Gerstner’s success at IBM. With the right marketing talent, budget, and support, the next iPhone, Windows 95, IBM PC, or Tesla can be created. And with a focus on what works in marketing, particularly given the tools we have today are significantly better than what we had when I was in the field, we could create even bigger waves, more tremendous success, and more powerful tech companies.
It is also fascinating that LG, with the LG Prada, beat Apple to market with the iPhone, and Microsoft had the iPhone idea but decided to do Zune instead. Still, Apple ended up owning the market that LG just exited. If Jobs had gone to LG instead of Apple, it would be Apple that was gone, and LG would be dominant (granted, assuming LG would let Jobs do his thing, which isn’t certain). People like Kathleen Hall are rare in tech and worth their weight in gold; it amazes me that so few CEOs seem to get this incredibly powerful tool they are underutilizing.
Successful CEOs need to be knowledgeable in six areas or have experts they trust and listen to in each. These areas are operations, HR, Finance (including investor relations), manufacturing (or how their product is created), customer care, and marketing.
This isn’t multiple choice, and too often, I’m seeing CEOs fail because they are missing competence in more than one area. But I covered both Jobs and Gerstner, who was strong in marketing but critically weak in other areas. Yet, with just marketing, they were able to pull out big wins. Meanwhile, Tesla is the poster child for recognizing that outstanding marketing doesn’t necessarily need great advertising, which can be replaced with solid advocacy.
If firms want to assure their success, then attracting and fully supporting talented marketing executives like Kathleen Hall is a significant part of the critical path to their success. Sadly, this is currently being overlooked and underfunded.