Job One is helping clients create and execute a marketing strategy. The process, though fairly straightforward, begins with a few deceptively simple questions:

  1. What is your company’s unique selling proposition?
  2. What are the benefits of your product and/or service?
  3. Who are you trying to reach?
  4. What is the message you want that target market to hear?

I say “deceptively simple” because Question 1 by itself can consume a full day of meetings. But these questions (and others) are crucial to creating a marketing strategy for any business.

Part of the problem many businesses face is a lack of exposure to marketing basics. Their focus is on their product, or their logistics network, to the extent that they don’t quite get the difference between “strategic” and “tactical” or the importance of analytical measurement.

Football provides an excellent metaphor.

Your goal is a touchdown. Your playbook is your strategy. Each play is a tactic. Now, every tactic is potentially a good one, but you have to call the right play for the circumstances — based on your overall strategy. A quarterback sneak is a great play… but it’s most effective when it’s 4th and inches. It’s probably the exact wrong call for 2nd and 10. Likewise, a hail-Mary pass isn’t a horrible idea, but it’s probably NOT the call for 1st and goal on the 2-yard line.

Take away the goal (the touchdown) and take away incremental measurement (4th and inches, 2nd and 10), and there is no reasonable way to determine which play will be most successful.

The same can be said for your marketing plan.

Without a strategy -without a defined goal or plan to measure success -there is no way to know which tactic will work best (or at all!).

I believe a significant share of the problem rests on our industry’s  shoulders. Hungry account execs eager to close the deal have an unfortunate tendency to say and do whatever it takes to make a potential client happy. Even if that means telling a potential client what they want to hear.

An old episode of Mad Men provides an excellent illustration.There is this scene where three agency execs are trying to get a client to agree on a strategy. The client was actually three brothers who owned an auto parts chain.  And, of course, they couldn’t agree on anything.  In fact, they only had one point of agreement: that any decision they made had to be unamimous.

The account executive in the room immediately tried to go for the compromise. “Could we say ‘A’ and ‘B’ are our strategy?”

The agency creative director then said the magic words:  “That’s not strategy.  That’s two strategies connected by the word ‘and.’”

Unfortunately, the former happens all the time, while the latter is a rare occurrence. So often we get caught up in trying to please everyone, that the actual strategy gets lost. Or we’re trying to please “the big boss.” Or – a personal favorite – we’re “tactically focused.”

Time and time again, a client will call us with a project, a promotion, a campaign. And there won’t be even five minutes to discuss how (or whether!) the project, promotion, campaign actually supports the strategy. I once actually had a client say:  “Do we have to?  Can’t we just have (fill in the blank) an ad/TV spot/billboard?” And, of course, the account exec in the room practically leapt from the chair shouting “Of course you can!”

Because the client is always right, right?

I’ll be honest – sometimes I frustrate my clients because I won’t just tell them what they want to hear. Committing marketing malpractice is a great way to lose a client. Sure, they’re pleased when you tell them what they want to hear. But that satisfaction is short-lived, because sooner or later (usually sooner) the unsupported tactic you endorsed will produce decidedly unsatisfactory results.

And telling your client “told ya so” won’t get you very far (unless you happen to be going out the door).