Everything is marketing

Marketer Will Harris argues that marketing has become the benevolent home for business problems that don't fit anywhere else.

Late last year, I went through a phase of job interviews, on account of an abrupt family-induced move back from New York. This shouldn't come as a huge shock; much has been made of the move we are all making from "job for life" to "work for life", and in truth, pretty much everyone I know in marketing has got one eye open at the moment to see what's around.

It's probably an unintended consequence of large-scale lay-offs. If you can't rely on your employer not to fire you, do they have the right to rely on you not to leave? It's a tough one to argue, but that's not what I want to write about.

As I trotted from interview to interview, I began to realise that I hadn't been interviewing for one type of role, but in fact for several different ones.

A marketer for all seasons

On Monday, I was a commercial marketer, happy downing pints with the sales director, revelling in the black-and-white certainty of "the numbers". What more could a man ask for, I avowed, than the honest sweat and toil of a commercial marketing life?

On Tuesday, I was a sensitive creative thinker, hanging with the agencies, comfortable in the fog of abstract, esoteric concepts. Not for me the reality of rubber and road; this marketer was a man of semiotics, brand language and co-created content.

Wednesday saw me as an utterly dependable master of processes. I held sway over a giant pre-ordained way of working. Into one end I shoved consumer insights, out the other end came perfectly packaged marketing solutions, and in the middle, if you looked carefully, you saw the blur of product marketing, brand platforms and go-to-market plans, whirring frantically.

By Thursday, I was 100% digital; part disruptor of the old-economy, part evangelist of the frictionless new economy, failing fast with cheerful regularity, 24/7. I was comfortable working in unstructured flat organisations, cyber-squatting from one wi-fi-enabled coffee shop to the next. I was achingly hip.

On Friday, I was all about image and reputation, living the media life, rubbing shoulders with the glitterati, blogging and tweeting my arse off for all I was worth. "Perception is reality," I intoned sagely, "just as reality is perception. What do you think of Bowie at the V&A?"

The week after, I was on the shortlist to be a corporate man, managing my matrix, leading my team, influencing myself to dizzying heights. I preached the gospel of the corporation, worked collaboratively with HR and my co-workers, and sought solace in the organisation.

Marketing is a state of mind

The truth is that, yes, I was all of these people, and more. So, too, are most of my CMO peers. This is not an act. We're happy wearing whichever hat a role dictates. This is modern marketing, and the preposterous span that it has become. I say preposterous only because, if you were to start from scratch and design such a catch-all discipline, no one would ever sign it off.

Imagine airline pilots being told that they need not only to fly the plane, but fuel it, take charge of the maintenance and show the passengers to their seats. Accountants paid not only to balance the books, but cook them, fill them and even print them. Masters of not just one, but many specialisms, down in the detail in a way that even the CEO is never required to be.

Marketing has long since ceased to be a functional discipline. It's a state of mind, a way of doing business. We celebrate "marketing-led companies" as those that have chosen the correct path; for many, it's the ultimate corporate compliment.

How did it come to this? Because modern marketing is the benevolent home for the odd-shaped problems that don't naturally fit anywhere else; marketers tend to be competent, credible and good on their feet; and marketing requires no formal qualification, just a certain aptitude. For all these reasons and many more, everything gets chucked over the fence to us.

We lap it up. We love it. We thrive on being given more and more to do, because however confident we are in our own skins, we are corporately insecure. Ours is an invented profession that was never designed, and we believe that the more we own, the more indispensable we marketers will become.

Embrace the span

At some stage, this insecurity will lift. We already run companies in name (how proud we are of our chief marketing officers turned chief executives), as well as running them more discretely, in fact. Sooner or later, we will rebrand ourselves and our profession to something that children will want to do when they grow up, rather than something humanities graduates fall into.

Along the way, we will place a greater emphasis on formal training and qualification at our universities and beyond. We will also start being more selective in our catch-all CMO title, and more specific about the type of marketing that we specialise in.

Above all, we'll recognise that the difference between a marketer and a manager is that no amount of leadership training and bureaucracy management can disguise an inability to spot a great idea and back a creative hunch.

Until then, I urge you to embrace the span. Spread your arms wider and wider, encompassing more and more in your marketing domains. Only if we make our own case will the rest of the world wake up to the fact that this task we do is all-encompassing. Only then will the rest of the world accept that everything is marketing.


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