by Erna George (@edgeo23) I was recently trying to quell the frustrations of young marketers on the increasing operational focus required of them. In the discussion, I was asked how I would balance the long-term strategic principles or plan-setting with the (read the words carefully) very real challenge of short-term operational focus areas. The insolent marketer in me wanted to ask, “Is the long term just not as ‘real’ then?” but I didn’t (thank heavens the more-mature, more-calm me retained control).

Shape of marketing

You may be asking, “Is the short term taking over?” How do we protect long-term brand-building and -investment, and how do we keep young marketers engaged in their roles while building their strategic muscles? With the economy being under pressure, who is being brave enough to protect the brand story in the longer term? The focus on the bottom line or ROI is not going to go away. The shape of marketing is changing or, in some areas, has forever been altered, and it’s no longer a question of “either/or” but rather how to manage both. Love it or hate it, it unfortunately is what it is (yes, I hate that saying, too).

Having had a few people come and go from my teams over the years, I’m always keen to understand what the shape of marketing is externally. I’m also surprised by some of the roles being so generalist, while others seem almost myopically tight in focus. What do I mean?

Discipline and bravery

There are roles that focus across the value chain, where marketers have to immerse themselves in all aspects, from factory production and supply chain to on-shelf promotion and brand communication on social or other media. These roles yield commercial marketers who get involved with operations at a deep level — capability understanding, forecasting, costing and continuous monitoring and interjecting across all activities in the value chain. Sometimes, people feel overwhelmed by the weighting of the non-marketing activity focus and question whether this is marketing. The high operational focus with the increased short-term fires can take over, and finding room for the longer-term/more-strategic planning feels near impossible. The reality is that it will be up to each of us to make room for this, even in the most operationally focused business. This requires discipline and bravery. Be disciplined in planning diary time each week or month to conduct immersions, trade visits and/or competitor searches, and protect this external view/strategic development time. With the strategic framework in place, you’ll be able to sift the good from the bad — activating the short-term operational activities within the right framework. This will build the brand story slowly but surely.

Be brave and cultivate ways to ask what the purpose of daily tasks or rework are. Stop short-term elements that don’t build on the bottom line or towards the long-term plan. Sometimes holding the mirror up is what’s needed to stop the madness of swirl. This is easier said than done but we have to try. Perhaps recommend alternatives to the request that yields a result that satisfies but manages the energy and effort to the right quantum. Even in budget cuts, be more ruthless about cutting smaller bits and pieces and maintaining investment behind the correct bigger and bolder (more-strategic) areas. Use the consumer needs and agreed-upon strategic-growth vectors to justify these. Leaders, be open to hearing when people are ‘fighting’ for the right things.

Don’t remove the stretch

On the other end of the spectrum, there are marketers who focus tightly on brand communications — such as digital or promotions. While more focused, the commercial aspects of costing and tracking will still be present and ROI will be critical to finding the ‘formula’ of what works or what doesn’t. This does allow space for creativity, for thinking of the next big win that translates to the bottom-line return. However, I’m told that seeing the big picture (the strategic direction) is often hampered as scope narrows, and that a too-tightly defined role presents challenges in maintaining interest and showcasing potential for progression. Leaders, beware that, in the pursuit of lessening the load and trying to ‘protect’ marketers from the operational humdrum, you don’t remove the stretch required to grow and the scope to see the bigger picture.

Marketers, be cautious of losing your bravery, your curiosity or your voice to the safety of today’s returns.

  1. While becoming more commercially astute, learn how to justifying bottom-line wins and longer-term prizes.
  2. ROI (and budget cuts) must influence marketing strategy in line with answering the consumer needs
  3. Leaders, beware of carving up roles to be too small to make them feel more creative; rather build in targets and disciplines that balance creative, thinking and doing.


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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