Making Peace (and/or products) with Marketing

by Doc Searls

There are a range of ways that marketing can relate to engineering. At one end are companies where engineering is the core competency and marketing "leadership" is an absurdity. At the other end are companies where marketing tells engineers what to do.

The most extreme example of the former comes from fiction. It's the nameless fictional company that employs the cartoon character Dilbert. In three daily Dilbert strips starting July 27, the character Alice -- a competent, under-appreciated and violence-prone engineer -- relates to marketing people by banging their heads on furniture. In one strip she tells a prospective employee, "I'm going to bonk your head on the table. If it sounds empty, you'll work in marketing."

The most extreme example of the latter comes from reality, and stars in "The Phone Companies Still Don't Get it", by Mark Gimein, in the July 31, 2006 issue of BusinessWeek.

Gimein opens with the story of his visit to the home of an AT&T (formerly known as SBC) "customer" in San Antonio, where he was led to witness the wonders of the company's Project Lightspeed. Here's how he reports what happened:

You would think rounding up a bona fide customer for two reporters shouldn't be impossible, but the proud homeowner who meets me at the door is wearing brightly polished cap-toed oxfords and a blue button-down shirt, an odd outfit for a guy sitting around his own house waiting for a reporter to stop by. And so we make our greetings and I sit down in front of the TV. In the armchair next to me Jeff Weber, the AT&T vice-president in charge of Project Lightspeed, grabs the remote control. He presses a button. The channel changes (much faster, he points out, than on a conventional cable system). He hits another button. It changes again.

He gives a little flourish and gestures to the set. "TV," he says. "It works."

I ask if this brand-new system will let me record one show while watching another, as TiVo (TIVO ) or my own cable box at home do. Sure, says Weber, as soon as AT&T gets the new generation of set-top boxes built and delivered.

Meanwhile, the homeowner has remained standing, watching me watch TV. So I try to break the ice, asking what he does, assuming he doesn't work for AT&T. Actually, he corrects me, he does.

"So what exactly do you do?" I ask.

"I'm the architect of Project Lightspeed." For a few seconds I take this in, wondering why nobody bothered to tell me.

It's a classic moment, an illustration of where the power lies in telecom. It is tough -- no, make that impossible -- to think of another ostensibly technology-focused industry where the chief technical architect of a planned multibillion-dollar, company-changing project does not merit so much as an introduction. In fact, in San Antonio, that architect, John Kirby, neatly managed to dispel any confusion about the status of engineering at the company when, after clarifying what it is he does, he explained that when it came to big new projects, "marketing dreams it up, and then I have to design it."

It was toward the first extreme that I addressed my July 20 SuitWatch, Markets Without Marketing, as part of my preparations for giving a tutorial at OSCON titled Open Source Clue Training -- How to Market to People Who Hate Marketing.

The talk went well. The room was full. (Later I was told that it led OSCON tutorials in attendance.) Simon Phipps, the Chief Open Source Officer at Sun Microsystems, brought many people from his team. There was lively discussion afterwards, which continued into the halls and at dinner that evening. I was even asked by a number of marketing executives if I'd be willing to come talk to their teams.

Some of the response afterward was positive. Jim Grisanzio wrote,

I'm not in marketing, but I can think of many examples from the OpenSolaris project. But I wouldn't term them as "marketing" because they were all done by a mixture of program managers, engineers, executives, marketers, and non-Sun developers and system administrators. Also, they were all based in simple, open, and direct communications. Messages were rejected. Focus groups were rejected. Press releases were largely silent. Top down dictatorial management was absent. There were very few filters, and almost none as the project matured. Engineering led the effort, and engineers made all the important decisions since the program was designed to engage developers. Interactions were done in the open in a variety of forums -- conferences, blogs, mail lists, customer briefings -- and were diversified and distributed horizontally, not vertically. Launch activities were discussed with the community on open lists, and the engineers led the launch in every important way with literally hundreds of blogs. Anniversary activities were planned and implemented openly as well. Highly technical SCM discussions and evaluations are taking place in the open as well as governance and development discussions. Again, no filters. Now, was it all perfect? No. We got more open as we learned and experimented, and we got better at it as we went along. But was it a big step for a big corporation? Absolutely. Was it marketing? No. But did marketing participate? Yes. And that's the key. Participation in a market no longer takes place through a funnel. It's distributed and multidimensional, and there's probably no need to call it "marketing" any more.

And some was negative, including the majority of comments below Markets Without Marketing. Mark Collier's comment was titled "Sorry Doc, but you're wrong". He explained,

Ever seen a woman spend all day at a shopping mall and come home empty-handed, and completely satisfied with how she spent her day?

Doc might not need marketing, but the markets need and WANT marketing.

LostFlierBoy lamented the loss of silo'd choices:

I have a fear of "Viral" or "ooze" or "community" or whatever marketing...

My fear is that someone with online influence discovers my product or service and does not like it. In "traditional" marketing the worst that happens is that your marketing is ignored (ads, news releases, trade show booth, etc.) and people may talk about what they don't like about you among friends.

In the environment of the web if a blogger does not like what you offer they can chew you to pieces, sometimes without fact or communication, and influence thousands of people who influence thousands of others. They say that what you have to offer is not worth the money, time or effort. The posts and links and follow ups stay around for a long time making it very difficult to overcome what a blogger or two has done to what may be a great thing.

In her blog, Tara Hunt wrote a post titled It's not an Us vs Them, and provided three good examples of marketing and engineering working together. She concludes,

No, we don't need marketing as it has been understood for a long time. But rather than tossing it out altogether, the role of marketing has to change...and engineers and product managers and customer service and marketing has to be a seamless process...a team...with every single one of them touching both the customer and the product.

In Emergence Marketing, Francois writes,

It is true that many marketers are clueless and deserve the bad rap that they are getting. But more often than not, that behavior comes from the very top - with CEO's, CFO's and other VP's expecting marketing folks to do unnatural acts, and getting rid of them if they do not deliver the same old stuff.

Of course, marketing needs to get out of the way. It cannot be a bureaucratic wall between the customer and the company. But there is a huge gap between hearing what the customer says, and building successful products. Engineering has to have first line of communications with the customer. But while that may bring many advantages - ranging from a better understanding of customer needs by the people who are actually building the product, to better morale in the engineering team - this by itself will not lead to great product plans! You need very special skills and training to be able to turn market opportunities into successful product strategies.

And of course, we need to get rid of no-value web sites and replace them with linkages to the information sources that matter and enhance them with tools to enable various people inside and outside the company to talk and communicate with one another. But shouldn't you have someone in charge of that? Or do you believe that a free-for-all environment will result in an infrastructure where the customer will find what they need in a timely fashion?

And yes - marketing is too often focused on "capturing and holding customers, rather than "finding and satisfying customer needs"." As John Hagel says, they need to move from the 3I's (intercept, insulate, and inhibit) to the 3 A's (attract, assist, and affiliate) - no question about it! But shouldn't you have someone take the lead in that?

Look, you can argue that you do not really need a marketing department - and for practical reasons, I think you do. But you cannot argue that a company should have no marketing. Marketing is what a company should do. Everyone within the company should wear a marketing hat!

Market was a noun long before we made it a verb. And it was a verb, I suppose, for awhile before we nouned that verb into the profession called marketing.

So let's go back to the noun. Companies operate in markets. Those markets might be demographics, or categories, or appetites, or locations, or whole regions. In most cases today, the Internet has profoundly changed conditions in those markets. Perhaps I went overboard in characterizing the old world as a matrix-like one where customers were held captive. But I don't think I was far off in characterizing every individual as a Neo.

We all want to be free -- as employees, as customers, as specialists, as original and autonomous authors of whatever we do in a world we no longer merely inhabit, but actually make.

Marketing, whatever it becomes, needs to be part of making the world. It needs to be connected and constructive.

Building silos is easy. Building a free and open marketplace? It's gonna take awhile. But it should be just as much fun for those promoting stuff as for those making it.

Here are the visuals from the tutorial: If you're up for it, see what you think the constructive new roles for marketing might be. I don't have the answers. I just know we've got a lot to build.

The first version of this piece comprised the 3 August 2006 edition of SuitWatch.