OPINION: 'What's the big idea?' is refrain we must answer

For the past half a century one big management idea after another has emerged to answer some perceived need or problem. Almost every aspect of business has been touched - and some would say tainted - by the newest big idea.

It has been a steady progression through every corner of the organisation.

Manufacturing, research and development, operations, finance, logistics, human resources - all have been faced with the latest fad, from business process re-engineering to decision trees to activity-based costing and team-building.

In fact, a book being published this month lists more than 140 big ideas that have emerged over time as the latest solution to business woes. What's the Big Idea? is written by a trio of established US management thinkers.

They examine how all these ideas, which are being thrown at today's companies with increasing frequency, usually come with what they call evangelising gurus and eager-to-assist consultants. But, they argue, only a handful will be of any help, and then only if they are managed correctly.

Looking at the list, marketing seems to have escaped pretty lightly so far. Of those 140-odd ideas, only about a dozen are marketing-related.

Some of them, such as brand management and segmentation, are well-established.

More recent ones include customer relationship management and lifetime customer value.

But, compared with what some functions have faced, marketing has been somewhat of a 'big idea'-free zone. Why? Probably because, except for those in consumer goods, most companies have had a history of not taking marketing very seriously. Now, however, having looked for the answer in cost-cutting, technology, process improvement and employee motivation, there are few places left to look for competitive advantage.

So it's hardly surprising that marketing is beginning to attract the attention of the big ideas brigade. Note a recent piece in The Economist on which companies are best-placed to thrive as business conditions get tougher. It suggests a combination of being global, focusing on what you do best and constantly improving business processes that contribute to success.

But what's the really big new idea? Listening to customers is one of the less obvious things that successful firms have done in hard times.

So it's inevitable that the state of marketing and its role and responsibilities are becoming of prime concern to chief executives.

You can see signs of this just by looking at some of the titles marketers are beginning to sport. Meaningless though they can be, titles show that intention, if not action, is there. So, for instance, mobile phone operator mmO2 has a chief marketing and data officer, Keith Thexton, underlining the critical importance of customer information. And at the beginning of this month he was elevated to the board.

Another instance is high-tech company Cisco, which has a director of customer listening. His professed aim is to improve the company's ability to collect and use relevant customer data. Struggling Gap has created the post of vice-president of consumer insights.

Expect marketing to become a prime target for the latest big ideas on listening to customers. Whether or not these turn out to be helpful, one thing's for certain. Any marketer wanting an easy life should run for cover now.

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