Why CEOs Shouldn’t Trust Marketing


By Eric Wittlake, {grow} Contributing Columnist

8 in 10 CEOs don’t trust marketing.

As a marketer, that stings. Sadly, the CEO who doesn’t trust marketing today isn’t the CEO who doesn’t get it. As marketers, we aren’t earning trust. Actually, we are actively destroying it.

We grossly exaggerate

Many marketers are like the stereotypical weekend angler. “I caught a fish THIS BIG!” Yeah… no you didn’t. And those marketing performance reports? It’s the same thing.

We keep over-reporting sales. Just because they used a coupon we sent doesn’t mean they bought because of the coupon. Or the Tweet. Or searching our brand name (seriously, they were already looking for us!). But over and over again, we keep claiming responsibility for what would have happened without us!

Digital marketing, because of all of the data that is available, is actually making this worse, not better. Here are four common tactics that keep contributing to this problem.

We talk about the wrong things

How big was that fish again? So how much did you sell that giant for or how many meals are you going to get out of it? That’s cash in your pocket or food on your table. Even someone who doesn’t care about fishing can see the benefit.

Clicks don’t matter. We are the only people that actually like Likes. We even manage to butcher ROI, replacing “investment” with “I” words like innovation or insight. And then we talk about the I, ignore the R and think people should care!

How often do you hear a marketer talk about their impact on gross margin, return on equity, operating income or earnings per share? And do it without grossly exaggerating? Until we start connecting our activity to the metrics that matter to the business, why would the CEO trust that you are driving those metrics?

We are so easily distracted

I take my two year old for walks in our neighborhood most evenings. It is a leisurely evening stroll… until he sees a cat or dog. Suddenly the sidewalk doesn’t matter! He’ll run up onto a stranger’s porch or across the street to see this furry potential new friend. So when we walk, I hold his hand. Tightly.

What are we doing with Snapchat? Look, a parallax infographic! Animated GIFs on Twitter!!

Wow, look at all these brand GIFs on Twitter. Wait, what was I talking about?

It is easy to get distracted in the sea of new and innovative marketing opportunities today but if you can’t stay focused on what you need to accomplish, why would your executive team trust that marketing will actually deliver?

And then we say “but trust me”

At the end of the day, it is difficult to measure the impact of marketing on a business’s bottom line.

So trust us, we are making a difference. Even though we exaggerate our results and don’t seem to care about the metrics the CEO cares about, just trust us. Marketing really is critical to our business.

I’m a marketer too. I’ve seen these challenges first hand and I’ve contributed to the problem. But if we want the CEO to put his or her faith in our marketing, we need to change.

Eric WittlakeEric Wittlake spends his days working with B2B marketers and shares his marketing views on his personal blog, B2B Digital Marketing. You can find him on Twitter (@wittlake) when he isn’t spending time with his three young boys.

photo courtesy of bigstock.com

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  • One of the old sayings that you made me think of Eric is, “it takes just one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.” I lost count of the number of times I sat down with a prospect or client particularly C-level who are by nature skeptical, and learned about the chicanery perpetrated by those who preceded me masquerading as “marketers” or “creatives”. It only takes a few charlatans and snake oil salesmen to “trample the flower garden” as I like to say, to make our jobs harder than they have to be.

    When you are responsible for business development and account svc in a small agency as I have been, there is no place to hide from your team or client; you are only as good as your last job so it better damn well deliver measurable results because that’s what will likely secure trust and funding to generate future work. Personally I like more work because I like eating, shelter, clothing and similar luxuries 🙂 Circumstances such as in larger organizations and agencies though provide more places to dodge the spotlight and without predetermined benchmarks, it’s just asking for the kind of trouble you describe.

    As for circumstances where the marketer pleads that “we just can’t measure it”, the only shame there is if that same person wasn’t forthright and clear about that up front. Still we have great digital tools available today that provide analytics to measure success criteria and automate much of the conversion process which it make it hard to understand and believe anyone who claims the fog of marketing war can’t be lifted. Don’t have a marketing automation system? No problem, have analytics ready to measure/report on traffic on that microsite address or 1-800 number in your ad, or count the number of BRCs from that mailing, or track visits to your tradeshow booth against actual sales. But by all means, measure! It’s the key to your meal ticket.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Eric!

  • I cannot wait to see the comments on this one! Eric, what’s interesting to me about this post is that what you are talking about (Trust in Marketing, or lack thereof) is the fundamental reason for the growth in the consumer social domain; People trusting people, not “brands”. It’s a rather interesting “vicious circle”?

    But, I absolutely agree with your message. “Something” (well perhaps a lot of somethings) is wrong. But, in fairness to Marketers, what may be “broken” is that our industry is using technology to “spin” what we want to hear, not what we need to know. Believing one’s own BS can be dangerous.

  • NenadSenic

    You make sense and I agree with you. But change how? What should marketers pay attention to then and how? What are your proposals? I miss solutions to the the issues you discuss.

  • Sandra Isaac

    Actually, in my company we don’t get any credit. The rest of the corporation view us as only being responsible for ordering pens. It is the lenders and the branch staff (I work at a bank) who are responsible for all of the clients and their interests. We are the shoemaker’s children, and when we need new shoes…or a website redo, we have to fight and end up taking a back seat. It’s frustrating and difficult to show the value that we bring to the organization. Inflating our worth is sometimes the only way we get seen!

  • Great points Eric. I agree that we need to link our results to the impact on the KPIs important to the C-Suitr, But it’s difficult to find an alternative approach. One thing we’re doing with account marketing strategies is measuring engagement at the account level. But with a complex sales process, Marketing influences but doesn’t make the sales. So what approaches do you suggest?

  • Hi Candyce, thanks for commenting. I think ABM is one of the best ways to address this actually in B2B and complex sale environments, by carving out a subset of target accounts and excluding them from your outbound marketing activity. That lets you see engagement levels across both control and test segments and, more importantly, the ultimate win rates. Just make sure pull out a random test group instead of pulling the ones marketing (and sales) doesn’t care about quite as much.

    With ABM I’ve also seen success specifically targeting companies that a sales group wants to penetrate but hasn’t been able to. Here feedback from sales and an increase in win rates can get an organization behind ABM initiatives.

  • Sandra, this is a great comment and highlights how we have landed here.

    My question for you: what does marketing deliver to the organization at a scale that makes a difference and that the organization values but doesn’t recognize as coming from marketing? (retail foot traffic? increased online banking usage and lower branch operating costs?) How would you do a test that would help the bank see that your activity is moving the needle on something that matters to the business?

    So my advice: Find a way to show the benefit you claim in tangible way through a specific marketing program, be receptive to criticisms of the way you measure impact and address the criticisms through the design of your next program. But if you go a few rounds like this and no one starts to take notice, you may need to order a pallet of pens and find a new job.

  • Thanks Eric! Have you tried that approach – excluding specific accounts? That’s a great way to prove ROI over time, but it would probably take a year to demonstrate results.

    Have you gotten a customer to buy into the idea? I think the second option is more likely to be accepted by the sales organization. Double blind tests are probably not going to be embraced by those measured on a quarterly sales cycle. 🙂

  • Thanks Nenad. These are some of the biggest issues, I believe marketers can literally go down this list and start picking off these items.

    1) Instead of claiming credit for everything in reporting, recognize some of that activity would have happened anyways and work on measuring lift. How will vary by company, from a test and control list of companies (like in my comment to Candyce above) to marketing mix models like those CPG companies have used for years.
    2) Switch our metrics. Marketing claims to drive revenue but many marketers are like fair weather fans of revenue. When things are going well, they are contributing, but when things aren’t the problem is sales, or product, or … Embrace the metrics that business cares about. All of our “marketing” metrics are really just for our own diagnostics and management, not our ultimate success.
    3) When we jump into something know, have a clear reason why that ties to our overall goals. Don’t test an NFC-based marketing app unless it clearly ties to your goals.
    4) Be open to criticism and be ready to back up our claims. In many organizations, “but we know…” isn’t an answer you can afford to use.

    Thanks for the comment and question!

  • Thanks Steve. I’m waiting for the comments as well (and ducking!)

    Great callout on spin, I agree 100%. Too many marketers believe the exaggerated results they report are real. They don’t understand how the measurement works and don’t look at them with a critical eye.

    Thanks for taking the time to chime in with a comment!

  • Sandra Isaac

    So much of this is a group effort too!. We did a campaign for “Client Appreciation”. It was all done in house…emails, stuffers in the monthly statements, etc.The campaign cost the bank less than $950 to produce. It brought the customers in and generated MMs in deposits…in a two week period of time. Staff obviously had to do the back end work and sell the product effectively, but the Marketing was primarily overlooked. We track a lot of our progress but because we can not say that we made the deposit happen, credit goes elsewhere. So we carry on.
    I have to tell you though, our pens were spotted at a hotel lobby in London, being used to sign in guests!!

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Eric, I love your post! It made me understand why I resist the latest shiny object (hold on to that little boy’s hand!) – I don’t trust it to work (I am old.) What happened to a social media roadmap that measures the connection between a blog post (or tweet), the click through to a white paper, the click through to a hands on demo, the click through to your own sandbox, and voila! a purchase! (I’m in IT). Or am I simplifying things? Someone viewing your post is voyeurism, it’s not marketing. (sorry if that is offensive.) Did they follow your social media horse to water? Hmm… I always enjoy your posts, they are so practical and founded in real human behavior.

  • I am not gonna lie- this post connected with me like a right hook to the jaw.

    With complex B2B sales cycles trying to understand the cause and effects of marketing efforts is kind of like an observer in a balloon, who is floating over a battlefield where the opposing armies are locked in a pitched, irregular battle and none of the soldiers are wearing uniforms. Oh, and the battlefield is covered with smoke from the guns.

    It’s hard to say who is winning and who is losing.

    What might work is if we break down the sales cycle into the smallest possible components, right from customer discovery all the way to after sales service. Would it then not be easier to run tests and see what works and what does not, and then combine all of that into a reporting mechanism?

    That way we get a better idea of what marketing strategies and tactics are working and the C-suite can appreciate that we just don’t sit around blowing soap bubbles in the air

  • Thanks for the comment Craig! I wish more marketers saw showing their results as the reason they have luxuries like food, shelter and clothing, we would have far fewer problems 🙂

    Next is getting past measuring the marketing activity directly and start running those controlled marketing tests, with either comparable audiences (my comment to Candyce about ABM, can also work in consumer), marketing mix models (like what CPG company have used for decades) or even paired market tests, depending on your market. That is how we will move beyond the activity measurement and start reporting back on the net impact our activity had on the business.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

  • Candyce, I have tested excluding accounts and I can confidently say: this approach works!

    Most companies don’t have the budget to run the full ABM program they would like to run, so holding back a test cell for measurement isn’t the tradeoff that it often sounds like on the surface. If you position it as a pilot and rollout, you can structure your pilot in a way that gets you the test results.

  • Thanks Maureen, I appreciate the kind words and support. Please keep bringing your healthy skepticism to marketing, we need it! (Ok, I’ll speak for myself: I need it, people like you keep me grounded).


  • Bhaskar, that just might be my favorite intro to a comment ever, and I love the obscured battlefield image also.

    Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can be very helpful, the challenge is staying focused on the end goal while measuring small steps. If we focus on website traffic as the first step to the content on our site forming our changing perceptions of our offering, it is far too easy to bias optimization towards “traffic” instead of “bringing in people who’s perception we really want to influence.” As long as you can effectively keep that long-term focus, yes, this can help with managing programs. It may, however, fall short of helping the organization see marketing’s contribution in the terms that are nearest and dearest to them.

    Thanks again for the awesome comment!!

  • Thanks for this great post Eric. It makes a lot of sense. It’s sad because not all Marketers are like that and it can be so frustrating for those trying to do things the right way. CEO’s no longer start with zero trust, they usually start with mistrust from previous bad experiences.

    I’ve found the only metric clients care about is profit. All that other stuff, it’s noise to most CEO’s. They don’t have time for it and it can come across as fluff to disguise the unknown. I really think we need to start focusing on the actual marketing objectives and key performance indicators that matter. We need to tie our marketing activities to real business value and stop wasting time in the social media ‘bubble’ of likes, engagement and reach.

    We can’t expect businesses to be authentic and transparent when we can’t execute the same principles ourselves.

  • I like the list. The topic are so helpful that it made me think of
    creating a blog about myself, even though personally I don’t know how to
    create one.

  • I am laughing but not in a bad way. I have been saying this for over 5 years. But not that they shouldn’t trust marketing it is that CEO never have trusted marketing. It is why the CMO position on average at fortune 500 companies is the shortest of all C-Level jobs. in 2012 it was 10 months. The CFO also doesn’t trust marketing.

    But here is the kicker. When people are asked about trust, marketers rank below politicians and used car salespeople. I mean as a group we lie through our teeth, we fleece clients left and right and we never do the right thing. Would a big ad agency that say makes TV spots and buys 100’s millions of dollars of media for a major brand tell that same brand ‘BTW we know which 50% of your ad spend you are wasting I am going to cut our fees and reduce our staff so you can have better ROI’? Now way in hell.

    When I went from direct B2B sales in 2008 into Advertising and learned 1] brands pay for impressions and 2] they used Nielsen which is flawed CMO’s were all dead ducks.

    marketing exists only because brands sell things that direct sales isn’t efficient. We don’t have a person going door to door selling Pepsi or Cheetohs or coffee makers. It doesn’t make economic sense. If it did there would be no marketing.

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