I was in a hard bind. I just came out of a meeting with a highly polished marketing professional, who was pitching to our company for outsourced marketing work. She had correctly diagnosed that similar to many small companies, ours did not have any real marketing capability. Most of our sales came from word-of-mouth and repeat customers. We are so good at our work that the quality of our work draws in more work. But, therein also lies the conundrum. Whenever we come up against the big brands in top-tier strategy consulting firms, most people have never heard of our company, and hence they are reluctant to award the contract to us. And, rightly so. After all trust is the basis of all action, more so when a company chooses its strategic advisor. We try and combat the brand unawareness through providing testimonials from CEOs who have used our service in the past, and give examples of the results from our past projects. However, the extra due diligence puts strain on many people looking to make a quick decision. We have recognized the need for at least some marketing as our business grows. However, most of it has been ad-hoc efforts of amateurs, with the help of some junior designers. Mind you, we are very good at what we principally do – which is helping companies multiply their profits using the full power of their global supply networks. But, none of us has the marketing flair, experience or down on the ground knowledge of how it is done in a day-to-day manner. For example, this lady who was pitching for outsourced marketing work took one look at the cover of my latest book and exclaimed ‘that is so 90s that it will never fly off the shelves’. Before meeting her, I thought it was perfect! But suddenly, I could see her point of view and the cover did start to look staid and stolid. I think that comment probably applied to all the marketing material we had. On reflection, I can now genuinely resonate with the quote “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” We ask our clients and potential clients to trust us as the guides and coaches on their supply chain transformation projects because our people have led more than 400 of these large scale projects in every conceivable situation, and all with great results. Yet, when it came to marketing our own business, it never occurred to me to go out and look for people who have an equally impressive track record in marketing. For the last 14 years, I have been making the classic mistake that I see a lot of our clients making – persisting by ad-hoc means and sheer will power to win in a field where our own capabilities were never going to be world class. It would have been far savvier to admit this lack of capability and find a way to bring it into our company. However, the decision was not that simple either. Otherwise, I would not be up at 5 am writing this blog piece to document my thoughts. There were several complicating factors. First was that while the lady I spoke to was obviously very good at marketing her company, I did not know what real capabilities lie behind the façade. I was unsure how much personal time she would be able to devote to our business once we had engaged their company, and did not want to be in a situation where we were dealing mainly with a sub-ordinate who was not as good as her in marketing. After all, in our business, the person who sells the job is also responsible for delivering it. In this way, no false promises are made in the sales process and nothing is lost in translation between the sales team and the delivery team. Secondly, their rates were quite high – almost comparable to what we charge our clients. But our clients being large companies can not only afford these, but also get a way bigger business impact for their expenditure. In our case, the worst scenario is our full quarter’s profits could be easily wiped out simply by spending on marketing and design projects that yielded no tangible benefits on the sales. Of course, we would be carefully managing the process, but it would certainly put in place an unnecessary tense situation which does not exist at the moment. The third question was how we square this with our current team of amateur marketers, designers and other sundry bunch of free-lancers who all are genuinely doing their best, and yet falling short of world class. I do not see them as responsible for the current muddle we are in, that is my own responsibility. After all I created that team, and I was responsible for setting the benchmarks. My own ignorance of what constitutes world class in marketing cannot be their mistake. So, I feel responsible for taking as many of them as we can on this transformation journey so that they also upgrade their skills and thinking, while we revamp our marketing portfolio. Last, but not the least, all this marketing effort might distract us from our core business of serving clients to our best possible capabilities. This could become especially a problem if the tensions listed in second complication surface where their firm is looking to expand their revenues while we are managing our costs carefully. After all someone famously said ‘about half of my marketing dollars are wasted, I just don’t know which ones’. Being a lifelong operational person, I am not used to wasting a single cent! So, what should I do? Here is my proposed course of action:
With this in mind, if you are one of those people in a position to share your experience with marketing investments, please do. No doubt, what goes around, comes around.