It is the beginning of the fiscal year, and the marketing budget is fully funded. Giddy with delight, you begin diligently signing contracts and distributing spend for marketing investments throughout the year.

And even though the company mantra is growth, growth, growth, you get the funny feeling that something—perhaps the cost-cutting chainsaw—is in the offing. Your worst fears are confirmed when, four months later, the CFO knocks on the office door and mentions the marketing budget has just been cut by 70%. Now what do you do?

Sounds like you are a candidate for "stressed out" marketing.

Stress is part of life. The human body is designed to handle a fair amount of stress for short periods of time. Situations arise in life where we lose a loved one, go through a divorce, or experience a harrowing event like a car accident.

It is fair to say marketing budget cuts of 70% qualify as a stressful and harrowing event. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Sometimes the budget cuts are 25%, sometimes 50% and higher. Any marketer knows budget cuts happen, often two to three times a year.

However, just as the human body can capably handle stress for a brief span of time, there is the possibility to recover from this loss of budget and still meet key goals. Employing "stressed out" marketing techniques is one solution.

Dealing With Stress

To fully understand "stressed out" marketing, it is important to first study how the human body deals with stress.

Wikipedia notes that in the medical world stress is defined as one of the following:

An applied force or system of forces that tends to strain or deform a body

The resisting force set up in a body as a result of an externally applied force

A physical or psychological stimulus that can produce mental tension or physiological reactions that may lead to illness

When encountering a stressful situation, the first instinct of most humans is "fight" (come to terms with the stress) or "flight" (flee as quickly as possible).

Hormones in our body facilitate immediate reactions when confronted with traumatic stress. The same entry in Wikipedia notes our body experiences: "increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels in many parts of the body—brain, lungs and heart (increasing blood supply to organs involved in the fight)—and tightening muscles."

These reactions give our bodies an intense focus during stressful times, and the ability to make split-second judgments about a course of action.

Police officers often experience this type of stress, where in one instance they could be driving innocently down the street, and in another instance be faced with a perilous situation. It is in these times that 100% of their focus is immediately centered on a challenging situation.

Stress, over long periods of time, is considered unhealthy for the body. However, in limited doses, stress can be a good thing and helps us get through nerve-wracking events.

Cuts to the marketing budget are unhealthy for the entire organization, especially when marketing dollars are assigned to deal support, differentiated programs, and awareness campaigns. However, for a limited time, the stress of a budget cut can lead to the creation of an intense focus that often drives powerful results.

What Is 'Stressed Out' Marketing?

Just as the human body reacts to challenging situations by creating physical reactions to cope with adverse events, "stressed out" marketing techniques rely on discipline and refined focus to weather severe budget cuts. It becomes important to make every dollar count—even more so than your initial return on investment projections.

It is time to make big bets, and as Mark Twain would say, put all your eggs in one basket, but watch that basket!

A refined focus means putting first things first. In the middle of last year, you probably put together some key objectives, strategies, and tactics. It's time to revisit those objectives and see which ones are achievable based on budget cuts.

If you listed two to three big objectives for the fiscal year, the next step is to refine your focus and concentrate on meeting just one.

For example, if your objectives were to (1) raise unaided awareness from 14% to 16% within segment X, (2) assist in marketing programs to close the two largest deals in the pipeline, and (3) add five new qualified opportunities to the pipeline, you should probably pick just one objective and concentrate your energies on the strategies and tactics to see that objective to completion.

"Stressed out" marketing is...

  • Deliberate and confident
  • Disciplined
  • Laser-focused

Too many marketers, when faced with budget cuts, try to keep a modicum of normalcy in the marketing plan by keeping the same marketing plan, but dialing back the dollar amounts allocated to each tactic.

In other instances, political pressures from within the organization, such as segment leaders or line of business VPs, may cause a marketer to spread the available dollars around as best as possible to keep everyone satisfied. After all, despite the cut in marketing funding, segment or departmental leaders still have the same sales targets and they all want their fair share.

As politically challenging as it may be, employing "stressed out" marketing means picking one measurable objective. Then a marketer must examine the strategies based on the new budget, and then fund the tactics that make the most sense and give your organization the best chance to win.

At the beginning of the year, you probably spread the marketing budget across different programs and signed contracts for direct marketing, tradeshows, Web site development and the like. Unfortunately, it is time to break some contracts.

A good rule of thumb for any marketing professional is to always have an "out" when signing a marketing contract. For example, many tradeshow agreements will penalize 10-25% of the total contract amount if canceled by a certain date. Advertising is another area to examine, even if an annual contract is in place. It might be beneficial to ask what it would cost to get out of the contract.

Painful as it is to crawl back to vendors and cancel contracts, it is better to get some money back than to have investments spread out too thinly and over multiple programs.

If at the end of the year you have something to show for your marketing dollars (e.g., five new clients in a key industry or industry segment), that is a much more positive message to the CEO than spreading marketing dollars thin and achieving nothing.

Just as the human body in stressful situations diverts blood flow to muscles and organs involved in the "fight," it's important to refine the focus and spend marketing dollars where the impact is the greatest.

'Stressed Out' Marketing Isn't Meant for the Long Haul

Too much stress can lead to illness. Prolonged periods of stress should not be the norm in our lives. When too much stress occurs, our bodies tend to break down, shut down, and illnesses like migraines, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and heart disease can occur.

In a similar fashion, the marketing organization is not designed to limp along on half of its allotted budget year after year.

Of course, some CEOs will demand the marketing department meet all its annual objectives—in spite of a colossal budget cut. Just imagine however, if the CIO had to contend with 50% budget cuts every year; the IT infrastructure of the company would be in shambles.

Now, it is unlikely that cuts of 50% to the marketing budget will bring the company to a complete halt, but it is unreasonable to assume that the company can continue to land its fair share of new clients and increase client wallet share by chopping the marketing budget to close to zero every year.

Woefully underfunding the marketing organization might seem like a good idea for a dry season, but it is simply a matter of time before competitors start stealing market share, releasing and promoting better products, and dismissing your company as increasingly irrelevant. "Stressed out" marketing might work for a season, but it certainly isn't a good strategy for the long haul.

Don't Be Too Successful

One of the challenges with "stressed out" marketing is that it really works—sometimes too well.

If the marketing budget is cut by 70%, and through the use of "stressed out" techniques a marketer actually gets better results than the standard slate of programs with full budget, there is a reason for it.

The refined focus, discipline, and concentration of "stressed out" marketing efforts will drive phenomenal results for the key objective and programs chosen. Unfortunately, these results have come at the expense of other objectives which are equally as important.

Over the long haul, the human body functions best when hormones are stable, blood pressure is uniform, and muscle tension is low. However, there are moments in life where stress is a good thing—bringing a singular focus and clarity as to the actions best performed.

The same holds true for traumatic cuts to the marketing budget.

When presented with severe budget cuts, it is critical to make every dollar count, more so than ever before. Traits of refined focus, discipline and confidence in your actions will be necessary to navigate internal political pressures and keep the company growing—even in lean times.


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Paul A. Barsch directs the professional services marketing programs for one of the top 10 software companies in the United States and blogs about the intersection and impact of technology and marketing ( He can be contacted at paulbarsch(at)yahoo(dotcom).