Jun 182020

Before we answer the first question, here’s another: what percentage of companies have marketing strategy as an item on the agenda of their regular board meeting? 75%? 50%? It’s tough to guess, but probably fewer than you might think. So here’s a simpler question: how frequently is marketing strategy discussed at a board meeting which you regularly attend? Every meeting? Every other meeting? Once per year? Once ever?

Based on personal experience and peer-to-peer discussions, it seems that marketing strategy is an infrequent topic on many boardroom agendas. But why is that the case? Perhaps because it sounds like something Jessica Hynes’ character, Brand Consultant Siobhan Sharp of 2012 and W1A fame, might come up with? Getting strategic about marketing? If that was the image boards had of marketing strategy, it would be unsurprising to learn that many directors probably don’t get as involved with it as they should, and instead happily abdicate that responsibility to another.

Or perhaps it is that many directors don’t really understand what marketing strategy/strategic marketing is, or how it is different to branding or advertising, and the concepts and jargon of strategic marketing are so scarily lacking in familiarity that they would rather sit still and say nothing, unable to make even the most minimal contribution to the discussion, than venture a potentially incorrect opinion, and appear foolish or ill-informed.

Either way, abdication as an approach has its dangers, as it potentially places those directors in too-remote a position to assert any influence or control over a critical element of the destiny of the organisation they are leading, blunting their effectiveness and diminishing their value. Indeed, what is required of directors is quite the reverse.

Strategic Marketing: Why NEDs and boards need to be in-the-know

Back to our first question, then: when is it okay to leave marketing to the Marketing Department? The answer is…never! Especially if you had happened to be talking with the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (now more familiar as HP), as it was he who coined the following:

“Marketing is too important to be left to the Marketing Department”

This quote - from which the title of this piece was paraphrased - neatly illustrates Packard’s view of marketing, which he saw as the responsibility of everyone throughout the business, as it is the core around which the business is built. What Packard was really saying, of course, is that the business needs to place serving its customers at its core, because that is what marketing is really about. This view is echoed by another quote reproduced here, this time from Peter Drucker:

“Marketing is not only much broader than selling, it is not a specialized activity at all. It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer’s point of view.”

Bringing these ideas together with the central role of the board of directors - to safeguard the future of the business for which they are responsible - leads to the inevitable conclusion that, as marketing is critical to the long-term sustainability of that business, the directors are therefore ultimately responsible for it, also. This means that the directors need to be familiar with the central concepts of strategic marketing, so that they can ensure the marketing strategy the business is pursuing aligns with its vision and overall strategy with respect to achieving its objectives, and so that they can satisfy themselves of its likelihood of success; and by implementing appropriate measures and controls, enable corrective action where necessary to be swiftly taken.

For existing executive directors, especially those with a commercial background, this is probably not-too-challenging a task, as they are likely to have come across elements of marketing strategy in previous roles. But what about non-commercial directors, such as finance or HR professionals? And possibly more challenging still, what about Non-Executive Directors, especially those joining a board as a lay member. For boards and new NEDs alike this presents an unwelcome challenge: boardrooms require increased diversity to remain relevant, and need to attract out-of-sector NEDs representing a broader range of stakeholders; New NEDs want to add value to their employers, and also perhaps to make themselves more attractive so as to secure additional appointments, as they seek to substitute a portfolio career for the daily grind of the nine-to-five.

Who needs to do what, and when?

There is an element of joint responsibility here, as well as one of urgency: Chairs of existing boards, for whom board effectiveness is a measure of performance, are perfectly positioned to identify knowledge gaps and observe low-levels of contribution during meetings from both executive and non-executive directors, and can therefore propose actions to address these issues, such as organising training for the board, to be delivered by a suitably-qualified provider or training company. NEDs, both new and existing, need to be prepared to invest in growing their portfolio career, and should seek out opportunities for personal development to make themselves more attractive to boards, actively addressing any areas of inexperience or knowledge-gaps, so that they can present more of a well-rounded business profile to recruiters and chairs alike.

In closing, we revisit an old adage often attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” 

Whether or not it really was Lincoln who spoke the words, their meaning is clear: better not to contribute to a discussion when you don’t understand the topic. Unfortunately for directors, silence is not a viable option, as a meaningful contribution is expected, if not at least desired, as part of the director’s fiduciary duty to the business, and in the eyes of the law, ignorance is no defence. This being the case, and as understanding marketing strategy must be the minimum expectation, NEDs and boards need to move swiftly to address knowledge gaps in this area. Only when the entire board fully understands the marketing strategy will the outcome of any boardroom discussion accurately represent the opinions of all of the directors, and any action chosen have been properly debated prior to reaching an agreement. Then, and only then, can it be said of the board that it functioned effectively, and of the directors that they truly fulfilled their obligations.

Duncan Hall is the founder of Experigy Ltd., a business growth consultancy specialising in Marketing, Sales, Customer Experience and Continuous Improvement. More information is available on the company website

He is also the writer of the "Marketing for Non-Marketing Directors" training course, which he delivers in association with Excellencia https://excellencia.co.uk/courses/director-essentials/marketing-for-non-marketing-directors/

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