Are Marketers Serious About Ceding Control To Consumers?


Are marketers serious about ceding control to consumers? "Letting go" was the key message from A.G. Lafley, P&G’s chief, at the recent ANA conference. I think the message is right, but the hard part comes in the execution and the details. And the details involve lots of organizational silos, which I delve into into in my latest MediaPost column. What do you think? Comment right here on the Spin Blog.

Are Marketers Serious About Ceding Control To Consumers?

by Max Kalehoff, October 13, 2006

At least week’s Masters of Marketing, the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference, P&G chief A.G. Lafley, in his keynote address, pronounced that it’s time to “let go” and cede control to consumers. Lafley underscored how marketers must move beyond transactions and to more meaningful relationships. Marketers must achieve the right balance of being in touch and in control. He described an important paradox: the more we are in control, the more out of touch we are. The more we give up control, the more we become in touch. So let go.

Lafley’s statements were sometimes trivial, but they were a huge deal for this audience of over 1,000, including the largest gathering of CMOs I’ve ever witnessed. His theme echoed boldly in every CMO presentation, from companies like HP, Sony, Wal-Mart, Charles Schwab, Mastercard and Yahoo among others.

Now, a reality check. Are big advertisers ready to cede control to consumers? Instinctively, they know they have no choice. However, I’m not sure how prepared they are to start tackling key obstacles. Surprisingly, one of the most powerful metaphors of consumer control, the “Web 2.0″ movement, spurred blank stares among most senior attendees at the ANA conference. When Cammie Dunaway, CMO of Yahoo, during her keynote, asked the audience if they knew what Web 2.0 was, I estimate that less than 50 hands went up (or five percent).

Aside from getting the CEO on board, institutional silos–often discombobulated and mired in legacy–are perhaps the most important forces that will prohibit marketers from adapting. Big companies today have more silos than we can count, but here are the three most important ones we should pay attention to:

Legal Silos. Sure, legal is justifiably empowered to protect a company and its assets, but good intentions and misinformed execution often conflict with the spirit of consumer empowerment. When consumers express themselves or create media involving licensed brands and copyrights, they often enter into harshly protected legal territory. It is common for corporate legal departments to “rectify” situations where consumers have embraced and altered brands, and made their expressions public, both passively and overtly. (See my recent piece on incremental, incidental consumer-generated product placement.) By default, legal becomes an extension of the marketing department. In some cases this makes sense, in others, not. Considering the proliferation of co-creation in venues like photo-sharing and social video, where do you draw the line? What if the people mutating your protected brand also happen to be your biggest fans?

Advertising Silos. After legal, the advertising department should be evaluated. The fact is that so much of the money at big brands still goes to paid media venues, like television, radio and print. These traditional tactics surely shouldn’t go away, but their legacies of power should. Paid media used to drive the whole marketing strategy, but the very notion of interruptive attention goes against the grain of consumer empowerment. Perhaps at the next ANA conference, we will see fewer presentations and “successful case studies” rooted in 30-second spots!

Customer Service Silos. Finally, customer service and listening becomes one of the most important organizational attributes in a world of consumer empowerment. Not a customer-service silo that is labeled a cost center, or one that is rewarded by rapid turnover of inbound calls, but one that embraces the entire enterprise and considers itself to be the ultimate consumer champion, as well as a metaphorical welcome mat for customers.

As my colleague Pete Blackshaw, a former P&G exec, notes, customer service becomes a powerful media department when consumers chronicle their experiences with your brand. But we can’t even begin to figure out how to market to these newly empowered consumers until we have mechanisms in place to systematically listen to them. Perhaps the customer service department needs to be eliminated, and every employee receive the title “customer service officer”? No brand in an age of consumer empowerment will be successful if its managers believe customer service can be diluted to a silo.

What do you think are the key obstacles organizations must tackle to truly embrace the reality of consumer control?

Join the debate on the MediaPost blog here.


Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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