Does this mean that tomorrow’s marketers must be rocket scientists, cousins to the Ph.D.s who have long populated investment banks and the obscure corners of the financial-services industry? Not at all. But the pervasive disdain that many professionals express toward marketing science to this day — recall advertising legend Bill Bernbach’s scornful declaration that “advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art” — must give way to a more nuanced understanding of the profession’s inherent, necessary cross-functionality.
The most successful professionals will display an intense curiosity about new approaches and tools, the ability to think in novel and creative ways, a higher-than-normal inclination to experiment, and much greater tolerance for ambiguity. These skills will be put to work as marketers evaluate propositions, define their strategies for media and creative investment, and devise new ways to engage with consumers in more intimate and effective marketing dialogues. General Electric Company CEO Jeffrey Immelt has stated that “sophisticated marketing” is now one of the company’s three imperatives, along with risk taking and innovation. The next-generation marketing team will itself embody all three of these qualities.
A thoroughgoing change is also under way in the fragmented supply chain that has come to characterize the marketing world. Over years of stability and growth, marketing has subdivided itself into ever more finely granulated specialties. A typical fast-moving consumer goods company orchestrates a web of suppliers that includes advertising agencies, buying agencies, creative specialists, direct-mail firms, and market researchers of all manner. This proliferation of outsourcing has steadily grown since the rise of mass television in the 1950s and 1960s. Many specialties have subdivided, adding responsiveness to the marketing-services system, but also adding many layers of complexity.
With the increased use of international marketing suppliers spread across several continents, yet with media buying decisions often made in local markets, the complexity has mushroomed. Supervising that huge extended enterprise could be deemed the central skill of the hundreds of thousands of men and women currently serving in marketing management roles. (In the United States alone, 664,000 people were serving in sales, marketing, advertising, promotions, and public relations management in 2004, the most recent year for which figures have been published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Broadcasting accounted for another 327,000 jobs. The motion picture and video industries contributed 368,000 more.)
True, with so many participants, there are many springboards from which new ideas and practices can take flight. Local experimentation often works. But the complexity inherent in the system suppresses its ability to absorb that experimentation or use it on a larger scale. That’s why it is so hard to rewire an existing marketing strategy or move to a better approach, especially internationally. Each component in the system — each local agency, research supplier, or creative group — depends on others playing their established roles in the ecosystem. Change for one implies change for others. Yet with so much vested in the current ways of doing business, no individual supplier or department can be sure that its individual change will be met with complementary changes in the others — and few can (or should) take the risks of changing their practices unilaterally. Thus, only a radical approach to innovation, affecting many of the players at once, will succeed.
For many, the solution will be reintegration. After years of outsourcing, that won’t be easy or optimal. As Paul Bay, former director of consumer communications at Levi Strauss, has commented: “Being ‘integrated’ means the creative agency thinks of the idea and everyone else executes it. Changing that convention needs a lot of education. It will be very tough.”