Today’s Best Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Football-and-MarketingI read a great Ad Age article, Four Talent Categories You Need to Win in a Connected Worldby Chris Kuenne. Recognizing that many marketing organizations still cling to “old school” marketing and PR, Chris Kuenne provided a timely description of the must-have talents, skills and attitudes found in today’s leading marketing organizations that actively contribute to business growth and success.

To support his key point that “the old set of skills and conventional deployment will not work,” Chris Kuenne offered up a sports analogy:

In [American] football, everyone is a specialist with a distinct position and responsibility. Each player goes one-on-one against his opponent, helping the team advance the ball in a linear fashion down the field. Marketing over the past 50 years reflected this linear approach, in which a brand’s marketing plan specified a highly planned, seldom altered, set of initiatives… Today marketing is closer to rugby. All players handle multiple roles, using many different skills…

I agree with Chris Kuenne’s historical and current assessment of the marketing function; however, today’s game of football is actually brimming with innovative tactics. I’m sure that I underappreciate the tactics in rugby, but I see a lot of parallels between the practices of winning marketing organizations and winning pro football teams:

Transformation through Innovation. Both football and marketing have benefited dramatically from innovation.  The “linear, seldom-altered” football game Chris Kuenne referred to actually describes how football was played over a century ago by such feared college teams as the Army team and its predictable but very successful smash-mouth running game.

And so it went, until Notre Dame, in 1913, unveiled an innovation that would transform the game: The forward pass (!), recently legalized but widely ignored. Quarterback Gus Dorais and future football legend tight end Knute Rockne led Notre Dame’s surprise passing attack that surprised and confused the Army Cadets. The Fighting Irish cruised to a 35-13 upset win.

At roughly the same time as Notre Dame’s game-changing use of the forward pass, John Wanamaker, the pioneer of the department store, made his famous remark, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Similar frustrations by marketers have continued right up to present day!

Thankfully, marketing innovations today are replacing decades of linear, seldom-altered, interruption marketing with a still-evolving paradigm of content marketing, permission marketing and marketing automation technologies. The marketing function is undergoing its own game-changing, “forward pass” of innovation and transformation.

Improvisation. In the football game of an earlier era, the coach’s called play was the play, no matter how obviously ready the defense was ready for it. Today’s football calls for champion quarterbacks to decipher disguised defenses in real-time and “call an audible” – a quickly-improvised new play (Peyton Manning turned this into part science, part theater throughout his career). Teammates must also recognize the need to improvise a play as well: wide receivers must know when to “cut their route” and expect a very quick pass in response to an anticipated  rush on the quarterback. The defense must be ready to change its coverages at a moment’s notice as well.

The old school coach’s “command and control” of a football game has given way to much more flexible play-by-play in response to real-time game situations. In similar fashion, members of winning marketing organizations are afforded the autonomy, and have the skills, to make real-time corrections during a marketing campaign or other activities, and do so collaboratively with others on the team.

An obsession for analytics. Today’s most effective professional teams – not just “Moneyball” baseball – but pro football, basketball and hockey as well – are utilizing data analytics in ways and depths unimaginable even a decade ago. Sports analytics can help predict future success on game day and optimize success off the field (e.g., demand-driven ticket prices, non game day function space usage). Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca recently called Boston “a new Florence” for sports analytics.

A similar analytic renaissance within marketing is now in full swing. I encourage you to visit Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist and start with one of Scott’s all-time favorite posts, Rise of the Marketing Technologist. The active use of analytics is a force multiplier for effective marketing as it is for successful sport teams.

Leaders with genuine acumen and leadership skills. Chris Kuenne provided advice to CMOs equally applicable to football coaches when he wrote that leaders “must encourage collaboration across radically different temperaments, skills and backgrounds.” That’s an accurate description of football and marketing teams alike.

Just as important are the coach’s/CMO’s own qualifications: how many, how much of “hard skills” – the vital talents, skills and attitudes identified by Chris Kuenne – does the leader in question really possess? Has the coach/CMO demonstrated his or her “soft skills” – a proven ability to “attract, inspire and retain the best talent”? Coaches and marketing leaders alike can neither succeed nor even “get by” without these essential talents.

Put simply, authentic leaders, like champion coaches, attract and inspire highly talented professionals.  Poor coaches and poor business leaders repel talented people.

Pro football fans will readily recall the unfortunate failure of Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress, resulting in his high-profile firing during the 2010 season. Brad Childress’ implosion, summarized by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, should serve as a cautionary tale for those in any executive position who lack genuine leadership skills:

Childress had never been a head coach at any level. He had been the offensive coordinator of the highly successful Philadelphia Eagles, but coach Andy Reid called almost all of the plays over that period… [As Minnesota Vikings head coach] Brad Childress had a distant relationship at best with players, feuding with most key veterans at one point or another. And his schemes were uninspiring and rigid, routinely minimizing the skills of talented players… They felt neither inspired nor challenged.

Winning marketing organizations, much like the best football teams, are typically led by savvy, authentic leaders who encourage innovative thinking, seek out new analytic insights, understand key challenges and needs, and translate that understanding into new, engaging customer experiences that build new business. They are the ones setting new rules for marketing success.

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