Why Marketers Confront Widespread Misunderstanding of their Role and Value

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on April 6
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Study Reveals that Marketers are Increasingly Frustrated over Widespread Misunderstanding of their Role and Value in Organizations.  

Let's start with the stats.  According to a 2015 report by Workfront, the biggest frustrations of marketers include the following: 

  • 55% Proving your value to people who don’t understand what you do 
  • 51% Juggling all of your work to get it done in a 40-hour work week 
  • 42% People who think they have great marketing ideas (but don’t) 
  • 36% Constantly having to put out fires 
  • 26% Stakeholder approvals
  • 19% Going to meetings
  • 9%   Working with internal clients
  • 5%   Other

 

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Surprisingly, workload was not #1 on the list.  Granted, workload came in as a very close second: 51% of marketers say the most frustrating part of their job is "juggling an increasinlgy complex workload into a 40-hour work week."  Workload is a huge problem in marketing, but not a new one.  What does seem new, however, is the depth and nature of frustration refllected in the number-one sore point on the list: A 55% majority of marketers say that the most frustrating part of their job involves "proving [their] value to people who don’t understand what they do." Ouch!

When you think about, it's a pretty amazing statistic--one that goes well beyond the familiar challenges of calculating ROI.  The survey reflects a more fundamental gap in perceived understanding of the marketing profession: It's one thing to prove ROI; it's quite another when marketers are frustrated by the fact that "people don't understand what they do."  That's a big problem.  

Consider the irony: On the one hand, marketing fundamentally involves communicating the meaning and value of a brand; communicating meaning and value is what marketers do. At the same time, the study suggests that a majority of marketers are frustrated by the challenge of communicating the very meaning and value of marketing itself!  The question is, "why?"   In what follows, I explore some big-picture causes: Namely, the challenge of explaining the role and value of marketing reflects broader changes in the nature of "knowledge work" and increased hyper-specialization. To answer the gap in understanding, we need to tell the story of marketing. 

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Marketers are telling the stories of brands.  Yet who is telling the story of marketing? 

While marketers face increased misunderstanding of their roles, they are not alone. As professions get more specialized, explaining the nature and value of their work becomes a progressively more complex task. Consider the last time you were asked what you do for a living.  Did you go into detail?  How long did it take to explain your work? Did you fully explain what you do?  Or did you simplify it to avoid the challenge of explaining a range of intricate details, goals, challenges and solutions. For many--myself included--explaining work is an increasingly complicated task. 

Marketing as Knowledge Work

So why is it hard to tell the story of marketing?  Part of the problem has to do with challenge of relating what Peter Drucker has famously called "knowledge work" the large-scale, post-industrial shift to work of the brain, not the hand.  Drucker's term has since been canonized as a staple insight into the nature contemporary of professional life. (See, for instance, Rick Wartzman's 2014 article for the Harvard Business Review,  "What Peter Drucker Knew About 2020.)"  According to the business dictionary, the term now refers to work performed by "Employees such as data analysts, product developers, planners, programmers, and researchers who are engaged primarily in acquisition, analysis, and manipulation of information as opposed to in production of goods or services."  As knowledge work, marketing--and all of its emergent specializations--fits the bill.

And, like all knowledge work, much what marketers do takes place internally.  From the outside, marketing is hard to distinguish from a good number of other professions.  It all pretty much appears the same: Sitting at a computer, staring at a screen, punching away at a keyboard.  

And herein lies much of the challenge in telling the story of the marketer's role: It's much easier to tell stories about external actions and events: The drama of he said/she said; tales in which something actually happens. The glory goes to the loud ones down the hall.  Internal stories are harder to relate.  Work in an information economy resembles the plot of a modern novel: Tons of drama and thought, but no physical action.  It's not for a lack of a story.  The drama is real: We go through the day, solving problems, resolving conflicts.  Marketing--again, like many other professions in a knowledge economy--is filled with untold stories.  To appreciate the work and value of the profession, marketers need to market their stories.

Hyper-specialization

There's another challenge to the story of marketer's organizational role and value: The nature of the works keeps changing, expanding. Alongside the rise of "knowledge work," professions have entered "an era of hyper-specialization."  First introduced by Thomas Malone and Robert Laubach in their 2011 article for the Harvard Business Review, "hyper- specialization" refers to the trend of breaking work previously done by one person into a variety of more-specialized roles done by several, specially trained experts. Hyperspecialization creates new challenges in how we understand and define organizational roles: Increased specialization often means the practical demands of a particular role or position quickly outpace their established definitions.  In short, familiar job descriptions no longer apply.  As Malone and Laubach point out

Even job titles of recent vintage will soon strike us as quaint. “Software developer,” for example, already obscures the reality that often in a software project, different specialists are responsible for design, coding, and testing. And that is the simplest scenario. (Harvard Business Review)

As professions become increasingly specialized, they require progressively more specific subject-knowledge and expertise--the kind of knowledge that is hard to explain beyond the siloed boundaries of departmental walls.  

The marketing profession is no exception.  As I have recently discussed in another article, the work of the traditional "marketer" has evolved into a diverse array of highly specialized roles.  The rise of online channels and inbound marketing strategies has effectively deconstructed traditional notions of the "marketer" as a formal, institutional position.  As a result, many marketers must now work as managerial generalists who oversee and organize the work of an extended team of specially trained experts: Digital-marketing strategists, social media experts, content-writers/editors, data analysts, marketing tech specialists, and a creative team comprised of film production staff and graphic designers.  

Yet while individual marketers understand these changes, many organizations struggle to keep pace. Internally, marketing departments seeking to expand their teams face an institutional bottleneck: Many organizations lack the resources required to formalize the necessary in-house roles.  Other times, the challenge is cultural.  For many outside the marketing profession, the benefits and demands of a cohesive digital marketing strategy remain unfamiliar terrain.  As a result, established, reductive perceptions of the marketing profession often tend to undermine organizational buy-in and support of marketing goals and strategies. 

Meanwhile, the demands for demonstrating ROI remains unchanged--if anything, performance expectation rise, while resources stretch to meet the required work.  As a result, many marketers must improvise--often working as a team of one, and often against the grain of an established company norms.  In-house marketers, savvy to emergent digital strategies, but seeking the best bang for their budgeted buck, do what they can with what they have.  This often means a marketing philosophy of "whatever works."  In practice, the latter path often replaces a cohesive digital strategy with ad-hoc improvisation.  

Considering the changing demands of marketing, it's no wonder marketers consider explaining the nature and value of their work the most frustrating part of the job.  It's also no surprise that 51% feel overwhelmed by workload--seen from a wider perspective, the 2 statistics reflect symptoms of a much deeper challenge: The traditional marketing role is a long- outmoded thing of the past.  Even updated titles like "digital marketer" fail to capture the ever-expanding range  and demands of the profession.  Among marketers, references to "wearing many hats" have gone beyond mere cliche.   Marketing is no longer a position, but a professional category comprised of diverse, specialized teams.  Sticking to the older category is bad for the profession and for business.  

To better capture these changes, we need a bigger story of the profession.  The story of marketing proceeds more like an ongoing series, episodes punctuated not in periods, but in endless ellipses.  To be continued...

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Topics: Business Communication, storytelling, Thought Leadership, Brand Writing, The Marketing Profession, Marketing, Digital Marketing

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