THE CMO's DILEMMA - Brilliant Noise


By Antony Mayfield, July 2022. 12 min read. Posts

Caught between a landslide of challenges and an operational hard place.

For any dilemma, there is a rock and there is a hard place. The protagonist can’t turn one way and they can’t turn the other. There is a way out, there always is. But they’re damned if they can see it. Terrifying or enlivening—depending on your viewpoint.   

Pause. Breathe. Think about the problem again from a different perspective. Gather some more data. Ask what the hero would have done. What the villain would have done. Think of all those times you prevailed against the odds. What got you through it? What was the secret?

Our clients tell us they don’t need to know how company X does it, and they don’t need to be shown a list of their sins wrapped up as an expensive 100-page SWOT. They know about the rock. They know about the hard place. They have had the wherewithal to realise they need change. The question is not what’s wrong or why—it’s HOW do we get moving? 

Brilliant Noise Marketing Transformation™ is the distillation of a decade spent helping brands that know they need to change actually make that change happen. This article is our explanation of how we do just  that.

The mother of all marketing problems

In many situations, the main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided—that the whole long list of hoped-for “priorities” can all be achieved. It is the hard craft of strategy to decide which priority shall take precedence. Only then can action be taken. And, interestingly, there is no greater tool for sharpening strategic ideas than the necessity to act.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and start talking about priorities.

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

It’s too much. 

Sitting with marketing leaders and talking about their priorities for 2023 planning, we hear common themes: addressing sustainability in marketing, doing more with less overall, continuing the epic task of digitalisation, switching to supporting ecommerce and direct-to-consumer. And then some well-meaning soul says: “And what about Web3 and the metaverse?”

All of this makes knowing what the priority should be for any given company tough. It’s less like a set of challenges and more like a landslide: unknowns just keep coming.

Yet there is one problem that makes them all irrelevant: being able to carry out a plan at all. The Gartner CMO Spend Survey 2022  found that 58% of CMOs[1] in major brands thought their organisation didn’t have the capability to deliver their strategy. 

Less than half of marketers think they have the people, resources, and tools to get the job done. 

This is the modern CMO’s dilemma; the nub of the issue, the crux of the challenge. The world they work in, that their company trades in, is a seething tangle of complex, fast-flowing uncertainties and challenges. All of which are bouncing off of one another, reforming and shifting. The rules of the game are this: by the time you’ve figured out the rules, they are obsolete. And then the process starts again. 

It’s a nightmare. Or it’s an exhilarating and unparalleled field of challenge and performance, depending on the CMO’s perspective. 

So on the one hand we have the complex reality of our corner of the world. It’s what former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King and economist John Kay call “non-stationary problems”[2]. We’re trying to aim at targets that are not only moving but unpredictable in where they will head next. 

The other side of the dilemma is that no matter how well designed the CMO’s strategy is, they know that they may not be able to implement it. And that means muddling through, crossing fingers and hoping for the best. It means hope. And hope is the opposite of a strategy. It’s almost a surrender to fate.

Understanding the nature of the beast

Breaking the stalemate means reframing the challenge from a “what” problem to a “how” problem. It’s not the technologies, the disciplines, the agencies or the platforms that need to change. It’s how they work together. It’s the connections and the coordinations and the ways they work in concert—or not—that define how things actually work. They are a system. 

If you’re looking at an organisation through the frame of a chart or a spreadsheet, you’ll be able to see its components but not its whole. It’s like looking at the parts of a dismantled computer. They’re interesting, but they give no clue as to what the experience of using the machine will be like—whether it’s fast or slow, whether you can lose yourself in flow when you’re writing on it, whether you can think through a problem when using it. Watch a thing in motion and it will begin to reveal its nature. 

Breaking the stalemate

There is a way to change. And it is (not wanting to sound like a diminutive Jedi master) becoming change, becoming a force of change; a rolling force of learning and adapting and testing and scaling what works. 

At Brilliant Noise, we see three phases to marketing organisation transformation. We sometimes refer to them as: setting a course, learning to fly and flying in formation. Simplicity is at the heart of this approach. We filter and refine the complex challenges into testable possibilities, prioritising opportunities and finding out what works through a test-learn-scale method. 

Starling Murmuration around Brighton I360- Rhys Kentish

1. Opportunity gathering: Setting a course

The first phase of Brilliant Noise Marketing Transformation is defining the context and finding the opportunities to improve marketing performance. We think of this as opportunity gathering rather than the traditional “discovery” approach of consultants. The difference is speed—we use automation and AI tools to turn interviews and data into insights about where the biggest differences can be made the fastest. Speed is important at this stage to set an expectation of the method for accelerating processes and delivering benefits. It’s more about momentum and expectation than quick wins. To transform a culture into one of rapid results and improvement, it’s important to build an expectation of speed in all projects. 

The opportunity gathering phase results in a working model for the marketing organisation and flags the candidate projects for the next phase.

2. Showing what change feels like: Learning to fly

Opportunities are scored using criteria to ascertain which will have the biggest impact on the business. The most promising becomes a pilot project. This takes the form of a test-and-learn process or experiment. 

One brand tried a data-led approach to content planning in two of its 50 markets; comparing results with the others that were using a calendar-based approach, focusing on product launches, seasonal campaigns, and key sponsorships. The data-led, customer-first campaigns were far more effective – and so all the other markets switched to the new approach. What had been a radical new idea became the must-have planning approach with market heads clamouring to join in. 

Another client with eight different market territory teams ran a simpler experiment. The results saw the number of briefing forms for the entire range of marketing functions reduced  from over 75 to just 5 options (integrated, media, PR, digital or packaging). They saw both efficiency and effectiveness increase in that quarter. 

Not all projects succeed. But by measuring and analysing the ones that don’t perform and quickly trying new ones, success is usually not far away. Learning to fail properly is the biggest strength of the test-and-learn-and-scale method, says one of our clients. 

In both cases, the successful projects delivered not just results but experience and skill in running test-and-learn projects that could be immediately re-applied. People reported feeling empowered and motivated, less like they  were “just doing their job” and more like they were  exploring and redefining the limits of their profession. This confidence and courage results in a desire to change faster. It’s even—dare we say it—fun.

3. Spreading what works, scaling and how to find it: Flying in formation

The third phase of the Brilliant Noise Marketing Transformation™ method is scaling its use throughout the marketing organisation, and even into adjacent functions like e-commerce, sales, and customer service. 

Capability, data and analytics literacy; refining processes and systems, and working in-depth on the rollout of global brands are just some of the priorities for transformation that have been put into practice with this framework. 

Time to move  

Back to our metaphorical CMO trapped between the rock and the hard place. What’s the answer? They stop. They breathe. They calmly take stock of all of the constraints and they begin to try a few things. A wiggle of a limb. Holding everything in and shimmying their back up a little. They begin to move until they find they’re standing.

It’s not rocket science – it’s much more complicated than that. But what you need is a cool head and a systematic, disciplined approach combined with imagination and a willingness to try something new. The only criteria for whether you keep doing it: does it work?

We’ll be exploring the BN Marketing Transformation approach in more detail in future newsletters and articles. Get in touch to find out more about how to start transforming your marketing organisation. 

Book your call today.