Read our new manifesto

Is process stifling creativity? Marketers from Marks & Spencer, SABMiller and more on tackling bureaucracy

When marketers aren't marketers

The Drum, in association with Inspired Thinking Group (ITG), gathers a panel of experts to discuss the stifling effect of admin, procurement and compliance in a creative industry.

There’s a new marketing conundrum in town. One with implications for the industry at large. Marketers have an ever-growing burden of administration to navigate, fuelled by a proliferation of communications channels, the unstoppable rise of ad tech and a brief to be ever more accountable.

Modern marketing operations encourage bureaucracy like never before – but, creatively, is it starting to show? When did marketers stop being marketers? That was the premise of a breakfast briefing held by The Drum, in association with ITG, a technology-led marketing services business.

The panel featured Marks & Spencer’s head of marketing, design and production Richard Jones; Simon Ward, ITG’s chief executive; Tina Kataria, the global category manager for agencies sourcing at SABMiller; and Steve Chester, director of data and industry programmes at IAB UK.

Chester believes marketing and advertising have had to embrace more robust processes, yet questions whether those processes actually stifle creativity in an environment where a brand’s values and its business bottom line are aligned across a company.

“Yes, the creative industry is being made to ensure that value for money is there. Programmatic concerns from some quarters are leading to more transparency and accountability. It’s a necessity and doesn’t have to take away from creativity.”

He cites PepsiCo, which has “ripped up the rulebook” by scrapping its marketing procurement department and handing the responsibility to its brand teams.

Jones, who previously worked as an executive creative director at network agencies, now works brand side, which gives him an insight into how different partners view the need for procurement processes. “In an agency world, when you heard the word procurement you rolled your eyes,” he says. “Yet over time it was recognised that clients want more value for money – which isn’t a bad thing.”

Now, in his client role, procurement is a partner for him and his team. “They are there to help us negotiate with our suppliers. Procurement isn’t slowing us down or holding us back. The biggest challenge internally is the process and expecting to prove our creative efficiencies.”

That need, says ITG’s Ward, is why companies like his are created: “We exist because of the need for efficiency and to try and join the gaps between procurement and marketing services. Our whole business is around the desire to allow marketers to be marketers.”

Kataria is a procurement expert with experience of several blue chip companies. She’s seen – and heard – where the tension between procurement and marketing (and sometimes IT) works, and where it doesn’t. “I’ve heard how ‘rules’ can kill creativity, but where procurement is a partner, that’s not the case.”

For it to work, though, procurement must be a ‘true’ marketing partner, less focused on cutting costs and more on understanding the business needs. Procurement professionals must look beyond the numbers to understand the communications landscape – how, why and when brand investment is needed, and why ad and media agencies are not a commodity; value, rather than price, should be a negotiator’s watchword.

It’s not always easy to assess, as Jones concurs. “Marketing was all about the magic, but we are still today living in a time when nobody knows what is working, and what’s not.

“In moments of unrestrained brilliance we create amazing things that transform how customers think about our brands, but we don’t always know which bits are working. We thought we did because of the data, though I question if the information we’re using at the start of the planning process is right.”

Little wonder, he says, that stakeholders (shareholder, finance, trading teams) question the department on expectations and return on investment. His organisation lives in a Monday to Monday trading world and as such marketing cannot simply expect to wing it on a “it will work, hold your nerve” message. Proof-points and robust argument are needed, as they would be expected from any other board-level function.

That said, Ward argues that marketing directors are becoming less creative as a result. “They are often financially driven and the average marketing director has to be accountable for every penny.”

And with more channels and opportunities to invest in, and shareholders looking for more cuts than investments, that’s a hard sell. “From 10 years ago to now, you need to prove the case first before you can even think of a creative idea – that’s a fundamental shift.”

The situation is made yet more complex due to current de facto thinking that “everything digital is inherently measurable”, according to Chester. “It actually isn’t. It never used to be in traditional media but that’s what’s now expected.”

Kataria adds: “We have a deluge of data but no real way to make insights from it yet. Part of the support function is figuring out what’s worth going after and letting the marketers to do their jobs. Everyone promises great insights and real-time feedback, but how do you know?”

Another problem is that different functions, even different teams within a function, are incentivised in totally different ways. Their personal or departmental objectives are not aligned to the business as a whole, often leading to clashes between marketing, procurement, sales and IT heads. “The luxury of not being able to have a budget capacity to try something new is disappearing,” says Kataria.

The panel was in agreement that the role of a marketing director has changed fundamentally and will continue to evolve as tech powers more administrative processes. But what does that mean for today’s intakes; those who might still believe in the reverie of an inherently creative career?

Ward believes marketing will split between ‘creatives’ and ‘analysts’ working in tandem – something Chester agrees with: “Creative and analytics will become more split. It means creativity will become more relevant.”

For Jones, marketers of tomorrow “will be more creative than today”. He adds: “We need people who can creatively lead business. Being a mass generalist will become increasingly hard.”

As Kataria concludes: “The world of complexity is only going to increase. The next generation of marketers is tasked with creating content that really reaches people – so how do we keep that ambition alive in big, global businesses?”

This content was first published in The Drum's 18 May issue.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis