Marketing leaders have a lot of responsibilities. From handling internal communication obligations and managing the expectations of an entire organization to generating brand exposure in ways that are meaningful to customers, there's a lot at stake. Even the best strategic management minds struggle against the challenges of leading their teams day in and day out-and often, they're dealing with hidden problems that many don't realize even exist.
It's those seemingly nonexistent issues that can cause the most major problems if they're not identified and resolved, derailing an organization's efforts entirely. That's why it's imperative that both marketing leaders and team members in other areas understand what marketing's key communications challenges are and work to resolve them together using agile communication methods.
To help identify and answer some of these challenges, I spoke to Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, chief marketing officer of Mozilla. Kaykas-Wolff is an agile marketing practitioner who speaks and writes extensively on the subject. Together, we set out to shed some light on the biggest communications challenges marketing leaders face today.
I began my discussion with Kaykas-Wolff by asking what his major communications challenges as a marketing leader are, and he identified five major challenges:
- embracing marketing's internal communications responsibilities
- managing expectations
- communicating a clear vision
- capitalizing on unforeseen opportunities (without a feeling of chaos)
- managing marketing strategy versus execution and micromanaging
But before he dug into those challenges, I wanted to understand more about how Kaykas-Wolff's team at Mozilla is structured, and whether or not that structure intentionally addresses any of those challenges.
According to Kaykas-Wolff, there are two sides to the structure coin: organization structure and workflow structure. Organizationally, they make use of "durable teams," which are cross-functional in nature, assembled from multiple parts of the brand, and dedicated to solving key challenges or opportunities identified by the organization. They refer to them as durable because they endure most competing claims on their resources and persist until the identified challenges have been addressed. Essentially, the organization agrees to assemble these teams and let them focus on their identified priorities until their challenges or opportunities are concluded.
With a better understanding of his team and workflow, I dug into our list of communications challenges.
1. Embracing Marketing's Internal Communication Responsibilities
Most non-marketers think the marketing team's only audience is the customer-and that's just not the case. Think about the many teams that comprise your company: your organization's IT and product development teams each may provide road maps for the organization months or years into the future. Customer support may be responsible for keeping the larger organization aware of the overall state of the customer, what customers are saying, what they're asking for, and where their priorities and needs are focused so that the organization can stay aligned. Marketing, too, has similar internal communications responsibilities. I set out to identify what those responsibilities are.
According to Kaykas-Wolff, the primary challenge surrounding internal communications is prioritization. Marketing is asked to identify key challenges or opportunities, prioritize those items, and then communicate the focus internally and that is a huge challenge in many organizations–often regardless of the industry or vertical.
Marketing's responsibility to the organization is similar to that of IT, HR, and others, in that internal communication plays a key role within content strategy, working to ensure alignment within the entire brand. It's important for team members in all departments to know, at least at a high level, what their organization's marketing strategy is this month, this quarter, or this year. All departments want to feel like they're in the know when it comes to how the organization presents itself to the public.
When this communication breaks down or doesn't exist, it can be a hidden, but very real, employee dissatisfier. I've seen this firsthand when employees have come to me with comments about seeing or hearing an advertisement for our brand and that was the first time they've ever heard of the campaign we're promoting. I mean, can you imagine Apple releasing its new iPhone 7 without the organization knowing that the release is coming and at least some details about the messaging the company will be taking to market?
Internal communication isn't about sharing every last detail of how the brand is going to market, and it's certainly not marketing by committee. It's just about keeping teams in the loop and fostering an inclusive organizational culture.
2. Managing Expectations of Peer Leadership on Other Teams
The second challenge Kaykas-Wolff and I discussed was marketing leadership's responsibility of managing the expectations of senior leaders and other teams within the organization.
The fact is, while marketing is one of many departments, it is the most important team involved in how the brand presents itself to the public. As a result, every single leader in your organization has a stake in how the brand is marketed.
The marketing team at Mozilla approaches peer expectations directly with other senior executives. Senior leadership sponsors different durable teams and participates-either directly or by proxy-in the processes these teams use to get work done. They leverage a series of key meetings
- Acceptance-this is when the durable team defines and accepts the scope of work or problem to be solved.
- Prioritization-attended by durable team members as well as senior leadership, these meetings are meant to align priorities for the team and provide feedback from leadership's perspective.
- Daily standup-leadership often participates in these meetings and provides feedback to the teams through either the team scrum master or product owner.
It's absolutely impossible for marketing to do its job effectively without interaction with and, at times, buy-in from other organizational leaders and teams. But how does marketing leadership approach a situation without it quickly turning into marketing by committee?
It's important to understand that how you communicate with other teams will shape their response. If you ask open-ended questions, you'll likely receive open-ended answers. That's why I've come up with the following three tactics going into discussions with other teams:
- Set clear goals for the discussion. Often at least one of the goals is for me to impart something (in this case, information) to the other team's leadership.
- Articulate your ask will be ahead of time. This is especially true if I hope to leave the discussion with an answer or decision.
- Provide choices for risky decisions. This goes back to that marketing-by-committee fear. If I think a discussion has the potential to sink into a quagmire or veer off into multiple tangential discussions, I will provide two or three solutions. Any of my proposed solutions would be perfectly acceptable from the marketing strategy perspective. My role then becomes to advise on the differences in approach.
I take a lesson in this regard to my experience in raising two boys. When I ask my boys what they want for dinner, I don't ask without also providing direction. I ask in a way that gives them a few options. All options that I present are perfectly acceptable to me and each would fit nicely into our plans for the evening.
I approach leadership and other teams with marketing decisions and updates in the same manner. If there are decisions to be made in the discussion, I don't ask them in a blank check kind of way. Instead, I provide them with choices. Other teams are able to participate in the process while at the same time not substantially deviating from our core marketing strategy.
3. Communicating a Marketing Vision Within the Marketing Team
The third challenge Kaykas-Wolff highlighted involved communicating a marketing vision within the team. It's important to define and align on a single marketing vision within the marketing team. Marketing is part creativity and part execution. If the team doesn't share or understand marketing leadership's vision of what it is trying to communicate, some efforts may fall flat.
According to Kaykas-Wolff, Mozilla's team articulates this vision at a high level, in a two-step process:
- A short-form narrative that expresses investment theory. This is a relatively short document that seeks to define the "what" of a project.
- A defined objectives and key results (OKR) model that maps out the details of the investment theories defined in the initial narrative. This becomes the how of executing the narrative, and is meant to provide flexibility.
From here, the organization may decide to establish additional durable teams to address the challenges or opportunities identified, or to prioritize their work into existing teams, depending on the type of work being done.
4. Capitalizing on Unforeseen Opportunities Without a Feeling of Chaos
When I asked Kaykas-Wolff how his organization maintains agility while still staying focused on a core marketing and content strategy, he agreed this can be a huge challenge for marketing leadership. The best of plans can only account for what's known or seen at the time. When I asked how he accounts for this within his team, he said their scrum master plays a key role in this process and that it's critical the entire organization understand and accept the importance of this role. Traditionally, a scrum master is the gatekeeper (of sorts) to a team. Agile teams benefit from the ability to quickly pivot, but the things that cause them to pivot or stay on their current target are shaped by this role.
Marketing leadership needs to maintain a flexible organization that can take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. Those opportunities may not have been identified during any strategic or project planning process, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored.
"But how do you avoid the meeting conundrum?" I asked. "It's one of the biggest potential issues teams face."
Kaykas-Wolff quickly agreed. Meetings are a necessity–I don't think that's in dispute. The quantity of meetings we attend is definitely in dispute, though. To solve for this, Kaykas-Wolff and Mozilla have established a short series of key meetings with required attendance. These meetings take place every two and a half weeks (coinciding with their sprint timelines) and help to ensure everyone stays aligned.
- Acceptance meeting: As mentioned above, this is a key initial meeting where the durable team product owner presents priorities. It's a heavy and expensive meeting, but it's critical to the team's success.
- Gut-check meeting: This meeting occurs after the acceptance meeting to make sure that no issues or competing priorities have crept in.
- Share day: This meeting serves as an expression or celebration of the work that's been done, acknowledge progress, and allow the team to move forward to the next priority.
This series of structured meetings focus the team during designated times and with a specific purpose. The meetings will take place, but in taking this approach, a meeting free for all is avoided, providing teams with time for their actual work as well.
5. Balancing Strategic Management with Marketing Execution
The last challenge Kaykas-Wolff and I discussed is one that's likely familiar to many teams. Many of us in leadership focus on the strategy of our organizations. But defining a strategy is only the first step–the execution of that strategy is just as important.
How does marketing leadership stay plugged into what the team is doing without micromanaging? I asked Kaykas-Wolff how he and his organization stay checked in without hindering the work of their teams. He explained that their process provides ample opportunity for leadership to be involved without dictating or micro-managing the teams or projects.
"Participation is key," said Kaykas-Wolff, when it comes to leadership involvement. Mozilla's process seeks to create a discipline that focuses on the empirical rather than emotional. Emotional responses lead to wasted effort and their process looks to avoid those scenarios.
Kaykas-Wolff and I agreed-one of marketing leadership's largest obligations to its team is to help them do their jobs and remove barriers from them getting their stuff done. In order to do that, leaders need to know what's going on in the projects and be made aware of barriers to progress, and the best way to do that is to participate.
Some communications challenges are almost inevitable, even in the most refined of teams and processes. Kaykas-Wolff reiterated that when it comes to agile marketing, flexibility is key. His advice to marketers, in that light, involves collaboration and open-mindedness: "If something isn't working the way you believe it should be, ask why, and then talk through an example." After all, agile teams are designed to solve problems, and that's exactly what they should be allowed to do.