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The failure rate for the heads of newly installed marketing departments in technology-based companies isn’t well known, but the rapidly growing pile of resumes that I receive from marketing managers tells me that something is terribly wrong with the way tech companies approach marketing.

As a consultant who regularly performs business audits for my technology clients, I have some strong opinions about the foundering of marketing departments at many high-tech start-ups. Contrary to conventional wisdom and at the risk of alienating some senior executives, I have found that very often the blame doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the managers. In fact, more often than not it’s a dubious team accomplishment, from top to bottom in the organization.

Here is my take on what’s ailing these departments as well as some business prescriptions that can help make these key players a vital part of the companies they serve. Below are four points any senior executive at a high-tech firm should ponder before pulling the plug on the marketing team’s efforts.

First, marketing managers must have a boost from above. Without a fully committed top brass, marketing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It is often written off as a costly experiment that only proves what everyone already assumes: Marketing is not applicable to technology-based businesses. Time and again I have seen that without a buy-in at the very start from the highest levels of the company, the marketing department atrophies and dies within two years.

The only way to reverse this negative mindset is to give the head of marketing the same status as the heads of engineering and sales. For most companies, this means the position should carry the title of vice president, reporting directly to the president. Deferring to the vice president of sales only weakens the marketing manager’s position and transforms that role into one of support instead of one of leadership. In addition, the president must demonstrate solid support for the new department by relying upon marketing data and research in making decisions. Marketing efforts should not be solely based upon internal opinions, including the president’s.

Second, many companies see the marketing department as an incubator, believing that personnel from engineering and sales will be transformed into marketing professionals after spending only a few weeks in the marketing department. This scenario could not be further from the truth. It reflects a naive belief that marketing can be mastered with very little training. A professional who understands the key facets of a company will not necessarily know how to translate that knowledge into an effective marketing strategy. Usually, just the opposite occurs.

Instead, go outside the company and hire a person with a solid career in marketing to head the department. This communicates to the rest of your team that marketing is an expertise and critical resource that is not simply “picked up” out of necessity. It also eradicates other employees’ reluctant attitudes when it comes to accepting direction from a colleague heading up a department in which he has no background and little training. A strategic hiring decision will bring respect and appreciation back to this critical communications arena.

But don’t be lulled into assuming that avoiding these two errors will guarantee you a solid, dependable marketing arm. The third error, and perhaps the most damaging, is backing the department with meager resources, including budget and employees. The resulting failure from this blunder is less evident but more costly because it can go unnoticed for several years. It often takes that long for seemingly well-orchestrated marketing efforts to continually fall short of expectations. In addition, company officers are slow to recognize the correlation between their lack of support for the marketing department and the quality of the execution of the marketing strategy.

For example, many companies shortchange their marketing department by using staff members to conduct customer research. Though hiring an outside research firm is costly, it is money well-spent. Having an unbiased, skilled agency evaluate issues that hit so close to home helps prevent the problems caused by under-funded internal marketing research. Internal research usually produces inaccurate results that reflects the ideas and opinions of sales and engineering personnel, not customers! Any market researchers worth their salt will tell you this is a sacrifice that isn’t worth making.

The fourth reason for failure in marketing departments is a fundamental disconnect between the expectations of senior management and the strategy developed by the marketing manager. Companies typically expect marketing to focus on implementing tactics that will increase sales. While it is understandable to expect marketing to offer guidance on selling tactics, the primary task of marketing is not to teach sales strategies. Instead, the marketing team should collect and interpret intelligence data and use it to prepare the annual plan. Strategy is the department’s strong suit and long-distance planning should be the order of the day.

Bottom line: The role of marketing departments will only become more critical as technology markets become more saturated, products less differentiated and buyers more discerning. Only a seasoned marketing professional should occupy such an essential strategic role in your organization. Make sure you hire a pro and trust them to do their job. Your foresight will only benefit your company.

This Marketing article was written by Jerry R. Mitchell on 2/11/2005

Jerry Mitchell is president of the Midwest Entrepreneurs’ Forum and president of consultancy Jerry R. Mitchell and Associates.