Ineffective Marketing: How Leadership Can Affect Marketing Execution

nextcmo30 Apr 2020

Spoiler alert…it’s big

In my recent blog post about the problem in marketing leadership, I discussed the fact that marketing executives were not effectively delivering on their core responsibilities, which I define as:

  • Setting goals
  • Defining (or refining) your strategy
  • Building a plan (and a team) that is designed to achieve those goals
  • Executing the plan
  • Optimizing the plan when change inevitably happens
  • Communicating the results

I also reviewed some of the challenges that marketing leaders face that make it difficult to execute more effectively. Before you dismiss the challenges as too large, we should explore the significant financial and strategic cost of not addressing the underlying problems. In short, poor marketing execution can not only be incredibly expensive, but it can also have long-lasting consequences for your business.

In other words, it’s worth fixing.

Categories of impact

Like many broad-reaching problems, the impact of ineffective marketing execution can be large and pervasive. I like to break the impact into three major categories, of ascending strategic importance: waste, sub-optimal performance, and poor strategic execution.

1. Waste

John Wanamaker, an early 20th century retail magnate famously said: “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

More recently, Rakuten Advertising published a study in 2018 of 1000 marketing leaders who admitted that they waste about 26% of their budgets due to poor strategy or poor channel choices.

The glass half full analysis of those two quotes is that marketers have cut their waste by half in the last century. The glass-half-empty perspective would say that marketers are still losing more than one quarter of $1 trillion due to waste.

By analyzing thousands of budgets, we have identified the most common sources of waste in current marketing plans.

Unused budget

When it comes to marketing budget management, I often tell people that the primary responsibility of a marketing leader is to apply resources (both human and financial) toward initiatives that will help the organization achieve the most important marketing objectives. In other words, one of the key responsibilities of a marketing leader is to spend money. Obviously, they should spend as little money as possible for each individual service, media unit, or technology. However, they should spend as close to their full budget as possible – without going over – in order to achieve the best results for the money they planned to spend.

Surprisingly, this is a huge struggle for most marketing leaders. The struggle comes from the lack of visibility into what has already been spent, and the inability to accurately forecast consumption of the remaining budget.

Because of the lack of visibility, many marketers conservatively forecast their spending to avoid going over. As a result, we consistently see that marketers leave a lot of their budget unspent. The top-performing cohort of budget owners that we have analyzed leave somewhere between 5 to 10% of their budget unspent. More typically, we see somewhere between 10% and 20% unspent budget. And in some extreme cases, we see people leaving more than a third of their budget on the table.

If you are managing a $10 million budget, do you think you would benefit from an incremental $1 million to spend? I thought so.

Rush fees

Marketing spending is rarely done in a straight line. The typical behavior that we see is slow spending at the beginning of a fiscal quarter, rapidly accelerating in the last few weeks of the quarter. The best practice is to spread your spending more evenly through the fiscal period.

This panic buying phenomenon is exacerbated in environments that have a “use it or lose it” policy in place. Marketers often look for ways to consume their budget as it becomes clear that they’re not spending enough toward the end of their quarter.

When the timeline to spend money is short, we often see marketers pay a premium to get things done quickly. Agencies and service providers often charge rush fees to complete their projects in time to account for the cost by the end of the quarter.

Non-strategic spending

One of the things that kept me up at night most as a CMO was my inability to tell if all the money we were spending was being applied to the most important initiatives. At our peak, we were spending over $150 million on marketing, which made the stakes pretty high.

There are two primary drivers of nonstrategic spending. The first is related to the last minute spending that some marketers carry out just to consume their budget. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of people who justify spending a lot of money on T-shirts or other promotional items because they were going to lose the budget anyway.

The other driver of nonstrategic spending comes from the inability of most financial systems to organize and track spending by campaign rather than by financial categories, like GL codes. Ideally, you should spend the vast majority of your budget on campaigns that are producing the results you need to achieve your goals. Without the ability to track campaign related spending, marketers fall into the trap of spending on a non-strategic list of stuff. We like to call this “random acts of marketing.”

Duplicate spending

Have you ever designed the same campaign or creative asset more than once? It happens far more often than you might expect. As marketing teams get larger and more complex, the risk of duplicate spending increases significantly.

There are two ways to think about duplicate spending. The first one is when an organization literally does the same thing twice. The second, and far more common, is when an organization spends money on creating something new instead of fully leveraging assets that are developed elsewhere in the organization.

This phenomenon happens in almost every large marketing organization (more than 100 marketers), and happens with surprising frequency and even much smaller organizations. Why? Because teams don’t often have clear visibility into what’s happening in every part of the organization.


When I get together with other CMOs, a frequent topic is the appropriate amount to spend for a particular product or service. How much should you pay for a PR agency? How much did you pay for that marketing technology? How much did you pay for SEO services?

Our data tells us that some people are significantly overpaying for certain products and services.

Determining the appropriate amount to pay for a product or service is typically achieved through either direct experience, or tapping into your personal network. Ideally, marketers would have a set of benchmarks to determine how much their peers have paid for similar services. Without these types of benchmarks, almost everyone will overpay for some of the line items in their marketing plan.

2. Sub-optimal performance

While directly wasted budget is the easiest impact to understand, you may see an even larger negative consequence if your team fails to deliver the results contemplated in the plan.

Not hitting your targets

If you don’t put all your budget to work in a timely manner, focused on the most important initiatives, you have a higher likelihood of missing your targets. Missing your targets has a multilayered impact on your marketing organization. If your targets are directly related to achieving financial results, you quickly enter a negative spiral of ever-smaller budgets. You also erode the credibility of the marketing team if you consistently miss your targets.

Setting the wrong targets

Sometimes the problem with performance achievement versus target is more related to the original targets than to the performance. Like a sales leader setting a sales plan, one of the most important skills of a marketing leader is setting, defending, and implementing the right targets that define the success of the organization.

A target that is set too high can have obvious consequences. Along with a high likelihood of missing the target, artificially high targets erode the morale of a marketing organization, because the team doesn’t believe the plan is achievable from day one.

Targets that are set too low also have consequences. Some organizations become complacent when their targets are set too low, only to get a strong dose of reality when someone decides to benchmark the performance of their team.

Marketing teams that are too complacent sometimes “take their foot off the gas” when they achieve their objectives, which ultimately limits their potential achievement, opening the door for competitive threats. Great marketing leaders are consistently able to strike the right balance between challenging and achievable targets

Lack of tuning and balancing

A plan that is not continually measured, tuned, and balanced, can erode over time. One phenomenon that I often witnessed was an over-reliance on physical events. In some sectors, physical events are quite popular because of the high visibility, familiarity, and built-in inertia.

Physical events tend to require long-term marketing planning with some financial commitment made well before the benefit of the campaign is derived. They also tend to concentrate the benefit in a very short period of time. Because of the long-term planning component, many marketing plans fill up their available budget quickly by plugging events into their plan.

I don’t want to pick on physical events too much – some marketing plans benefit from them. However, if you’re not careful in balancing the plan, it can be dominated by physical events over time.

Beyond the tuning and balancing based on mix, almost any marketing effort can be improved over time through constant tuning of message, audience, creative, or other approaches. Unless this discipline is deeply ingrained in your approach, you will not reach the full potential return for your marketing investment.

Additionally, a well-balanced marketing plan addresses all phases of the customer lifecycle, from awareness, to consideration, to conversion, through repeat purchase and referral.

Spending more than your budget

We discussed above the challenge related to spending less than your allocated budget. Spending more than your budget can result in an outsized negative impact.

Depending on the size of the overage, the impact can go beyond marketing performance and create a problem with overall company profitability.

There have been a few famous instances of runaway spending on campaigns that caused companies to miss their quarterly earnings projections, but it is far more common for marketing teams to bruise their reputations for good fiscal management.

3. Poor strategic marketing execution

As we continue to escalate the strategic impact of ineffective marketing leadership, the most severe long-term pain is felt when marketing teams are unable to execute their strategic agenda.

Not realizing your potential

In some cases, poor strategic marketing execution can be hard to measure. You get that feeling that the company is just not living up to its potential. The tip of the spear when it comes to company execution is often the marketing team.

The marketing team is charged with defining target markets, codifying the vision, providing visibility, building pipeline, communicating with the market, and much, much more. When the marketing team is unable to execute their agenda to its fullest extent, the company will not realize its potential.

Getting scooped by the competition

When companies don’t operate at peak performance, they are at risk of being beaten by companies who execute more effectively. Losing your position in a market often happens in slow motion, but companies struggle to change their go-to-market strategy because they “have always done it that way.”

The ultimate accountability

What is the ultimate cost of not effectively executing your marketing agenda? If you are a senior marketing leader, then it’s your job. In the worst case, your career.

So what’s the good news? First of all, this is really hard stuff. Nobody can execute perfectly. Marketers have also benefited in the past from cloudy measurability, although I wouldn’t hang my hat on obfuscation of the facts.

The best news of all? We can help you execute better than your peers. That part is coming up next.

If you want advice about how to master your leadership skills you can check leadership training programmes.

Peter Mahoney
Peter Mahoney is the former CEO of Plannuh, a marketing performance management software. Peter has degrees in Physics and Computer Science and studied Latin for 7 years, and then showed up in the wrong room one day and ended up in marketing. In his 30+ year career, Peter has built products and led marketing for startups and for multi-billion dollar public companies.  You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.