Competitive Strategy, Marketing, Sales

“Execution” didn’t get the menu

What's for dinner?A while ago, there was a debate on the Internet around the question what is more important: to have good strategy, or a culture of strong values and execution?


The topic was trending for a couple of weeks. Strategy or execution. You’d come across posts and tweets like “Execution eats Strategy for Breakfast” or vice versa (see examples here, here and here). The whole thing was quite academic, and the conclusion most of the contributors reached wasn’t all that mind-blowing (“both are equally important”). But I was reminded of it in a coaching conversation with a group of early career marketers – it is by no means an academic question.

It turns out that in real life, both “Strategy” and “Execution” are usually in place, but not well connected. Execution never got the strategy. Strategy never read Execution’s dietary requirements. So the real challenge is not to decide between strategy or execution, but to have both without compromise and to keep them connected during execution. Not a once-a-year boardroom conversation, but an ongoing cycle of planning and execution. Again, no rocket science, but the hardest thing to accomplish.

My coaching job
I started coaching groups of SRM Digital Marketing students a while ago. They come into this particular training course from all over the place – from fast moving consumer goods, universities and real estate agents to media, business consultancies and holiday brokers. Some academically trained, some self-made marketers. For me, it’s a nice opportunity to learn about the marketing function in other categories of business, extend my professional network and keep up-to-date with (digital) marketing theory. So yes, I am loving it.

(One important insight I picked up is that the majority of marketers are actually not in high tech, are not used to 60%+ gross margins and 80%+ year-over-year company growth. Many actually fear loosing their jobs within the next couple of months. They put their hopes in graduating, to add some weight to their resumes.)

Sit with the C-suite
To graduate, these students are to propose a fully detailed operational e-marketing plan in support of their companies’ business objectives – and defend it in front of the exam committee. In constructing the plan, they’re supposed to run internal and external analyses, apply various marketing models, and review 3 to 4 strategic options that could help solve key business issues. It’s actually a lot of work, and to gather all required data, these students are encouraged to sit down with their CEO, CFO, CMO et cetera. The idea is that in order to propose an e-marketing plan, you need to understand both the marketing plan and the overall business strategy first.

Here’s my point
From the 8 marketers I have coached so far, not a single student had a clear understanding of the business strategy they were supposed to contribute to, nor could they bring a complete and updated marketing strategy to the coaching conversation. For many of them, a part of their agenda is set by executive management, part of it by sales management, part of it by Recruitment, et cetera, leaving little to no room for proper marketing planning, which is then spent on the website, a couple of large events, and give-aways. So much for marketing.

So for these students to even get into a position where they can start outlining their e-marketing strategies, they are forced to first produce the overall business and marketing strategy and have it signed off by their management. It gets them into difficult conversations, they’re sometimes told to mind their own business, or denied access to key data points. Its evidence to prove that marketing doesn’t have a seat at the strategy table, but is expected to own execution.

Copy/Paste Marketing
My personal experience from working in marketing departments for the last 10 years isn’t much better. In many cases, the year starts with a lot of focus on strategy development and planning, resource allocation and best intentions around evaluating the plan from time to time. Targets are anecdotal, for the most part: defend position, find new customers, beat the competition, upsell, establish thought leadership around topics X and Y, et cetera – without clear and measurable objectives attached to them, which is the starting point for any good operational plan. Then, the annual calendar of activities is updated (usually a copy/paste of the previous year, with minor changes). Some new or refurbished programs and projects are defined and assigned.

And come February, the operation shifts into gear and the marketing teams start running heads down (or in fact just continue the run they took a break from over Christmas), and before you know it, the year is gone – with the plan still pretty much on the table.

Questions for you
Two questions I want to leave you with: If the guys in charge of execution didn’t get the strategy, what is it they are executing against? How do you deal with the disconnect between strategy and execution throughout the year?


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