Thursday, May 26, 2011

Marketing Nightmares: Picking Up Pieces of a Failed Start-up

"The first thing that I had to do was convince them that these brilliant 'product experts' who hadn't released a new product in four years were not the geniuses that they believed them to be."

Pardon my paraphrasing, but this is essentially quoting a CEO who was responsible for the turn-around of a noteworthy company here in the valley. For me, the quote speaks to an issue that many organizations face when you bring together two companies through merger and acquisition. It doesn't matter how colossal the company being acquired failed, you can probably expect to find a number of loyal believers who are convinced that they were doing it right.

My most recent encounter with this behavior reminded me of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, but instead of making over a failing restaurant, I was dealing with updating a collection of outbound marketing pieces. As with most Kitchen Nightmares episodes, the product owners were convinced that their stuff was all great and it simply needed to be 'made pretty' -- a little face-lift to make things better.

Who are you kidding? I just watched you give a presentation, and right now it looks like you couldn't tell a story to save your life. For me, marketing is all about telling stories. But for some people, outbound marketing is just a series of check boxes. For them, that's marketing -- polishing turds and making them pretty.

Good Marketing is Passionate and Engaging
I once worked for a VP of Marketing who went on to be CEO. What he was able to do better than anyone else in the organization was tell the story of the company. Here was a guy who could take all of the little elements, the oddball technologies and patents, and frame it in a compelling story that explained why apples and oranges belonged together. He could speak technically to engineers and experts, or simply to those with less understanding.

One of the challenges with placing very technical people in a marketing role is that they often simply don't understand the important aspects of telling a story. Marketing activities are simply add-ons with little or no impact on the end results -- a check-box to be completed so that they can meet some customer expectations or resolve an incomplete MBO. It's the same mindset that assumes that a tablet with a faster processor or a USB port will outsell the iPad.

For many of these people, marketing communications is that nod you make to corporate operations, like adding a customer to your overpriced group dinner on your expense report. It's the nod that says, "you are the rock star and all of the product success is a result of you and your good 'ol boy network of industry associates." But as with many episodes of Kitchen Nightmares where the owner wants to be the star, success comes through hard work, thoughtful execution, and a quality product, not the theater of the individual.

Responding To A 'Make It Pretty' Moment
As a marketing pro, you've probably been through a couple of these 'make it pretty' moments over the course of your career. Perhaps it was the kind of event that went unnoticed by everyone involved, like the drinking, smoking or those other office behaviors that makes Mad Men seem like an alien environment. However, a 'make it pretty' moment should be equivalent to one of those events that sends Gordon Ramsey into expletive-censoring rant.

For the women I worked with in the marcom group at one large company, 'make it pretty' was a sexist comment with roots that went all the way back to secretaries and the steno pool. But even if you can't see sexism in the comment, a 'make it pretty' moment is team-crippling statement where one guy on the boat essentially says, "I'm more important than you and what you do is of little value."

If you think that 'make it pretty' is just a 'no crying in baseball' moment, then you've missed the point of this post. Make it pretty is divestment of ownership. It's a divorce from the quality process. It's the dysfunctional insanity in the opening episodes of Hell's Kitchen. A 'make it pretty' moment deserves a corrective response.

If you're in a leadership role, then you need to confront the issue. If you're a peer, you should probably discuss the issue with your colleagues, even if the comment wasn't directed at you. If the comment came from somebody you work for, then you might want to start sending out resumes and looking for a different work environment. And finally, if the offender is a client, your options are rather limited -- that's why I have a special place in my portfolio for very pretty client-mandated marketing turds.

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