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There is much talk about the decline of marketing departments. The general level of wailing and chest-beating in the industry is only exceeded by the cry from the big agency groups that their clients don’t love them any more and treat them like suppliers rather than partners.

What are the facts? Since companies and individuals are usually evasive about giving out bad news, researching such a subject is difficult. At The Ingram Partnership, we analysed the marketing trade press for the whole of 2003 and the first nine months of 2004 looking for reports of job changes at marketing departments. I would not pretend that the results are scientific, but the length of the survey and the amount of data gives a clear idea of the scale and trends involved in the issue.

The picture really is bleak. In the 21 months surveyed, 19 national companies were reported as scrapping the role of marketing director. Sixteen of these occurred in 2003, a tougher year for the industry than the present one.

There is evidence to suggest that marketing is now seen as less of a specialist skill. In four of the above cases, the managing director assumed control of the marketing function; in others, it was the commercial director.

The role of commercial director is on the rise.

In the same period, 22 companies appointed commercial directors. This is not always bad news for marketers: nine newly-appointed commercial directors came from a marketing background.

A commercial director also tends to have considerable power within a business. Jibes about marketing directors being “fluffy bunnies” are unlikely to be ever directed at a commercial director.

Far more serious is the fact that 86 businesses parted company with their marketing directors due to redundancy or “restructuring”. The categories most affected were retail, followed by finance and travel. There is no sign of this slowing down, with 49 marketing directors going in 2003 and 37 having already left in similar circumstances in the first nine months of 2004. In one week in September, cutbacks were reported at seven companies including Unilever, Jaguar and Lego.

Are there marketing director positions being created to compensate? We found a few, but certainly not enough to outweigh the companies that scrapped the marketing director role.

Another issue is the short tenure of most marketing directors. The average tenure of a UK marketer in any one job is commonly quoted as either “18 months” or “less than two years”. A survey quoted in Ad Age in May suggested that there was the same pattern in the US. According to that report, only 14 per cent of chief marketing officers had been with their company for more than three years. Half had been in their jobs only 12 months. Statistically, our survey wasn’t conclusive in this respect, but we found that 18 marketing directors who were “let go” had been in their jobs for a year or less. We would also point to Marketing Week’s annual survey in January. In 2003, it found that 50 per cent of marketers expected not to be in the same job in a year’s time. By 2004, the figure had risen to 55 per cent.

Perhaps it is not surprising that interim marketing directors are now used more widely when the position itself is regarded as “interim” by employer and employee alike. And rather than culling marketing departments, companies could soon decide to outsource them altogether - something unimaginable at one time.

Although many marketers have brought this situation on themselves, things really have gone too far. There is a clear crisis of confidence in the marketing sector. It is no wonder that The Marketing Society is holding a summit on November 17 when these key challenges are going to be addressed head on and with plenty of audience participation. The Society wants to produce a manifesto for the marketing industry. If it can’t build a consensus now, then surely it never will.

At the risk of gross over-simplification, there seem to be three categories of marketers today. First, there are the marketing luvvies who spend most of their time with their suppliers and see advertising as sticky tape for any situation. They go from job to job, hiring and firing agencies each time. They seem to spend precious little time communicating with and building relationships with other functions in their own company so they can really contribute to the business as a whole.

Second, there are the marketing businessmen. These take time out to find out about how all facets of their business work. But the third and biggest group are the “in-betweenies”. They’re undecided about which of the other two types to imitate in terms of their career path. My advice to them, in the interests of continuity of employment, is: follow the marketing businessmen.

Develop a huge interest in “the customer experience” in your company. Take ownership of it emotionally, not literally. This is not straightforward line management responsibility, since the customer experience is always influenced by several departments in a company, eg sales, HR and call centres as well as marketing. It amazes me that this is currently seen as such a big stretch. Most marketers would lay claim to being responsible for “the brand”, so they need to be aware of the “brand experience” which - gosh, how frustrating! - can’t be limited to communications campaigns alone.

They could do much worse than take a lead from Tim Mason, marketing director of Tesco. Mason describes his role as “representing the customer in the boardroom”. We would be willing to place a large bet that marketers who’ve evolved into businessmen, like Mason, Tim Pile at Sainsbury’s Bank and Martin George at BA don’t lie awake at night worrying about the declining influence of marketing.

This column was co-written by 1Chris Ingram and Toby Ashken of The Ingram Partnership


This column appears on the first Tuesday of every month

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