Thriving in Chaos: Leading Marketing in 2023’s Turbulent Terrain – An Evening with Thomas Barta


Inflation, talent crisis, and ChatGPT—what matters right now? How can marketers tackle the challenges this year presents?

In celebration of Strivin now being open to the marketing community, we kicked things off by spending the evening with the one and only Thomas Barta. As the world’s premier expert, author and speaker on all things marketing leadership, Thomas shared his top tips and insights on how marketers can thrive amidst adversity.

The world’s gone a little crazy

Inflation, talent crisis, even the Kardashians are back! 

As Thomas says, “it’s a special time in marketing”. How do we continue to be effective in our roles in this turbulent period? Things have never been smooth sailing, there’s always been issues, but it seems this year they’re worse than ever.

One of the main issues facing companies everywhere right now, as Thomas highlights, is the home office debate. After COVID came through and showed us all the perks of being able to get that load of washing done and the kitchen cleaned while also tackling today’s five meetings, many of us were reluctant to return to the office. 

As we know, company culture and workplace dynamics are suffering as a result, but as marketers, Thomas believes there are other issues we should be focusing on.

Marketers are change leaders

To Thomas, “a marketer is everybody in the business of change … if you have an idea or a product or a project that you’re pushing, I believe you’re a marketer. Marketers are change leaders and you can’t drive change by email”.

Look at KFC’s launch of their vegan chicken. After spending countless hours going out and meeting with all different stakeholders, they turned the idea from one everyone was against into something people couldn’t get enough of – but it wasn’t done via email. It was done by getting out there and meeting people face-to-face.

That’s why Thomas believes “the whole question of office or home office is completely the wrong type of debate. If you’re a change leader, the question is not where do I want to be? The question is, where do you ought to be to make change happen? If your stakeholders are all sitting at home, great, make Zoom calls. If your stakeholders are sitting or standing on a shop floor, that is where you need to be.”

Flexing your skills 

Like we said, the world is crazy right now. Inflation is running rampant and that’s causing a shift in priorities in the boardroom. Where once sustainability was the number one concern, now we’re seeing the focus shift to costs. These conversations can quickly turn into questions around cuts.

At the core of marketing, our job “is to find customers”. “As a marketer, what you get paid for is the hard emotional labor of finding customers on time, on budget, again and again and again – and what that means keeps changing”.

Where once it meant “hours and hours of painful meetings and discussions and difficult memos and aggressive debates” in order to get a TV ad up and running, now the focus is on digital and social media. While Thomas believes “digital media is extremely powerful … it’s also lazy”. 

“Being a good marketer right now is hard because being a mediocre marketer is so easy.” Thomas tells us that “if you want to thrive when things are changing … you need to be able to flex your skills”.

How? Thomas tells us to ask ourselves “what would you really like to try one day? Then go out and ask your company to do that. If they won’t let you, go somewhere that does”.

Keep it simple

With budget cuts becoming so commonplace, most of us have probably been on the receiving end of one recently. As Thomas explains, if you have had to deal with dwindling budgets recently, it’s likely because your leaders are seeing marketing as a cost that isn’t delivering revenue – “and what do you do with cost? Minimise”.

Why is marketing usually targeted? Because people don’t understand.

As Thomas highlights, “every marketing activity you do typically creates a short term effect”. For example, you run a TV ad, you spend that money, maybe you get some traction from that ad and then it’s gone. What can be hard for those outside of marketing to understand is what Thomas terms “the time gap”. 

That TV ad might no longer be airing, but while it was, it created a memory in people’s minds, “and because of that memory, maybe next year, next month, in two years, in five years, that customer may come back”.

This time gap is hard to explain and measure – it’s hard to pinpoint whether there will be a reaction, when the reaction will be or how big it will be.

So how do you have an effective conversation? Keep it “bloody simple”. “Nobody is interested in understanding an extremely complex and lengthy chain of arguments,” Thomas explains. People want simplicity … it’s not very sophisticated, it’s not exceptionally scientific, it’s just common sense, and people absolutely love that”.

Unlocking the future

If you want to really flex those marketing skills and keep you and your company thriving when times are tough, you need to be able to, as Thomas says, “unlock the future”

How? Thomas’ tips for this came via Guinness’ comeback story. After two waves of COVID and closed pubs, it looked like the beginning of the end for the Guinness brand. Former Global Head, Mark Sandys, stopped this by making some bold moves – you can do the same.

Number one – establish a value creation zone plan. When times get tough, you need to create a plan that considers all stakeholders. In Guinness’s’ case this was customers and pubs. To ensure their viability, they chose to buy back beer from the pubs to keep them afloat and decided, once pubs reopened, to send out teams to clean the taps to ensure the product was fresh.

Number two – be brave. Guinness’ plan wasn’t an easy one, in time or money. While on paper it seemed perfect, there was no telling whether the risk would pay off – they simply had to be brave and do it!

Number three – find allies. Mark “brought sales people in who told the story. He brought pub owners in who told the story. He had lots of people come in and say, you know what, that is the right thing to do”. Find people who will support and advocate for your plan.

What did we learn….

If Thomas’ talk taught us anything it’s that, yeah, things are a little tricky right now for those of us sitting in marketing. That just means it’s time to get a little braver, a little bolder and a little more creative with our strategies. 

If you don’t miss out on our next exciting event or even become a part of the Strivin family, click here to get involved.

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