Do You Value People or Process?

How do you make decisions on who to hire? Do you look for a specific skill set? Or do you look for the best people – those who may not yet be well versed in a narrow discipline but who display compelling intelligence, personality, people skills and the desire to succeed?

Let’s remember we’re talking about business here, and the marketing world in particular. If I were looking for a brain surgeon, the fact that he or she would be extroverted, warm, caring, a connoisseur of modern literature, an accomplished musician, the coach of his or her daughter’s soccer team, a loyal spouse and an all-around great person loved by all would mean nothing to me. All I’d want to know about is his or her talent with a scalpel and success rate.

We in the marketing world often give ourselves too much credit in some areas, and not nearly enough in others.

Let’s start where credit is due. Just as not everyone is well-suited to brain surgery, it’s not everyone that can succeed in marketing. It’s fascinating to see how highly accomplished professionals in other fields believe that anyone can do it. Some doctors, lawyers, financial executives, and the like may believe that their education and experience has endowed them with “hard skills,” specialized  knowledge that allows them to perform work that others cannot.  But marketing is all about “soft skills.” “I’m a laywer but I could do what you do. It’s just common sense, right? But you’ll never be able to draft a contract!”

This attitude is half right. Given the choice, I think we’d all rather have a brain-surgeon in charge of marketing than a marketer in the operating room. Much less messy and no one dies. But I’ve always believed that marketing is more nature than nurture. You get it or you don’t. And the “getting it part” is not about marketing science or any technical skill. It’s about a capacity for empathy, an understanding of history, a feel for the culture and an instinctual grasp of human nature.

Not everyone “gets it.” Most people don’t. But the great marketers do. We may not save lives or defend innocent people, but where would the economy be without us?

Of course, not all marketers are great or even good. Those that “don’t get it” rely more on process than substance, and technical knowledge more than intuition. Which brings me back to hiring practices.

I had worked with a brilliant, inspiring Insights Director for many years. She reached out to let me know she was interested in moving on from her current position, and as luck would have it, there was an appropriate position open with another client of mine. If this woman had any professional flaws, they were hard to spot. She was well-liked by everyone, knew marketing research inside and out, and added tremendous value with her marketing recommendations. If anyone “got it,” it was her.

My client with the open position, who would have been very lucky to have her, wouldn’t even give her an interview. “No packaged goods experience.”

I can’t think of anything more inane. The first six years of my career centered around the liquor business. It was important at the time to broaden my experience, so I landed a job working on a packaged goods account at a major ad agency. I later heard that it almost didn’t happen. It seems that HR and a few of the agency executives that I met wanted to reject me out of hand for lack of category experience. As it turned out, they were overruled by the head of account management who put her foot down and said, “He’s really smart! He’s a great guy! How long do you think it will take him to learn about TV advertising and packaged goods? An afternoon?”

It took me longer than an afternoon, but not too much longer. The world of packaged goods – as virtually any other category – can be learned fairly quickly. I think that every time I’ve worked on a new (to me) category, someone would say, “Well, Jeff, you just don’t understand how (fill in the business) works.” And then a week later, I did.

Marketing people, of all professions, should know better. For some, knowing their way around a category or a narrow field of expertise puffs them up with a false sense of security and entitlement. Perhaps they are threatened by the fact that an “outsider” might know as much as they do in a month, skewering the illusion of their specialness. While they should be seeking out the smartest people they can find, marketing experts adept at making connections with consumers and a track record of success, they limit themselves to those already in their little club. Rather than seeking a range of perspectives and new ideas, they stay in their comfort zones.

I’ve been on both sides of this in my business, winning projects due to a very specific technique in our proposal and losing for the very same reason. While it is true that companies, including mine, pride themselves on proprietary techniques, and that methodology and process are indeed important, I would still say that choosing “the best player” is the wisest choice.

Our methods are fantastic. We have a very high success rate. But they’re not the only way to go and by no means “the best.” There are lots of ways to get to success, but I believe this has more to do with the people behind the process than the process itself.

While it all seems to balance out, it’s always frustrating when we are chosen or rejected (more so when we are rejected, of course) for a nit-pick on process. Things like “we really like that you want to interview people in pairs” to “the other company wants to do in-depth interviews but you recommend groups.”

Who cares? If the other company is smarter, if you’re more comfortable with them, if they provide better value, just ask them if they’ll do groups or two instead of groups of three. And if you believe your project objectives are better suited to IDI’s than groups, just tell us. We can talk about it.

A good model for this is the great Pittsburgh Steeler teams of the 1970’s under Coach Chuck Noll.  He built the first team to win four Super Bowls by always seeking out the best player available. Not a linebacker, running back or defensive end, but the best player at any position.  His philosophy was “whatever it takes” to win, and he sought out players that were already imbued with that attitude. Moreover, when considering college players in the NFL draft, he looked for people who challenged themselves on and off the field, including the classroom.

His Wikipedia page describes Noll as…

“…a well-read man who valued education and expected likewise from his team, so he sought players who studied useful or practical subjects in college and had interests outside of football. “I didn’t want to pick guys who just took wood shop or some other easy course they could breeze through to play football.” he explained.

Sage advice. Pick the best player with the best attitudes. People with substance. With your guidance, they’ll figure out the process part quickly.


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