Why marketing teams fail (and the secrets of the ones that succeed)

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We lose sleep knowing our fellow marketers suffer from the highest turnover of any department. At 17%, employee churn in our industry is a whopping 50% higher than the next closest field.

But why do marketing teams suffer from such high turnover? And beyond that, what deeper impact does that have on an organisation, the department, and the individuals? 

From our experience in running a marketing agency for 10+years, we’ve been witness to many folk arriving and departing within our customer accounts. It’s natural to assume these affected employees were incompetent, a poor fit, ill-hired or unqualified — but the truth is this wasn’t always the case.

Often they (affected employees) were great to work with, excellent communicators, respectful, competent and giving their all.

When you looked closer, what they didn’t have was support. 

What we heard was anguish and frustration from being under-resourced, under-briefed and kept at a distance. But this doesn’t happen overnight. 

The catalyst? 

When alignment or results were lost, things would typically begin to go awry. But who really lost out at the end of the day? Not the employee. It was the business. 

From what I’ve observed, high employee attrition can lead directly to:  

  • A negative impact on revenue 
  • Lost opportunity cost 
  • IP loss 
  • Impact to velocity (momentum)

There’s nothing pretty about the above, and naturally most teams would want to avoid where possible. But in between trying to achieve growth, manage different stakeholders AND deal with the uncertainty of business in the COVID-19 era, it’s no surprise that marketing teams are struggling to keep up. 

So how do you know when things are going south? 

Here, we dive into some of the common mistakes and signals that we’ve observed, both from the Marketing and the Leadership camps, and take a glimpse at what makes a successful marketing team tick.

For organisations

Agreeing on the metrics that are important 

The first mistake we observe being made by failing marketing teams is not getting involved in the metrics that matter to the business. 

Now, I appreciate this can vary from team to team and across organisations. However, at the end of the day, most metrics tie back to revenue growth and gross margin. Tracking metrics that are hard to match with a commercial impact can quickly isolate your leadership team.

In marketing and growth more broadly, we frequently reference attribution which is also a clusterf*ck in terms of accuracy. In fact, on most occasions the credit (and the spoils) are given to Sales because it’s easier to map or understand the effort vs. result. Coincidentally, Sales has the lowest level of turnover by department. 

But the issue here doesn’t lie with leadership or even sales teams. The issue springs up when marketing teams don’t help themselves by mapping their marketing activity to revenue impact.

I think from an ROI perspective, you’re wanting to be looking at the number of leads that are converting into ops because that tells you about lead quality. You’re wanting to look at the number of MQLs that are being accepted by sales, and then ultimately sales generated revenue through marketing…When you do [ROI] in an inbound way, marketing really is steering the ship and there’s a really good alignment between marketing and sales because sales doesn’t do outbound. Marketing is the thing that they need to then close their deals.

Ryan Bonnici – CMO, Whereby

Finding allies and aligning with other teams 

On that note, alignment with Sales is critical if you have an assisted conversion path. Ultimately the bond between marketing and sales will have a significant influence on the outcomes and effectiveness of marketing’s up and downstream effectiveness. 

To help, setting regular meetings or meaningful feedback loops with Sales is a no-brainer. Don’t rely solely on CRM notes (trust us, you’ll only be disappointed). Rather, chat and open up lines of communication. Keeping Sales aware and informed of any changes to the go-to-market strategy helps minimise waste and friction, whilst improving lead quality and subsequently sales-accepted leads.

There are three key ways to open up the conversation with sales:

  1. Master clearing conversations. These are a helpful tool to resolve everyday conflict or deeper-rooted trust issues after an event has created disconnection.  
  2. Learn each other’s communication preferences. Misalignment between communication styles can cause a lot of stress that simply doesn’t need to be there.
  3. Invest in relationships, both internally with sales teams and externally with customers.

Finally, get your hands on sales conversations. Listen back to call recordings or chat transcripts. These are often full of insight to inform internal alignment. 

Creating a (genuinely) great collaborative atmosphere

It’s harder than it sounds.

Every business and every team member under the sun will say they’re collaborative. But truly getting two people, or two organisations, to come together in a way that’s meaningful and beneficial is tough.

So what are the key ingredients to creating a genuinely collaborative environment at work? Nobody sums it up quite as well as Jim Antonopoulos from Tank:

When the rubber hits the road and when push comes to shove collaboration isn’t easy at all without these things.

Expectations managed — much is to be said about sharing a common language, a common vision and a common understanding as to what each party simply expects. This is sometimes called common ground and without it — damage.

Clarity — we’re often trying to use big, complex words to impress one another and we really don’t because all that does is put up a fence with a big sign that says ‘I have no idea what I’m talking about and I can see that you’re confused.’ Absolute clarity is a must and no meeting about collaboration (read: anything) should end without it.

Accountability and responsibility — If you get this one thing wrong you’re going to get fired. Do you know that that one thing is? Knowing it, and living it is accountability. Doing what you’ve been tasked to do and carrying that task well is responsibility. Collaborations don’t work without this glue.

And as I reflected on these key attributes of great collaborations I landed on two that no collaboration was worthy of being called a collaboration without them.

Skin in the game — Without skin in the game, your collaboration is simply a nice-to-have. A strategy built on hope — the worst kind. When there’s skin in the game — the kind that is slammed down on the table at the same time you say ‘I’m all in’ — you’re almost ready.

Trust — It arrives like a tortoise and vanishes like [a] hare; and without it, we’re simply wasting our time.”

Jim Antonopoulos – Director, Tank

For leaders

Take a look in the mirror

The inspiration for this post was from observing first-hand the difference that good and not-so-good leadership had on marketing. Time and time again, one of the aspiring qualities I’ve observed from the better leaders is an ability to remain calm, patient and understanding through those critical moments. They invested the time in the recruitment process, direction through documentation, remained patient and most of all, listened to their teams. 

It’s hard to watch when a leader believes that simply repetitive preaching of a vision will make things click. The truth is, no one really cares to hear the vision repeatedly or as much as you think they do. What people care more about, however, is to work alongside folk who are considerate, aware and trusting. The latter from what I’ve observed fuels growth in teams more than anything, spiking confidence levels and enabling team members to be brave, open and honest. 

Here are two real-world examples to illustrate this point: 

Example A

A COO and Tech Evangelist call a meeting for a ‘landing page build’. After 45 minutes of fierce monologue, hard-to-follow background information and what also seemed like an employee desperate to impress their boss, there was finally a gap to ask questions. 

“Okay, so it sounds like you’re launching a Referral Program… has a brief been created to support the project at large?” 

The call goes quiet, like the last 45 minutes was the briefing. A few days later, a brief came through. 

The takeaway? Brief creation and documentation is a skill in itself. The main benefit is actually for the creator, NOT the recipient. Capture your thoughts, distill and distill some more, then ask for honest feedback. If the brief doesn’t stand up, the project or work is going to be an uphill battle.

This has never been more important. With a lot of teams now working remotely, jumping on repeated Zoom calls seems like a good way to drain time. With that in mind, it makes good sense that meeting etiquette has never been more important, send over an agenda, send a brief proactively, and challenge yourself to operate asynchronously. You might find it actually benefits the outcomes at large.

Example B 

A CEO of an upcoming startup had suffered exponential attrition. He had two brand new marketing folk on the team, and it was clear he expected them to just get it from the get-go. Without holding back in front of me (an outside consultant), the CEO proceeded to question his team’s lack of understanding of the business’s mission and vision. Needless to say, the marketing team had already beat him to the punch and been complaining for weeks about not knowing what was going on internally. 

The lesson here is to listen and ask for feedback, rather than jumping to blame. 

These days, we advocate two things at Focus to avoid the above. 

  1. writing is thinking, and 
  2. questions are more valuable than answers.  

Let’s look at the first one. Everyone can write, including leaders — and this doesn’t just mean shiny slide decks. If you can’t find the time to type out your points and utilise that time to clarify and think through your intent, then don’t expect your team to listen. If this is a struggle, try dictation and transcription apps to help get down your thoughts and work them into something that can be understood, referred back to and (ideally) executed from. Alternatively, bring someone else on board to help organise your thoughts and prepare effective comms. 

In terms of the questions, we prefer our team mates to first seek to understand rather than rushing to solve the problem. This goes back to the virtue of being patient and allowing your team to ask questions, in order to fully understand the problem they’re solving. 

Knowledge sharing fits into this equation too, and it should go both ways. Sitting in meetings with senior folk who fear not being the smartest? It straight up sucks. I’ve seen teams thrive as they operate with no ego or fear, and focus on empowering team members through constant learning and sharing. 

Onboarding is just as important as execution

It’s rare we get a good brief in the agency. 

It’s even rarer that there’s a well-kept source of documentation covering off the need-to-know information for a new starter to get up to speed in a meaningful way. 

If this information isn’t made available, make it your mission to build it and gain buy-in on key information that employees and partners should be assimilated with. 

With the natural increase in competition, a marketing team requires complete sponsorship and support from senior leaders to thrive. Marketing needs to be 100% plugged into the anatomy of the organisation. They need to have been given the chance to completely assimilate and a meaningful opportunity to synchronise with the customer, the product, and the customer again. This starts with an excellent onboarding experience, which means involving them in a wide range of conversations (including regular customer interactions). 

Tip: a great question to ask during interviews is “what activities would you look to do in your first four weeks?” If they fail to mention speaking with customers, consider your options. A great marketer always has the prospect and customer in mind.

Learn to take a step back

When marketing teams are scrutinised by overinvested leaders, it strangles output to a slow leak and suppresses vital velocity. 

It’s easy to draw parallels here from business to sport. Not long back, a capable professional head coach had a string of losses. As a result, the board stepped in and took away the coaches’ right to pick the team. 

What happened? Well, this set off a chain reaction where the coach lost all confidence, the players lost confidence…and you know how the story ends. The same applies if you didn’t allow a senior marketer to own the strategy and pick their team. It’s going to be hard to foster a sense of confidence and belief, which is vital to performance and growth. 

I’ve seen leaders take two paths: 

  1. Pretend to know everything and get in the way, or 
  2. Let your guard down, admit what you do and don’t know, build trust, and enable team members who will then have your back. 

In almost all cases, #2 wins.

So how do leaders get there?

From what I’ve seen, good leaders combine a keen eye for picking the right people with an investment in learning about each department’s plight. They don’t appoint a rookie with the belief they’ll make them look good. They find good people, support them, and get out of their way if they’re genuinely talented. They let them make mistakes with the belief that they’ll learn and grow. 

Asking structured questions is an integral skill in this department, as opposed to lecturing or making statements on how things should be done.

Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean taking your hands off the steering wheel altogether.

Staying connected where input and engagement is low is important, otherwise there’s a risk of the work becoming misaligned from the business/mission/customer (along with unwelcome surprises when a result isn’t realised). Hiring employees or teams and allowing them to figure things out all on their own is high-risk for the business, along with isolating, damaging and non-productive for the employee or team. 

The aim here is to get your engagement levels right as a leader. This means having a great onboarding process, but it might also mean asking your employees how much involvement they need.

Checklist: how leaders can empower marketing to succeed

  1. Full access, full ownership to get it done (this means clear goals and complete support).
  2. Invest in your hiring process. Leave more runway and start talent pipelining now. Don’t expect miracles from juniors or even seniors for that matter.  
  3. Optimise your onboarding.
  4. Brush up on marketing knowledge to engage in a meaningful way .
  5. Give considered input, then get out the way.
  6. Invest in alignment more broadly across the organisation.
  7. Be patient and honest .
  8. Set clear (upfront) expectations on how you like to be reported to. 

For marketers

Don’t let your past affect your present

This one’s harder than it sounds. Oftentimes, I hear marketers telling their teams “that won’t work” or “we should use this platform/tactic/promotion instead”. But when it comes down to explaining why they feel that way, they either can’t justify it, or base it off a previous campaign they did at XYZ company.

Be mindful of your bias or prior experience dominating your decision process. What works in one industry might not work in another. Similarly, a campaign or channel that didn’t work with your previous team might be an ROI crusher with your current one.

The aim here is to try and be objective when looking at any campaign. Before providing feedback, think: why am I responding this way? What evidence do I have to justify my decisions? Write it down if needed. Take time to listen without judgment, and provide feedback based on facts.

Get to know the customer first

In every company, the customer should be the North Star. When you take the time to listen as a marketer, you’ll gain some much-needed alignment between your actions and the results.

In building Focus, I’ve been interviewing two people per week. In most conversations (if not all), I walk away with a huge sense of validation, insight and clarity of how to help our customers succeed. 

Your customers will help you cut through the noise, politics, and questions to focus on what matters. Spend time listening to chat transcripts, browsing social media, reading reviews, or reaching out directly to them. You’ll quickly gain an insight about what works and what doesn’t, and gain more purpose in your actions as a marketer.

Use the numbers

How many times have you heard “I don’t know about that, I just don’t feel like it will work” in response to a new idea or a suggestion? It’s disheartening, and over time causes teams to lose motivation and confidence. 

There’s one word to be mindful of here: feel.

Whether we like it or not, the people we work with have biases and beliefs that inform their decision-making (no matter how hard we try to eliminate them). If you’re on the receiving end of these, it can be frustrating as hell to try and convince someone to change their mind.

Luckily, the fix is something we have an abundance of these days: data.

Get your data strategy clear, and empower your conversations with the metrics that matter. When you talk with the numbers, you instantly diffuse opinion-based conversations and bring it back to the facts. 

Ask, ask, and ask some more

Questions are just as important for marketers as they are for leaders. Too often, I’ve seen marketing teams complain about not having the right resources or not knowing what a campaign’s end-game is. But here’s the thing: they never actually asked. They assumed.

Ask. 

Ask for the necessary freedom to do your job well. Including budgets. 

Ask for clear expectations, and set them in return. No one cares about the time you spent or your lack of resources without proof. Work with what you have, build a case and deliver on whatever you can. If expectations are too high, be proactive to realign, readjust or acknowledge. 

Ask for clarity on priorities and a commitment to playing the long game. Then, stand ground when requests aren’t aligned with agreed MOs or priorities. 

Ask for a commitment to alignment. Maintain regular catch-ups with your manager, with sales teams, with operations teams, and leadership teams. Try to open communication, and you’ll slowly see the walls between departments and team members break down.

If you’re a junior or mid-weight, invest in relationships with leaders and partners

People often assume to not bother the leadership team because they’re busy. And they probably are. But if your leadership team is too busy to say hello, there’s a bigger problem.

Try to engage with your leadership team, even if it’s just a “how are you?” when you’re passing them by in the office. If you only engage with your peers and see your leaders in meetings, you’ll never truly understand their other layers and motivators. 

At the same time, invest in building strong working relationships, both with internal and external partners. If your aim is to become a senior marketer or a manager some day, start building your squad. Network and chat with marketers of various skill sets long before you need to hire someone. These relationships pay off in spades over the long run.

Companies that consistently hire top talent do so because they are constantly engaging top talent—even when they aren’t hiring.

They’re active on hiring platforms, they have open referral policies with their employees, they are building out their pipeline with relevant candidates, and they’re constantly building up their employer brand. They never stop doing these things, and as a result, they always have a well-nurtured talent pool of good relationships filled with great talent.

That way when they start hiring, they aren’t starting from 0- they’re already in contact with their ideal hires.

Mike Keating – Founder, Attract.ai

Checklist: how marketers can keep leaders happy and drive business forward

  1. Develop reporting that makes sense to busy, non marketers. Ask your senior leadership if they have any preferences on what types of reports they receive, how they receive and when. Consult and don’t assume. 
  2. Bring it back to the money. In general, showing motivation for revenue resulting activities will also go a long way with senior leadership, rather than talking about vanity metrics. 
  3. Inclusion goes both ways. Let your senior leadership team members join meetings or huddles, and let them feel heard. 
  4. Conversely, be prepared to let them know when their presence isn’t required and set clear boundaries. 
  5. Present clarity, build confidence and show progress. Build a set of templates to save you time though also build familiarity with process and information. 
  6. Anchor conversations or meetings with a clear objective and references prior to conversations to continue momentum in your catch-ups.

    This includes: 

    • Agreed meeting formats
    • Briefing document
    • Strategy document
    • Defined SOPs
    • Reporting templates
    • Audit/Review/Retro templates

  7. Update before being asked. Communication is everything. No news isn’t good news.

These are just some of the observations we’ve seen from over a decade working with marketing teams of different sizes and in different industries. We are by no means experts in this arena and we know that it’s tough out there — but hopefully this offers a bit of perspective on how to build a high-growth marketing team that smashes goals and has a great time doing it.

Good luck! ✌️

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