A marketing group is only useful if it's measurably increasing revenue or reducing sales costs.
For the last two decades of the 20th century, management consultants asked: "Is Sales truly necessary?" The most common answer was a variation of: "Maybe, but not for long!"
For example, in 1992 Peter Drucker wrote, "the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous [and] the right motto for business management should increasingly be 'from selling to marketing.'"
This kind of thinking was echoed in concepts like "frictionless markets" where it was assumed that buyers would "eliminate the middle man" and buy directly from vendors across the Internet.
In these scenarios, Sales was seen as a dying profession while Marketing became ever more important. However, reality hasn't worked out that way. Instead, it's now time to ask the opposite question: "Is Marketing necessary?"
What Is Marketing Anyway?
Answering the question is impossible without first defining Marketing, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult. For example, the first three paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on Marketing contains the following definitions:
"The process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers."
"The art of selling products, but selling is only a small fraction of marketing."
"The overall strategy and function of promoting a product or service to the customer."
"The link between a society's material requirements and its economic patterns of response."
"The process of communicating the value of a product or service through positioning."
"[The] managing [of] customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization."
"The science of choosing target markets through market analysis and market segmentation."
"Capturing marketing insights, connecting with customers, building strong brands, shaping the market offerings, delivering and communicating value, creating long-term growth, and developing marketing strategies and plans."
Wow! All of that sounds really important, right? Not so fast.
Accountability vs. Responsibility
Some of those definitions include activities that are actually the responsibility of other groups: "selling products" (what the sales group does) "shaping the market offerings" (the design function of the engineering group), "creating long-term growth," (a function of top management) and even "delivering... value" (the basic purpose of any corporation).
Therefore, if the Wikipedia definition is to be taken at face value, Marketing must be such a strategic function that it trumps every other activity in the corporation and therefore Marketing should be running everything, including the CEO's task list. In fact, Marketing groups perform none of those functions, except (sometimes) in an advisory fashion.
To make matters worse, the parts of the Wikipedia definition that actually DO involve something that a marketing group might do are all so vague that they're virtually unmeasurable: "positioning," "connecting," "communicating value," "developing strategies," etc.
It's almost as if professional marketers (who presumably wrote the Wikipedia definition) are trying to define Marketing so that it need not be accountable for anything because it's responsible for everything.
In other words, if we're to take the Wikipedia definition seriously, the answer to the question "Is Marketing truly necessary?" has to be "Who the heck knows?"
A Better Definition
For the sake of argument, let's yank the definition of Marketing down to earth, so that it actually makes sense. Here's what I believe is a more workable and reasonable definition:
"Marketing consists of specific activities that make it measurably easier for selling to take place."
The advantages of such a no-nonsense definition are that:
It throws the emphasis on what the marketing group actually does (and spends) rather than allowing marketing take credit for tasks actually performed by other groups.
It emphasizes that Marketing activities must lead to a specific financial benefit in order to be consider useful and justifiable expenses.
It turns amorphous activities like "setting strategies" and "providing requirements" into organizational overhead rather than a reason for existence.
Under this definition, the following activities (among others not listed) qualifies as "real" marketing:
Generating leads that the current sales group (rather than an ideal sales group as defined by the marketing group) finds it easy to close.
Running advertisements that, when shown in geography "A," increase sales faster than in a similar geography "B" where those advertisements were not shown.
Providing sales tools that measurably help a salesperson close more business than a similarly-skilled salesperson who did not use those tools.
Building a sales channel that allows a company to sell profitably to a set of customers not currently being reached by existing sales channels.
You might be asking at this point: why do professional marketers prefer the airy-fairy kind of definition in Wikipedia as opposed to the eminently practical definition given above? The answer is simple: many marketing groups are failing badly at helping sales to take place.
Where Marketing Fails
Let's take what's arguably the most important function of Marketing: generating sales leads. According to a recent study of 600 sales and marketing groups conducted by the research firm CSO Insights, only 23 percent of sales professionals believe that they're getting fully qualified leads from their marketing group.
What about Marketing-created sales tools? In the book, The Profit Maximization Paradox, author Glen Petersen cites research from the CMO Council, the American Marketing Association, and Booz Allen Hamilton indicating that salespeople spend a whopping 40 percent of their time preparing "customer-facing deliverables" while using less than 50 percent of marketing-created sales materials.
How about channel development? According to a 2008 study of 500 resellers in six different industries also conducted by the CMO Council, less than seven percent said that vendors were their most valuable source of leads and only 19 percent reported that vendor leads were "highly actionable." What's worse, nearly 40 percent reported some form of channel conflict while 70 percent (!!!) characterized vendor marketing campaigns as "ineffective" or "somewhat ineffective."
The problem, according to sales guru and bestselling author Neil Rackham, is that as companies grow, Marketing tends to get disconnected from the selling function. Most companies begin with a sales function but without a marketing function but as they expand, they add marketing as a sales support function. Over time, however, marketing groups lose focus and become "atmospheric" and increasingly irrelevant to actually generating revenue.
Indeed, I've seen many companies where the Marketing group is parasitic, making claims that they're "driving the market," "driving sales," or "driving corporate strategy," even though their actual corporate contribution consists of foregone-conclusioned focus groups, sparsely-attended trade shows, brochures nobody reads and ads that nobody sees.
On the other hand, I've run across many marketing groups that are incredibly good at helping their sales teams make more sales. However, they are always goaled (and often compensated) based upon sales figures, not some airy-fairy measurement of strategic contribution.
In summary, my answer to the question: "Is Marketing truly necessary?" is: "In many cases, not very much if at all." I realize that many marketing folk will bristle at this, but it's actually pretty much what most salespeople think anyway.
GEOFFREY JAMES writes "Sales Source on Inc.com," the world's most-read sales-oriented blog. His new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, will be published in early 2014. To get weekly blog updates, sign up for his free "Insider" newsletter. @Sales_Source