Taking the Long View of Near Term Change

Taking the Long View of Near Term Change

Today, I read an article in the McKinsey Quarterly. It began:

“Change is the dominant fact of life in every business today. And the ability to master and exploit change has become one of the most sought-after management skills. This is particularly true in marketing, where the very tempo of change is constantly quickening.Today’s chief executive faces a baffling dilemma. Change gets costlier every day; yet not changing can be costlier still.”

It’s a lede that might have been written just this morning. The article was written in September 1966. The byline notes that it is loosely based on a presentation he gave two years before that.

While most of us recognize that change is nothing new, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact when we’re in the midst of our own era of innovation. That Mad Men-era marketers were wringing their hands over the “baffling dilemma” presented by the “constantly quickening” tempo of change, serves as a useful reminder that everything old is new again. But we need to read beyond the lede to get to the truly eye opening insights from this article on “The Changing Face of Marketing.”

The author goes on to unpack six trends that will go on to change the face of marketing. I’ve listed them here, first with his language in bold, followed by my modern-day take on each theme.

  • The dominance of the customer. Here we see customer-centricity, the emergence of new generations with new expectations of brands, the emergence of a service economy and then a shift to a sharing economy (seriously – this is in the article circa 1966), and the fragmentation of mass markets into niche micromarkets.
  • The spread of marketing research. While the nature of research has evolved over the intervening 48 years, this point foretells the rise of data-driven decision making and marketing’s shift from art to science.
  • The rise of the computer. While the applications the author predicts for marketing technology might seem rudimentary by today’s standards (remember, as of his publication date, it would be a decade or so before the introduction of the personalcomputer), we can see the seeds for a more digital marketing and even the early indicators of digital transformation.
  • Expanded use of test marketing. A call for increased experimentation and a focus on ongoing optimization, as a means of driving improved efficiency and increased effectiveness. Or as I wrote in microMARKETING, a shift from the “one big thing” to“lots and lots of small things.”
  • Metamorphosis of field selling. Here, we see a different take on customer-centricity — one that will ring true for business-to-business marketers; as well as a rallying cry for integration between marketing and sales, an emphasis on solutions over salesmanship, and a recognition that delivering value in the last mile is a critical component of “acting local”  – even as we “think global” (on to the next point…)
  • Global market planning. Quite simply, the recognition that globalization would place new demands on businesses — that every company, regardless of size or physical footprint, can have a global impact but also must consider global implications when faced with the reality of worldwide visibility.

My point here is not simply to laud the author — a McKinsey principle named John D. Louth — for his prescience, although his ability to foresee a decades-long evolution of the marketing function is indeed impressive. It’s to highlight the importance of taking the long view — in marketing and in business in general.

On the one hand, too many marketers are quick to chase the shiniest objects — running from next big fad to next big flop, leaving a graveyard of lessons-never-learned in their wake. On the other hand, too many senior leaders are slow to recognize the critical need for evolution — current McKinsey research finds that only 61% each of CEOs and CMOs are either “supportive and sponsoring digital initiatives, or supportive and directly engaged in digital initiatives,”  while at the Board level the number plummets to an embarrassing 27%.

The former might view long range developments as moving too slowly to warrant much excitement right now; the latter might view those same long range developments as too far beyond the reality of the current business environment to warrant much attention any time soon. Ironically, both views are equally shortsighted — although for opposite reasons. The smart business leader might make serious work of understanding how the things happening right now and the things that may happen 40 years from now are merely two points on a continuum of constant change.

As I’ve written before, strategy is change.  What’s your strategy for change? If you had read the September 1966 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly when it was hot off the presses, would you have dismissed Louth’s six trends as too far into the future? Or would you have recognized them, instead, as a preview of how you would actually be doing business in the future? Because reading this 48 year-old article from our vantage point in 2014, it’s clear to see that we’ve finally become the businesses Louth thought we would be.


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