Businesses that aren’t growing don’t stay still; they shrink. And every business leader focused on growth must therefore, necessarily, be focused on marketing.
Someone who knows the power of marketing better than most is Robert Stead. Having spent the first half of his career in marketing leadership roles in Fortune 500 businesses, Robert has spent the last 8 years as a part-time marketing director for ambitious and fast-growth businesses with The Marketing Centre.
Robert and his team of proven part-time marketing directors offer businesses cost-effective access to marketers who’ve seen it, done it and delivered success.
We asked Robert for his marketing advice on targeting high growth. Here’s what he told us.
Vistage: What mistakes do business leaders often make when targeting high growth?
Robert Stead, The Marketing Centre: First, you mustn’t focus on one aspect of your business. Your product may be a world-beater, but if you don’t have a finance or sales team and don’t do any marketing, nobody will know that. In the same way, if you have a marvellous go-to market approach but poor financial support, your strategy isn’t going to work. If you don’t have funding or a payment model to achieve funding, then you won’t be able to afford to drive growth.
I think this part of the scale-up logic – which dictates that you need leadership, talent, systems, finance, sales and marketing – is right, and I’ve seen people neglect one or more of those in pursuing fast growth.
The second mistake is for businesses to look endlessly for one magic sales and marketing solution to grow their business. Good marketing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Don’t neglect the former in the search of the latter.
On the opposite side of that coin, be a little thoughtful about cobbling together temporary solutions to get the ‘marketing’ box ticked. If you’re in a fast growth environment, you’ll want things to happen quickly and there’s a temptation to find short-term solutions or fail to understand who should do what.
Friends and family are wonderful, but there aren’t many grandmothers who can reliably specify and judge a website for a SaaS product. You might be thinking that reference points like these are never used in business – but they are, more often than you’d think!
Making interim arrangements can also cause problems. One business I worked with recruited a commission-only sales person on the basis of a handshake, and it was all very friendly but the deal neglected to clearly specify which sales this individual would be paid commission on. As a consequence, all sorts of confusion followed that could have been avoided if the initial deal hadn’t been made under time pressure.
High-growth businesses require more focus and clarity than others because they’re trying to drive change. You’ll never have more resource than you need and there will always be a prioritisation issue – whether the restricted resource is time, money, people or otherwise.
This can lead to the ‘urgent’ gaining priority over the ‘important’. I use OKRs – Objectives and Key Results – to identify what needs to be done now, and what can happen at some point but isn’t critical to success today.
VS: What groundwork must be done before a marketing team can achieve growth?
RS: I’ll split my answer in two: the product marketing first, and the promotional, go-to-market side second.
Preparing for product marketing means validating your products and your marketing approach to ensure your target audience accepts both. It’s making sure the dogs are going to eat the dog food your company is selling – not just that you believe dogs are going to eat it.
If you’re determined and dedicated to a particular idea, it’s easy to miss this. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Because you love your product, you think everybody else will love it too. They might, but they might not – which is why it’s important to test and revise your view if necessary.
On the promotional front, focus on getting your brand values and value proposition right upfront. ‘Brand’ is an obvious concept but not always well implemented. Often, businesses think defining their brand values will take a long time and a lot of effort, but this doesn’t need to be true and it’s better to be in control than let them grow like Topsy. Meanwhile, your value proposition should identify the pains your potential customers have, the product or service you offer to solve that pain, and why they should buy it from you.
Taking the dog food example: if dogs need food that strengthens their bones, their pain is their bones breaking if they don’t have the right kind of dog food. You’re dog food contains added calcium to strengthen their bones. You’ll therefore explain this value proposition to customers as follows: ‘Your dog is at risk of having fractures because they’ve got low calcium levels. I have a high calcium dog food which will help your dog be healthier into old age.’
This process works equally well with cars, gear knobs, tool hire – anything. Finding a clear value proposition is endlessly beneficial because it makes it easy to understand what you’re selling, to whom, and why.
VS: What can leaders do to focus their company culture on growth?
RS: There’s two halves to this. First, establishing a culture that enables growth. Many organisations exist with a ‘default’ culture.
I was once told that if you can understand how the chief executive is being paid, you’ll understand how the business works. The same is true of culture. In the absence of anything specific, the way that the founders of the business worked will be the way that the business operates in the future.
The other key to establishing a growth-focused culture is ‘living’ one. High, fast-growth environments demand fast customer responses; emails must be replied to within the hour, telephones may only ring twice and sales quotes must be generated within minutes.
Emails that say ‘We’ll get back to you tomorrow’ and telephones that are perpetually engaged won’t work. There must be a rhythm and an energy to the business that everyone shares.
VS: What can leaders do to question their attitude towards growth, in order to cultivate it in their business?
RS: It’s not about questioning. Once we get above 30, our characters are fairly well formed and while we can adapt, the fundamentals aren’t going to change much. But it is important to understand what those characteristics are. If you’re a high-energy individual with no tolerance for detail, for example, it’s worthwhile considering employing others with a good ability to manage detail.
It’s also worth asking yourself: ‘What is management?’ I had this debate some time ago, and the definition that emerged was ‘the art of changing your behaviour to achieve the results you need to appeal to other people’.
This is particularly obvious in brand terms. A lot of startups and high-growth businesses become the individuals who lead the business, in customers’ eyes. If you’re full of ideas but an introvert, you’ll probably want to develop more extraversion to work with consumers and your staff, for example.
VS: As a marketing director, what are the steps you’ll take in any business to build growth?
RS: The Marketing Centre has a twelve-box framework which starts with the strategic things you need to do to Define, Find, Win and Keep customers.
First, define what your brand is, who your customers are, the process to look for them, where they are, what profiles they’ve got, which industries they’re in, what roles they’ve got. Next, build the sales and marketing processes to win them. When you’ve got them, build mechanisms to keep them, grow them and keep in contact with them.
Quite often, that last piece doesn’t get the attention it deserves in a high-growth environment, because teams are too focused on chasing the next lead. That’s great, but yesterday’s deals are the ones paying your salary today, and those customers are worth thinking about.
I spend a little time working through that Define, Find, Win and Keep piece in the first place, rather than leaping straight into printing brochures or putting a business on Facebook. These tactics might be right for a business, but they could equally be wrong or implemented in the wrong way. If you haven’t understood what you’re trying to achieve, it’s difficult to tell the difference.
You must also look for is efficiency – which means being clear about where you’re headed and why, and being rigorous about stripping away the stuff you don’t need to do.
There’s a catchphrase from the Olympic rower Ben Hunt-Davies: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ It’s a flipping good question to ask. Leaders must ask themselves whether they are doing the right thing right now to get them where they need to be.
With any marketing activity, you’re going to be working on some assumptions, trying things that you or others haven’t done before. In this situation, you might hit every nail on the head and it might all work perfectly, but this is highly unlikely. Leaders should take the time to review where they’ve got to, whether things are working as they’d like them to and, if not, be prepared to make corrections. The VC world calls this ‘pivoting’.
Never assume that the strategy that worked on 1st January will work on 31st December, or that your execution of that strategy will be absolutely flawless. It probably won’t be!
Thank you to Robert for taking the time to talk to us. To find out more about The Marketing Centre, click here. Marketing is an integral part of business growth – but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. At Vistage, we help business leaders build and execute strategies to help their business achieve their growth potential. Find out how, here.