The 3 Biggest Mistakes Marketing Leaders Make

by | Marketing Leadership

“Send it to marketing and have them make it pretty” is a phrase you hear regularly in professional services firms. The “it” in the phrase could be a presentation, a proposal or any other brilliant marketing idea coming out of a practice. Most marketing organizations in professional services firms, to their credit, “make it pretty” with a positive attitude, limited resources and a few enhancements squeezed in that make “it” more effective in achieving “its” intended goal. “Making it pretty” is daily life for marketing in most firms. What a waste.

Recently, I attended the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day event focused on building stronger leadership. Each year, the event draws church leaders and lay people intent on becoming better leaders. and meeting some of the most inspiring people on the earth. As I listened this year, it occurred to me that professional services firms have a dearth of marketing leadership. Why do so many marketers just “make it pretty” instead of leading (i.e. adding strategic value)? Here are several takeaways from the Summit that made me think that it is time for your marketers to become the leaders they are capable of being:

1. Marketers are too focused on “managing” the marketing function.

In her summit speech, Carly Fiorina delineated the difference between management and leadership in a way that really resonated with me. Leaders can be managers, but not all managers are leaders. She said that “management,” in any setting, is the task of “producing acceptable results within known constraints and conditions.” In marketing, the results are rather common: produce a webinar, write a brochure, update the website, etc. The constraints and conditions are well known, as well: deadlines, budgets, resources AND individual partner expectations. It is important to have good managers. After all, you have to keep the trains running on time.

Leadership, on the other hand, is more rare. Leadership says, “I am going to change the conditions.” Fiorina says that leadership “changes the order of things.” Most partners would laugh at the idea of a marketing person changing the order of things in a firm. Most marketers, in partners’ minds, do not even understand the firm’s business. Perhaps, but many partners are called “leaders,” but they do not lead either. Instead, they maintain the known constraints and conditions—like “make-it-pretty” marketing. Marketers live up to the constrained expectations and keep producing acceptable results within the known constraints.

Leaders do not accept the constraints. Leaders see a different path and change the trajectory of the firm. To lead, marketers have to stop focusing solely on managing, accepting the firm’s and their own personal constraints and rethink their value to the firm.

2. Marketers are obsessed about a “seat at the table.”

If I had dollar for every time I read an article or heard the lament of having a seat at the table in order to affect change, I would be a wealthy man (22,000,000 hits on that phrase in Google alone). Bill Hybles, THE “leader” of the Leadership Summit, is a broken record. Thank God too, because sometimes it takes time for a message to sink in. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Summit. One of his mantras is “Lead where you are.” Whether you are leading a Fortune 500 company, a mega church or a small marketing team, you are leader. Be one. As Hybles says, “Leaders, your God-given job is not merely to preside over something, not to pontificate to your underlings how smart you are, not merely to preserve something from its gradual demise; it’s to figure out what God wants to get done in this world, figure out what role you play in that, and then to move something or someone from here to there.”

Patrick Lencioni, author and world-renown speaker and consultant, spoke about mistakes leaders make. The first one was becoming a leader for the wrong reasons (i.e. perks, money, power and a seat at the table). The right reason to become a leader is to sacrifice oneself for others even though there is no ROI. If you are calculating the ROI for a leadership position, you shouldn’t be a leader.

3. Marketers are living up to a stereotype of what a professional services marketer is.

When you think about a stereotypical marketer, what picture comes to mind? I suspect that a creative, flashy and extroverted persona comes into view. After all, that is the type of person that makes things pretty and throws a great party (er, event). You know the person with the fun cubicle, candy bowl and tchotchkes from the latest tradeshow.

I suspect some of the most talented marketing leaders are actually introverts and are playing small in a world of over-sized personalities. Susan Cain, TED sensation and author of the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, talked about the leadership strengths of introverts. Introverts are the people who can help firms think deeply, strategize, solve complex problems and spot canaries in your coal mine. It’s difficult for these individuals to breakthrough all the corporate noise and the charismatic-extrovert-as-leader mindset that permeates firms. Most firms don’t make the most of introverts’ strengths; but instead they allow group dynamics to push their marketers into conformity.

Take away

If your only expectation for your marketing team is to make “it” pretty or to just deliver acceptable results within known constraints, perhaps it is time to shift your idea of marketing.

Marketers could make huge inroads into leadership if they learned the business more comprehensively, brought real data/insights to the conversation and played to their strengths.

While never a speaker at the Summit, the great Peter Drucker had much to say on this topic:

  • “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.”
  • “Business has only two functions—marketing and innovation.”
  • “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.“

I don’t see “make it pretty” on that list.

Be prudent.


About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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