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Fair Exchange: To build credibility, balance theory with walking the talk

by Erna George (@edgeo23) I’ve had the fortune and misfortune of working with some of the best Marketing brains and practitioners, as well as some of laziest. “Laziest?”, you may ask. “Why this, rather than worst marketing practitioners?”

Hard work

The reality is that marketing, while multifaceted, isn’t difficult. But it requires hard work, especially to make the story simple enough to be integrated across the business. Lazy and disconnected marketers can be over-reliant on one approach, be it Theory or gut feel, writing decision papers or directing activities. Theory must be balanced with pragmatic approaches or walking the talk to actively drive implementation — essentially, theory may provide credibility that the approach is rooted in thinking but what’s the use of good thinking that can’t be implemented?

Good thinking is crucial and requires the structure of a level of theory. Theory may often make the likes of the engineers and accountants feel as if there’s more than luck or wizardry behind marketing strategy and planning. Strategy is a critical guardrail and needs a clear and strong framework to be taken seriously, to align all behind it and to be enduring.

Think of the ever-present tension with the sales team. Sales teams know their numbers (they can’t stand in front of buyers without this) and these numbers are part of their ‘theory’, which makes them strong negotiators to win the sale. If you don’t have a compelling and equally strong point of view, you won’t be able to stand the onslaught and could soon be implementing the salespeople’s directives. Collaborating is key as those on the ground provide keen insights into the trade and what’s happening or coming soon. But you own the brand. Filter insights and considerations through the brand-strategy lens and route the way forward in the strategic framework. ‘Theory’ has a place.

Second nature

Marketing terminology, another theoretical construct, can unify. When speaking of driving penetration vs consumption, the actions should be clear to agencies, marketers et al (at least I hope these terms are clear to all, as just the other day I had to explain that driving penetration meant more people rather than more bowls being eaten per person!). Please don’t forget the theory you learned; some of it really is useful and necessary. In the same way as a tennis superstar’s ball skills are honed to a fine art, so the theory must be the backdrop or support, practised until it’s second nature. You wouldn’t start a brand extension project without going back to the brand-positioning framework to check fit, and reviewing the portfolio map to ensure a white space with big enough size of prize and placing on the pricing strategy graph to determine the optimal strategy vs key competitors or relative to existing packs/ ranges. These provide the grounding and ensure alignment, as well as easier assessment of drivers of success or failure.

On the flip side, theory isn’t enough and must never be a crutch. Lazy marketers never get to the doing. Without action, brilliance on paper does exactly nothing — a piece of paper is unlikely to motivate all. You have to make the plan move from the page into action of delivery and, as a marketer, you have to do this through people. Unless you know how to engineer the line at the factory, procure the raws, process and pack these, distribute and negotiate a listing in store, best you learn how to turn your theoretical plan into an operational plan. Management from behind a desk is never going to change the world; as a marketer, you will never get your job done effectively.

Marketers can develop a vision but, without exciting and aligning key stakeholders to the vision or new launch strategy, landing the project will be an uphill or frustrating battle. On projects, you have to rally multiple teams around your timelines. Engagement with cross-functional teams is critical for relationship-building and relationships make business happen more easily; you will actually get preferential treatment. It’s crucial to know who your key stakeholders are, connect with them and ensure you’re able to strategically influence them to see the end-point benefit to the business and themselves.


You have to have presence — out of sight equals out of mind, as well as being aware that, without stature, you won’t be considered a worthy contributor or leader. Having a point of view and considered approach will assist with you effecting change. I’m not suggesting that you need to be a bouncy radiator — but, without a connection and without presence, you don’t have a hope of shifting people and business operations towards the brand vision.

There is a great image that shows the progression from data to wisdom that was shared with me by a mentor. Data is about single points of fact; getting context to these delivers useful information and meaning; then creating connections between various points yields knowledge — a level of understanding. Insight and wisdom are critical for strategy and decision-making. Being able to connect dots, see patterns, understand critical drivers, start points and outputs ie seeing the whole — all of this creates vision. Building the thinking muscle and applying it in practice over time (experience) creates total muscle memory that enables shortcuts to judgement and processing in the future. Experience builds wisdom and intuition. Without intuition, you’re too reliant on knowledge (which isn’t a whole or cohesive view) and decision-making and action are either really difficult or often fall flat. Balancing theory and application is critical.


Stop teaching theories and start teaching how to structure and write a compelling stakeholder email:

  1. Use theory to create a solid foundation and structure
  2. Know the key players in the value chain and have relationships with them to influence or to alter the reality within the value chain to turn strategy into operational plans
  3. Develop your intuition using theory plus your experience of application or plans in practice

This takes hard work but, without credibility, you won’t stand a chance of moving the business to implement thinking, even if it’s is good.

Updated at 9.16am on 29 August 2018.

Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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Fair Exchange: To build credibility, balance theory with walking the talk


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