How to be an effective marketing leader in a world of chaos

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The effective marketing leader of today has to thrive in an environment of barely controlled chaos.

If you’re more or less doing things the way you did them three or five years ago, you’re behind.

If you’re just getting into social media marketing or content marketing, you’re behind. There has never been a more challenging (or fun!) time to be in marketing. But winning requires a new leadership mindset. Let’s unpack a new view of what it means to be a marketing leader today.

What world am I in?
The most effective marketing leader wakes up every morning and asks: “What world am I living in today? What are the biggest trends of this moment? How have our customer needs change? And, how do I educate my management about this world and align our strategies so we can move quickly and win?”

So what world are we living in right now?

For starters, we’re living in a world where the customer is in control. They are the marketing department (the major theme of my book Marketing Rebellion). We are inexorably moving toward an ad-free, funnel-free, loyalty-free world where the brand is defined by what customers tell each other.

We’re so interconnected — thanks to digitization, the internet, broadband, mobile devices, the cloud, and soon-to-be 5G wireless transmissions — that we’re interdependent to an unprecedented and unpredictable degree. In this world, growth increasingly depends on the ability for you, your community, your employees, your factory, and your company to be connected to these networks of continuous insight and knowledge. Value is no longer created by hoarding information, but by distributing it freely in a way that cuts through the overwhelming information density of our world.

The power of humility
We’re living in a world where digital natives are re-defining what it means to be a business, an employee, and a customer. I am absolutely awed and inspired by these young people and what they can teach the old guard. They look at what we call “marketing best practices” and think “why would you do that to people?” Oh my goodness. A marketing rebellion indeed!

Being a great marketing leader means being humble enough to re-learning your craft in the context of this new world reality. The digital natives are re-inventing business. Are you ready to follow them?

Unshackle from technology
Without question, technology is a crucial element of any marketing organization.

But great marketing leadership means putting technology in the log-term service of your customers, not to meet this week’s sales goal.

That seems so basic and rational. But take a hard look at your company. Are you operating in a way where you acknowledge that the customer is in control, or are you still trying to control the customer? Are you using technology to maintain barriers with your customers or using it to remove those barriers to create a more human experience? Are you doing things that customers hate?

Are you spending more money on increasing the tech stack or investing to connect to your customers in a more human and personal way?

Being a marketing leader means spending 50 percent of your time with customers and 50 percent sharing their wants and needs with every department of your company. You are the voice of the customer everywhere and to do that, you have to get out there. Put the dashboard away. Go see people.

Embracing chaos
An effective marketing leader means embraces the chaos. Year after year, accounting, finance, and engineering functions don’t change all that much. Marketing … whew. Fasten your seatbelt. If you like to maintain a status quo, marketing is not for you. The ideal marketing leader is a change junkie. That takes guts, but there is no choice.

A marketing leader today has to thrive on ambiguity, especially when it comes to new projects and measurement. Your traditional management “dashboard” can’t keep up with the pace of culture. That’s scary. We like neat and comfortable dashboards. But a certain amount of your attention has to be devoted to finding what’s next, and those new things may not be easily measured or even understood at first. An effective marketing leader is an explorer.

Most of our organizations are built to iterate. Today’s marketing leader has to master quantum leaps.

The learning model
We used to think a college education was enough to get a job and sustain a career. Today, everybody has to have one over-arching career goal: RELEVANCE.

To succeed today, you have to be a lifelong learner and have a strategy for relevance. This doesn’t mean you need to have the right answers. It means you need to know enough to ask the right questions.

Being a marketing leader takes courage
Leadership today requires courage. My favorite agency right now is Giant Spoon. They state that they are “an ad agency that aspires to never make an ad.” Everything they do is on the edge. They basically bet their whole company on re-creating an entire WestWorld television set for a week at South by Southwest last year. The result? AdWeek named them breakout agency of the year.

Finding a new path. Courage!

I’m not saying you need to do anything that audacious, but you have to have the courage to experiment and poke at the unknown. That’s probably going to be unpopular with some in your company.

Your culture is your marketing
There’s no such thing as a grassroots cultural change. Creating an organization that can adapt and adopt to the realities of the new world means that the leader is willing to step up and be accountable for the culture.

Who is the person in your organization who controls the budget and the strategy? That’s the person responsible for the company culture, too.

This is an incredibly important job because today. Your culture IS your marketing.

Your culture is the message that seeps into the world and defines your brand. If you don’t get the culture right, you don’t get the marketing right.

A marketing leader dispenses hope
One of my favorite leaders from the corporate world had a little sign on his desk that said “Leaders Dispense Hope.” He told me he thought this was the most important aspect of leading his organization.

A world of dramatic change and uncertainty will certainly spawn anxiety in an organization. It’s important to provide a steadfast vision and encouragement in that environment to get the most from your team. Being a great marketing leader might mean dispensing hope in the face of a constant hurricane.

Leading in an environment where the world changes every day isn’t easy, and it isn’t going to get any easier — today is the day of slowest technological change you will ever witness.

But for those who stay connected, tune in to the new information flows, exhibit courage, and dispense hope, an awesome world of opportunity and success awaits.

Mark Schaefer, author of “Marketing Rebellion:The Most Human Company Wins” is the Executive Director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions

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