This is a time of head-snapping change. Everywhere you look.
Cool new shit.
But very, very few things have changed as much as marketing has.
I won’t list them all here.
Ok I will.
digital, search, social, content marketing, mobile, AI, marketing automation, data visualization, the cloud, inbound, analytics, big data, journey mapping, predictive analytics, data enrichment, attribution modelling, lead nurturing, data onboarding, programmatic advertising, real-time bidding, native advertising, SEO, PPC, CRO, CRM, ABM, APIs, KPIs…
That’s a lot of change.
But, underneath all this change, one thing has, unfortunately, stayed the same.
And it just might be the number one obstacle to great marketing in most companies.
This obstacle is preventing you from doing great things.
It’s befuddling your best strategies, watering down your strongest brews and spoiling your most brilliant executions.
I think you know what I’m talking about…
They’re ruining your marketing.
Everybody kind of understands this.
But it just keeps happening.
We’re all old enough to realize that this is part of the game.
Senior executives—people who often rose to their positions without thinking much about marketing—have now found themselves in a position to judge it.
And the more marketing changes, the less likely they are to understand the new world you’re working in.
They didn’t just come of age in the old world, they succeeded in it.
So they’re tied even more closely to the way things used to be done.
And that’s where the pain comes in.
Because these senior executives are over-ruling the people who do think about the new kinds of marketing.
And have done for years.
Simply by virtue of their senior position in your company, these stakeholders will second-guess your judgement, undermine your decisions and kill your best ideas—often without even thinking that much about it.
And you know whose fault it is?
Because your stakeholders are doing their best.
They've been asked to make a call on your marketing and they're making that call as best they can.
And what any non-marketer will do when asked to judge marketing is to think:
"How much does this look and feel like the marketing I've grown up with?"
If the answer is, "A lot", they're likely to like it.
If the answer is, "Whoah. This doesn't look and feel like marketing," they're likely to kill it. (Or revise it into oblivion).
To expect them to do otherwise is the first mistake.
Because it's not their job to be marketing experts; to insist on great marketing and know it when they see it.
That's your job.
(Your agency’s job too if you’re working with one).
And it's also our job—together—to help your stakeholders want the right things.
We do that by getting aligned with them before you ask them to sign off that awesome video or blog series or content strategy.
This job—the job of getting in sync with your stakeholders—may be the most important job you do.
If you fail at it, you've consigned yourself to rejection after rejection.
To seeing great work eroded into ho-hum.
To watching original ideas turn into mediocrity.
(Or, much worse, to seeing yourself give up—and stop even looking for outstanding ideas).
But if you succeed at syncing up with your stakeholders, the sky isn't even the limit.
Great becomes possible again.
Work becomes fun again.
Marketing becomes exciting again.
Think about it this way: having to navigate the obstacle course of stakeholder approval is not a barrier to doing your job.
So it’s worth having a strategy for doing it.
7 Ways to Turn Stakeholders into Supporters
Here are seven deceptively simple-sounding things you can do to get stakeholders on-side and create the conditions for insanely great work:
1. Have a vision
It’s no good asking for ‘freedom’—you need to be clear about exactly what you want to do with that freedom.
Clarify exactly how you plan to leap out of the ‘me-too’ pack you’re jostling around with.
Capture that vision in a short, clear strategy statement. Here’s a structure you can use:
- Everybody in our market does X and Y
- If we don’t do X and Y—in fact, if we do the opposite: A and B—these good things will follow (list good things).
- Here’s what we need from you in order to do these things
- Here’s how we’ll prove it’s working
2. Get a champion
You just jumped from the business of marketing to the business of change—the hardest business on Earth.
Don’t even try to go it alone.
Instead, establish a power base. Starting with a single, smart, powerful stakeholder who gets what you’re trying to do and commits to helping you do it.
Don’t use your champion as a battering ram. Use him or her as:
an idea tester.
a door opener.
a credibility builder.
(And, yes, that battering ram may occasionally come in handy too).
3. Build and defend your cred
If you don’t yet have the positioning or credibility or clout inside your company, your primary job is to earn it. Pretty much at all costs.
(If you’ve lost your cred, you know what it feels like. It’s not just a shitty feeling, it’s crippling).
Creating (or turning around) your positioning in your company is hard—but it’s not impossible. It comes from things like this:
- Consistently making strong recommendations based on evidence.
- Communicating these recommendations in a clear, compelling way.
- Defending those decisions against ill-argued attacks (firmly and diplomatically).
- Losing graciously, when you lose (show you’re a team player).
Your positioning as a smart, strategic specialist is your most important asset as a marketer. You damage this positioning whenever you do one of two things:
Here’s the key: Every stakeholder interaction is important.
Each interaction either puts a shiny penny in your Piggy Bank of Cred or takes one out (or shatters the whole damn hog).
4. Become your company’s customer advocate
As powerful as your stakeholders may be, there’s someone even more powerful who out-ranks them all: the customer.
Great marketers are customer advocates within the company.
Their union rep.
If everything you do is done in the service of your customers and prospects, you’ve seized the highest ground in any internal debate.
But you have to be right about what the customer wants.
And that’s where number 5 comes in…
5. Be the data
Marketing is a data game. Business is a data game. Hunches are fun. But, in a functional culture, the data wins.
Because data isn’t a bunch of statistics. Data is your customers telling you everything you need to know about themselves.
Live the data.
Breathe the data.
Be the data.
If you do that, only the supremely arrogant will relish arguing with you.
But you have to own the data.
Know what works. Know the metrics that prove it works.
Then get everyone to agree on these metrics.
Once you’ve done that, the best course must prevail (whether or not it’s the one you initially backed).
6. Market your successes
Because you’re close to the data, your wins will be obvious to you.
Because everyone else is not, your wins will barely be visible to them.
Unless you make them visible.
This doesn’t mean bragging.
It means reporting.
Early and often.
Success is the magic juice that earns you more freedom. When you get some, sprinkle it everywhere, sharing credit wherever it’s due.
7. Be prepared to quit (or be fired)
You may find yourself in a company where you’ve lost your cred and just can’t get it back—no one is listening any more.
Or you may be in a dysfunctional culture where the data—and the solid arguments built on the data—don’t win.
Or you’re stuck under a bully. Or a very small thinker trapped in a very big job.
No matter how much energy and passion and data you bring to this thing, your chances of success are slim.
(Yes, you could wait out the bullies and dullards—but if they were hired and promoted, there may be more right behind them).
It’s a tough call but you’ll know when it’s the right one.
Remember this: you’re bloody good at this. You deserve to be in a place that lets you prove that.
So that’s the 7-step plan.
Clearly, it’s no magic wand (quite the opposite, really, it’s hard work).
If you take this path, and succeed, you will do amazing, market-moving, business-changing, career-zooming things.
Things that will give you far more pride than the easy, un-opposed wins.
Things that turn the ‘me-too’ marketing conveyor belt…
…into a great and glorious career that is worth every ounce of your time and talent and energy.
This is the high road of marketing.
And the people on it are having way, way more fun than the people stuck on the low road.
Go forth and align.
Get your stakeholders on board. Fire them up.
Show them you’re fired up.
Challenge them to raise their game.
And do it in the most compelling way possible: by raising yours.
Let's do this.
Rich Schwerin, Digital Content Strategist, VMware | May 25th, 2018
Fundamental and foundational skill = Building successful business relationships based on trust.
Earning that trust by doing what you said you were going to do.
None of our fancy Content Marketing, Content Strategy, Digital Strategy magic bells & whistles amount to anything without continual stakeholder alignment – be it knowledge alignment, objective alignment, strategy alignment.
Thanks for this post.
Doug Kessler | July 19th, 2018
Amen, Rich! Thanks for the comment.
Lionel, MSource ideas | May 25th, 2018
I’ve just finished reading ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ by David Ogilvy (published in 1962). Echoes of Ogilvy in this post… tell the truth to the Client – or boss… be prepared to quit or fire the client…
Great post as usual – and if you haven’t read anything by Ogilvy yet, do yourself a favor. He’s famous for a reason. I’m sure Doug has, (you used to work there, right?)I’m talking about anyone else.
Doug Kessler | July 19th, 2018
Yes, I started my career at Ogilvy & Mather in NYC and read everything DO wrote.
I bleed red (but, I guess, everyone kinda does).
Lionel, MSource Ideas | May 27th, 2018
Almost finished ‘The King of Madison Avenue’ a great biography about David Ogilvy. Also highly recommend. Ogilvy was a fantastic and hilarious copy writer and writer of just about everything. What a wit. I’m about to start ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ next…
Tami Demayo, NAVAJO Company | May 31st, 2018
Bravo–as always, a joy to read!
The important stakeholders aren’t just the top brass, though. They’re often the product and campaign managers, who tend to come from an engineering or sales background. Their problem usually isn’t their years on the job; it’s a fierce loyalty to the product and company that makes it hard for them to see the customer’s point of view.
Doug Kessler | July 19th, 2018
Thanks, Tami. Very true. Stakeholders can come from lots of places. Managing different ones take different approaches but most of it stays the same: talk to them early, listen hard, actively engage.
Julius D. | July 10th, 2018
Thank you for this truly amazing article. I have a question Doug. I have just been brought in to help out a relatively new fin-tech company with UI and UX tasks, as well as defining the changing nature of design strategy. As part of the discovery phase, I have been conducting lots of intense workshops with key stakeholders (CEO, CFO, COO, etc) about the changing nature of the company. The group which surprised me most – are the marketing team. Whilst all stakeholders had great energy and excitement to move forward and think about new products and new markets, the marketing team on the other hand seemed very lukewarm and non-engaged. And I am talking about head of marketing, team leaders, SEO experts, marketing consultants. There is probably a lot of complex issues under the table that I might not be aware of, but doesn’t it sound a bit strange and counter intuitive that the group who should be most excited about branding, visual language is sadly not the marketing team, but the more traditional board members…. maybe times are changing? I just cant get my head round how to make these guys more excited….
Doug Kessler | July 19th, 2018
That is depressing, Julius, but not all that unusual, especially in B2B tech companies.
B2B marketers have been unempowered for a long time — too often deservedly so. As the discipline grows up and marketers become more accountable, that’s changing.
Not sure if in your client’s case this is a marketing leadership problem or maybe it comes form the CEO down, but it sounds like marketing isn’t valued there! (yet)
Nat | June 29th, 2021
It sounds like there are some serious issues which you don’t have insight into, although I agree it is not uncommon in B2B space, or in companies which are product/project, not market orientated. Everyone cheers about the brand new shiny strategy apart from the marketing team who see it as commercially unviable. The passive vibe may also result from lack of strong marketing leadership – a good CMO poises their team for business impact, not a colouring department.
Roger Parker, Published & Profitable | March 18th, 2019
Very inspiring doiwnloads, a welcome change of pace from hard-sell direct-marketing inspired
Perfect fusion of copy and design to project an appropriate image.
Doug Kessler | March 22nd, 2019
Thanks, Roger! I think the designers and devs knocked this out of the park. It’s a tough brief: so much copy and a structure that makes cadence a challenge. They killed it.
Rob Birnie, DBM Motion Graphics | October 31st, 2019
I really wanted to read your article but I gave up due to the over-the-top way it’s presented! Others will disagree but I’m afraid I find it totally distracting and unnecessary!
Doug Kessler | November 1st, 2019
Thanks for that feedback, Rob.
Sorry you didn’t like it.
We’re exploring how to tell stories like this in digital formats but we surely don’t always get it right. It’s a steep learning curve!
So it’s good to get your honest view.
Mat | November 11th, 2019
Love this, and the way it is presented! Highly engaging and assertive, using the big letters to highlight key messages is highly effective. Thank you!
Doug Kessler | November 12th, 2019
Thanks! Rob (above) doesn’t agree but I’m glad it hit the spot for you…
Irit Porat, GOARC - Safety 4.0 | December 14th, 2019
Loved it, Doug! Precisely addressing my pains, inspiring and beautifully presented. Thanks!
Doug Kessler | January 2nd, 2020
Thanks, Irit! Hope all’s well.