Your strategy was brilliant. The research was solid with clear positioning and messaging. The CEO signed off. Even the Grim Reaper chief financial officer sort of nodded. When you showed it to your marketing team, they all got it.
But when the campaign launched, messaging was disjointed, the creative a resuscitation of last year. And the metrics were worse. Average order value, monthly active users, bounce rate — every key performance indicator (KPI) remained flat. What happened?
Strategy-execution gaps are common and not just in marketing. According to McKinsey, two-thirds of change strategies fail to execute. This isn’t surprising; a survey showed only 8% of executives excel at both strategy and execution (interestingly, almost no executives were great at one but not the other). Add to that a long-time bias to silo “thinkers” from “doers,” and it becomes a notable exception when a company nails both.
In the world of marketing, however, the strategy-execution gap often comes down to how marketing and creative teams work together.
In most organizations, a marketer directs a creative team. It’s been like this since the first commercial artist got a brief from an account executive leaving for a three-martini lunch. It’s industrial-era organization: an operator and a machine. The fundamental premise that strategy and execution are separate. But, as Roger Martin continuously points out, they are the same thing.
All members of the organization make strategic choices, but the area of specialization narrows from the top to the bottom. Strategy fails when execution fails — which is when anyone in the chain makes a bad decision or doesn’t flag a flawed strategy.
When an organization empowers only a small group to control strategy, it exposes itself to needless risk. Channel experts have first-hand experience with best practices from similar campaigns (marketing strategies are rarely unique). Yet, often, the people producing campaigns are told to execute without question, even if they believe a campaign will likely not work.
Why? No chief marketing officer (CMO) aims to dismiss customer-level risks or forbid creatives from using consumer insights to make ads. In fact, one CMO remarked in “The Nielsen CMO Report 2018,” “We need [creative] people to certainly understand all of the data and analytics — [to] marry that insight with creativity …”
The culprit is often a fixed mindset bias.
Imagine you recently graduated with an MBA from an elite school that constantly conveyed to you that you were inherently smarter and more naturally endowed with strategic ability than others and that your education would make you the “brains” of your future organization. You might get defensive the first time a tattooed, somewhat flighty person with a nose ring told you that they thought your strategy would probably not work. You might even tell that person that you are the strategy person; they are just the designer — or writer or community manager — and to kindly just do what they’re told.
When a creative professional’s expertise is reduced to technical capabilities, the organization cedes experiential-level decisions to nonexperts rather than people who’ve spent their careers learning how to make emotionally impactful communications. Likewise, creatives who don’t understand positioning can burn through a lot of cash making great work for the wrong audience.
So, how do you fix this?
• Adopt a growth mindset. The biases that drive the strategy-execution gap in marketing come from a belief that people’s abilities are immutable; some people are creative, some are strategic. Research by Carol Dweck, psychology professor and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, shows that, in reality, we are all capable of much more than our labels. Just as marketers should participate in creative brainstorms, creatives should read consumer surveys to hone messaging. Just like people, strategy and execution aren’t binary but exist on a continuum of expertise.
• Make creatives partners. Show the creative team your strategy as a “pressure test” before you sell it to the CEO. They’re not approving your strategy, just revealing weaknesses (that would come up later anyway). Experienced writers can spot cognitive dissonance a mile away and are hyper-sensitive to authenticity in claims. Project managers will know that the same week your TV spot airs, your social media team planned a different campaign. As a bonus, everyone you include now has a stake in its success.
• Help them drink the Kool-Aid. The people crafting communications with your customer must believe in the brand, the vision and the value of what they’re selling. If they don’t, they won’t be able to convince other people to believe in it either.
• Share the research. Consumer research provides important clues that help creatives connect with customers. Not sure what to share? Imagine you have to make the perfect birthday card for a total stranger. What would you need to know about that person to give them something that would feel valuable and personal?
• Accept ambiguity. While a defined process, clear milestones and tangible outcomes make most marketers feel calm, many creatives crave open-ended questions, group ideation and experimentation. Breathe deep and allow the process to be messy. Just make sure everyone knows the deadline for a clear solution, and try to participate as a subject-matter expert — not a judge.
• Share success metrics. If you have KPIs, so does your creative team. They may not know it, though. The same biases that keep them out of strategy meetings also let them off the hook from having measurable KPIs. Explain these metrics to them, and show them the impact of their work, in metrics, regularly. Creative people want to make work that has an impact; shared metrics put you on the same team even if you think in different ways.
It’s always easier to believe that when a strategy fails it was because of inept execution by some other team. But when we create this division, we replace a shared mission with internal politics and finger-pointing. Agile marketing teams that work in collaborative feedback loops with shared success metrics and open dialogues are quickly making the marketing strategy-execution gap obsolete.