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When times are tough and heads are on the chopping block or deadwood is being removed, marketing is among first (after HR) to be decapitated, axed, or trimmed. Why is that?

It's hard for Marketing to measure its value, especially compared with Sales or Engineering. We are also always in front of the rest of the company—thinking about broad-based, longer-term strategies—and not necessarily in touch with the twists and turns of the current economy.

Sometimes it can be good, in fact essential, to be thinking ahead, but it has got to be frustrating for the CEO to be struggling with making payroll or hitting the numbers for this quarter, and then get a presentation from Marketing about a great long-term opportunity or the latest milestone on a far-reaching (and expensive) ad campaign.

As a result, a lot of marketing jobs are being cut right now. And yet, right after marketing is laid off, I know that the CEO is likely to pick up the phone and hire a marketing consultant.

When I ask CEOs why they have set aside budget for outside consulting at the same time they are laying off marketing team members, they usually say two things:

  • The old marketing team wasn't creating enough value to be worth keeping. (In fact, many of the marketing teams I've seen aren't involved in the business's strategy.)
  • Now is when marketing is most important—companies need a focused, market-driven strategy to avoid wasting limited resources.

For most CEOs, good marketing is a bit like pornography—it's hard to define precisely, but they know it when they see it. Still, it's clear that one of the problems is that most CEOs cannot put their finger on what Marketing isn't getting done—but they can envision that nothing much would likely change if the whole marketing team were to disappear.

So, what's a CMO to do?

1. Stay informed about what's happening right now with the company

Meet regularly with the sales team and ask what the biggest issues are with selling. Connect with product development to help them stay really focused on building products that the market is ready to pay for right now. Don't get too far out in front of where the company is: The tougher things are, the less runway you have.

2. Make sure your team is integrated into the organization

Encourage your team to build relationships across the organization and to be fluent in the business situation facing your organization. Watch out for "Agency-itis"—where your team members see themselves as a separate group. Self-contained groups are easiest to get ride of.

3. Identify metrics, and make sure you measure

How do you measure success? Marketing is notoriously hard to measure, but there are a lot of ways you can track your contribution to the business. Things like direct marketing and Web-site performance are easier to track—but it's also worthwhile to note decisions you contributed to that saved or made money for the company. Set objectives and make sure you track results.

4. Provide data

Provide Finance and Operations with regular updates on how you measure marketing success. Share data necessary for helping them—and the company—understand what Marketing is doing.

5. Stay flexible

Marketing teams are great at setting up annual plans and objectives—but sometimes these plans need to change rapidly. Don't complain that the organization is schizophrenic when they ask you to cancel the ad campaign you worked so hard to develop, or to limit product development to customer-requested fixes despite data that shows long term opportunities. Instead, listen carefully, and think about what you would do if you owned the business. Sometimes quick changes are critical to keep the company alive and cash flow in tact.

* * *

CMOs everywhere are in danger of losing their jobs right now—not because of this dismal economy but because they've forgotten that marketing is about knowing the market and making good decisions about how to reach the market. It's not about pretty pictures, or glossy brochures, or even how much you're Tweeted about. It's about leadership and strategic focus.

And in these tough times, when we have fewer resources than we've ever had, we need the leadership to focus on how we should best use the ammunition we have.  

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Robbie Kellman Baxter is president of consulting firm Peninsula Strategies (

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