Tricky Questions: Marketing Your Business out of a Pickle | OLIVER

I’ve been lucky enough to work for two businesses that tanked.

I say lucky, because the lessons learned have shed light on how dangerous marketing can be if it’s done wrong.

I’ve also worked for two very successful businesses, and in relation to each other the lessons all point one rule: if it ain’t working, change it up.

Of course, getting your chance to implement change depends on your ability to keep the board’s faith in your approach.

So when the tricky questions start dropping, it’s worth having answers to hand…

Q1. Is this Your Fault?

The first failed business I worked at was the UK arm of zulily, the American ecommerce start-up.

The US business survives to this day (and was recently sold for $2.4bn[1]) – so how come the UK site was quietly buried in early 2015[2], never having turned over a profit?

It all boiled down to delivery times. The supply chain model meant that orders often took a month to arrive: a cultural norm in the states, but totally unacceptable in the UK.

So was marketing to blame?

Well yeah – to an extent.

CRM & content marketing could have helped the target audience understand this problem and further enamoured them to the brand. Instead, the company disregarded any hope of customer retention and stacked all its chips in favour of acquisition via paid social and PPC – and effectively died a death by Mumsnet.


Lesson learned: whatever led the business into dire straits, marketing can steer it to safety. Change tact and show meaningful results – and if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll have the heat off your back. 

Q2. Can We Really Afford Marketing Right Now?

When a business is in trouble, marketing budgets are prone to being cut.

This is a panic response, not a sensible business decision, as advertising is directly linked to sales[4].

So if you need to show value, try moving spend away from ATL and towards formats with traceable customer journeys, such as social and search advertising.

Smart brands get this, and so in the aftermath of Brexit, the UK saw an uplift in spending in Q3 2016. This led to the total forecast growth for 2017 spend being revised to +1.9% from an earlier estimate of -0.2%[5].

This change has been driven by digital, particularly online video[6] and display advertising which “can be a valuable canvas for brand budgets, and are infinitely more measurable.”

Lesson learned: marketing is an investment, not an expense[7]. Maybe you can’t afford TV ads at the moment, but if  you stop advertising entirely, that could prove to be the most expensive mistake of all.

Q3. Can We Get More for Less?

FMCG group Diageo, owner of Guinness, Smirnoff and other drinks brands, recently attributed a 1.8% sales lift in Q1-2 2015 to a 5% cut in spending against the same period in the previous year.[8]

But read beyond the headline.

Kathryn Mikells, Diageo CFO, said:

“We are driving efficiencies on point of sale material and have become more stringent and demanding when reviewing production cost and agency fees.”

This is a procurement success, making savings not between the brand and the consumer, but between the agency and the brand.

Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to work your agencies harder. We’ve blogged before about how agencies need to become more procurement-friendly, and if your current suppliers can’t meet your expectations, someone out there will.

Here’s an example of the monthly transparency reports which OLIVER creates for its clients – feel free to pillage. It shows agency delivery against costs, and would be a good starting point if you need to report back to the board on delivery against spend.


Q4. Are We Barking Up the Right Tree?

My second failed employer was Powa Techologies[9], a retail tech startup.

The flagship product was PowaTag, a payments app/direct-to-consumer engagement tool. It cost £240m to develop, and the ambition was to beat Apple and Samsung to the mobile payments revolution.

The strategy to achieve such lofty aims was to ban any marketing activity likely to generate less than a million downloads. No less than 20 verticals were “targeted” and huge sums were spent courting banks and major FMCG groups with a relatively unproven piece of tech.

But all the while, PowaTag had small, cooperative clients such as independent ecommerce brands. They could have been an invaluable source of learnings, case studies, and steady revenue – as could Powa’s two other products which, despite their successes, were never aggressively marketed.

Compare this with companies like Uber[10] and Airbnb[11], whose rise to fame grew out of small, closely-controlled marketing strategies.

Lesson learned: big ideas tend to mean big budgets, and could be what got your business in trouble in the first place.

Easier wins could save the day.

Difficult Questions

Every department in a business has the potential to sink the ship, but marketing is one of the easiest to blame.

It’s expensive, highly visible, and it remains sullied with an outdated reputation as a cost not directly connected to a business’s profits.

It’s vital that you educate people in your business by showing how marketing spend is inextricable from sales and business growth.

Start doing this today – and consider bringing in an agency which can back you up.

Even if your business isn’t a pickle now, every CMO has to face up to difficult questions eventually. You’ll find these all the easier to tackle if you’re well-versed in touting the measurability of your successes – and you’re more likely to win trust in your solutions when things go wrong.


Your business doesn’t need to be in a pickle to benefit from a more rigorous marketing approach.

OLIVER in-house agencies work directly alongside brand marketers. Reacting in real-time to changes in your business, they deliver better work, faster, and with total transparency.

Take control of your agency spend. Click here to get in touch.


About the blogger…


Paul Tomlinson joined OLIVER in April 2016 as Content Marketer Business Development, and brought with him a bank of knowledge on retail, payments, customer experience, and B2B marketing strategy.

He’s going to publish a novel one of these days, but is currently finding content marketing a fun way to pass the time.














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