“Where are you marketing guys going for your annual junket this year,” asked my colleague in finance.
“It is not a ‘junket’. It is our annual conference,” I replied defiantly.
“Okay, but tell me where? Goa? Kovalam? You even went to Kashmir right?”, the questioner continued.
“We met our budget for two years running, so we are going to Kathmandu,” I proudly replied.
But my friend from finance would not let go. “You marketing guys are lucky, you travel all the time,” he went on.
“Yes we travel around 10 days a month, by air, by train, by bus,” I responded. “We go to small towns and villages. We meet customers and retailers. We also conduct research, if you bother to read the monthly business reports. So I think it is only fair that we travel once a year, on company cost, to a nice place and have a little bit of fun”.
That was a time when the whole company envied the marketing department. We were supposedly the magicians, who could spin a me-too product into success through clever segmentation, targeting, positioning and advertising.
The marketing man even developed, in some circles, a reputation for being a fast-talking con man. In the Journal of Marketing article [very gender inappropriate title for today, but this was January 1967], ‘Would you want your daughter to marry a marketing man?’, Professor Richard Farmer raised the issue of marketing men being seen as ‘wheeler-dealers and shoddy-goods distributors’, who prodded you to buy things that you did not really need. But Prof Farmer concluded the article by saying something to the effect, ‘…in reality the marketing folks were a smart lot, delivering results for the company.’
Now, many decades later when 2021 ends, will marketing still be seen as the folks who can deliver the goods. Or is their somewhat permanent position in the C-Suite under threat?
A group of international branding experts discussed this topic last week and concluded that marketing is fast losing its cache. And if marketing collectively does not wake up, they may end up slipping down a rung or two. And horror of horrors, the CMO could be asked to report to the CFO.
During 2020-2021, the pandemic and its fallout found some corporate sectors facing an existential threat. Industries like entertainment, travel and tourism, restaurants and even malls have had to go through hell. While some sectors like med-tech, ed-tech, fin-tech, IT services and digital platforms thrived, some others — banking, consumer goods, consumer durables, automotive, electronics, apparel and home décor to name a few — continued doing business as before, though with numerous constraints.
Supply chain, IT/Admin, HR takes centre stage
What were the challenges the sectors that were in operation faced and who has risen to the challenge?
Companies have had to keep factories running, hence supply chain became vital for the organization. Given the disruption in transport, local and international, supply chains were called upon to deliver on time the raw materials, the packaging and various parts that go to make the final product, to ensure factories functioned and products moved out. Even these were a big challenge. Containers were in short supply. Ships were arriving off schedule. All things considered, supply chain folks now became critical for the functioning of a company.
Then we come to HR. Some people were working from home. Factory workers had to be on site. Sales folks had restricted movement in the market. HR, therefore, had to ensure that staff mood was monitored and interventions planned where and when needed. Webinars, online-training, motivational talks became the order of the day. HR moved centre-stage.
In the last 18 months, all companies have had to adopt a #WorkFromHome or #WorkFromAnywhere policy. IT teams had to be brought on board to ensure all employees had necessary training to work from home. Computers had to be moved into thousands of homes. In many cases internet connections had to be arranged. Several companies in the IT sector even arranged for tables and chairs. The IT and Admin/Facilities management thus had their work cut out. In the past, IT and Admin were often invisible. Now they became mission critical.
Read more: Future of jobs: From ‘I’ to ‘T’ to [Pi] ‘π’
Where did all this leave marketing? Companies cut their marketing and travel budgets. Marketing’s unique selling proposition in the earlier era, using their own term, was that they were the folks who knew the customers. They could advise the company on what the customer is saying about the company’s products. Marketing came to product development with new ideas. Marketing was the engine that drove growth.
Marketing lost its mojo during 2020-21 and became a pale shadow of its former self. Marketing teams operating from home became hyperactive in chasing their ad agencies for new social media posts, as if that rationalised their salaries. Smarter marketers probably spent time studying changing consumer behaviour through digital tools by partnering with the Googles and Facebooks of this world. But this was not going to get them the respect they once had in the C-Suite.
As the pandemic retreats, and hopefully it will retreat by the end of this year if not earlier, marketing has its work cut out. They have to get back to becoming the companies’ growth engine. Which means that they need to get even closer to the consumer. Unearth new insights that can power brands ahead. And instead of the next ‘Woman’s Day’ post on Instagram, they need to think of effective integrated marketing campaigns that can have a lasting impact.
If they do a good job, I am sure there are many parents out there who will be willing to give their daughter’s hand or son’s hand in marriage to the new-age marketing man or woman.
If not, be ready to report to the Finance Department.