“I have an ‘opportunity’ for you,” said Jim, my manager.
Translation: I have a horrible project that no one else wants to do and I’m going to speak in a high-pitched, excited voice in order to make you think you’re the luckiest person in the company who has been chosen to do it.
This was early on in my career so I was genuinely excited and curious. I am genuinely excited and curious about most things in life, but this was coming from my manager so it had to be big.
“We need someone to lead the stewardship team, to teach marketers how to plan and balance their budgets. It’s a big responsibility – it can save the company millions of dollars – and you have the right skills for it.”
He was asking me to be the Budget Police. No marketer likes the Budget Police. I would spend the rest of my P&G career having lunch alone, staring out of the cafeteria window to avoid angry glances from colleagues passing by.
I protested but Jim was insistent and he was my manager. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t up for a challenge but I also didn’t want to be stuck with a tedious project. I offered a deal:
“I will take the stewardship project only if I can think of a way to make it fun.”
Jim agreed and I began my assessment. I gathered the facts:
- Each brand manager had to spend their brand budget within +/-0.5%
- This seemed like an insignificant margin but it added up to millions of dollars
- For the past three years, the marketing spend had come significantly under or over budget; both were equally bad because what the company needed was stability
Like a true marketer, I asked myself why? What was holding these intelligent, hard-working people back? To get a deeper understanding, I held focus groups. The methodology was very robust and included corridor chats and eavesdropping on people’s rants about stewardship.
The insights I uncovered:
- Marketers were afraid of looking at their budgets because what if they found a big mess or mistake?
- They didn’t know where to start with managing the budgets because there were so many rules and they were bombarded with things to do
- They felt stewardship was an ungrateful job because they only ever got punished for doing badly but never rewarded for doing well
As a result, they were putting off proper budget work for months… sometimes until the end of the fiscal year when it was too late. I say proper because the company had multiple budget reviews but these focused on the topline and marketers were trusted to do the more detailed and dirty work in their own time.
What was needed wasn’t more budget policing but instead more budget fun. I could do fun, even if it was stewardship related, and so I jumped right in.
I worked with the corporate finance experts to revolutionize the way we taught stewardship to marketers. This involved some mindset changes that led to behavioral changes.
The opposite of scary is sexy
I transformed the tone of voice and the look and feel of all stewardship communication. Presentation cover slides became a picture of attractive celebrities discussing the importance of getting the numbers right. Email subject lines started with ‘Stewardship is Sexy…’ Curiosity engages people. The marketers were surprised by the fresh attitude to budgets and hence opened up for a dialogue on the topic. They opened the emails. They turned up to the training sessions. This alone wasn’t going to sort out the budgets, but it made stewardship more approachable and that was a great start.
One step at a time
I locked myself into a room with the finance team for several hours and mapped out every action that had to take place throughout the year in order to balance the budgets. We designed bite-size communication that contained just one call to action at a time. Now marketers were not only opening our emails, they were actually reading them and taking action. What we were asking them to do was the same as before, but they perceived it as simpler.
The reward for being a nerd doesn’t have to be nerdy
No ‘stewardship excellence’ award, even if it’s embossed with gold and presented in front of the whole company is going to appeal to a marketer. Just because people do nerdy work (budgets are considered nerdy by marketers and most humans – ask around if you don’t believe me), it doesn’t mean they want to be known for it. Our prize was a bottle of real champagne for the best results, presented only in front of peers. I’ve never had so many people coming up to me and asking ‘how can I get one too?’ Our dialogue kept going…
Side note on push backs
I don’t want to leave you with an illusion that this process was a walk in the park. There were many obstacles. My favourite one was when I got a cautionary email from the finance director stressing that stewardship was not a joke and sexy visuals and words were utterly inappropriate. I thought I might get fired. Thankfully we had some early indications that the interventions are working so they turned a blind eye on my unconventional methods.
Whilst everyone didn’t get a bottle of champagne, they did a pretty good job with their budgets. The company-level marketing spend was within target for the first time in three years. This was a happy end and the beginning of a new way of teaching stewardship to marketers – unconventional but highly effective. Oh, and the best part was, I had delivered on my commitment and so I negotiated my release from this project.
Get unstuck by bringing fun to a serious project. Humans will resist an unconventional method but no one can deny the great results it produces.
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