I'm a baseball nut. I love the game, and can find a baseball metaphor to explain just about anything. But ever since Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball revealed how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was using statistical analysis to transform the management of the sport, baseball has become a particularly apt basis for comparison to marketing. For example, marketing departments have much to learn from baseball teams' different approaches to offense.
Baseball offenses are often defined by one of two approaches: there's the "swing for the fences approach" and then there's the "small ball" approach. "Swing for the fences" is characterized by many strikeouts, interspersed with the periodic home run. Teams that swing for the fences can occasionally crush opponents under a barrage of runs, but are prone to inconsistent streaks and slumps. By contrast, teams using "small ball" tactics try to string together singles, bunts, stolen bases and other high percentage plays in order to score runs. These teams are rarely spectacular. They grind out runs one at a time, and are often just good enough to lose in close games.
Likewise, marketing departments can be characterized as "swinging for the fences" or playing "small ball." Marketers playing small ball are grounded in process, rely on quantitative analysis and methodically pursue incremental improvements. Marketers who swing for the fences believe in the creative big idea, rely on qualitative research and constantly search for the next breakthrough execution. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses.
Swinging for the fences can occasionally produce the stunning "change the game" success story, but it can also deliver an equal percentage of stunning disasters. When it works, success usually comes from one or two marketing "rock stars" who parlay their success into new opportunities - then move on. When it doesn't work, management rewards the spectacular failure with a thorough house cleaning.
Small ball can be most effective with patient organizations in stable businesses. Particularly in mature categories like consumer packaged goods, where young marketers quickly rotate through assignments, reliance on process and incremental improvement allows the business to function smoothly. But the downside is, it's hard for marketers to make dramatic changes in these organizations. As a result, "small ball" organizations often stagnate, struggle to innovate and react slowly to sudden changes in fortune.
Of course, the best baseball teams are able to play small ball, and still hit home runs. Likewise, the best marketers are able to lay a consistent foundation of process and incremental improvement, and then leap ahead through consumer-insight grounded creativity and calculated risks.
These organizations operate by several key principles. First, they know that marketing is more science than art; they believe that a majority of marketing decisions can be made by codified process, standard criteria and objective facts. Second, they realize that measurement and metrics guide investment and execution.
They also believe that success starts with the consumer. Without grounding in the consumer, creative ideas lack substance and metrics are just numbers that offer little useful direction for improvement.
Equally important, these organizations realize that knowledge and experience must be retained by the organization. No organization wants knowledge to walk out the door with departing employees.
Finally, they believe calculated risk-taking is rewarded, regardless of outcome. Rarely is there innovation without risk. Some marketers stagnate when their tolerance for risk is low, or the perceived penalty for failure is too high. Others lose management confidence when they invest their energy selling big-idea investments, with little understanding of risk to the business. But the most successful take the time to thoroughly understand and quantify risk and drive informed consensus-based decisions so innovative ideas can be rewarded, even when they do not pan out.
Yes, these principles seem as inarguable as baseball, motherhood and apple pie. Yet few marketers have mastered the combination of both "swing for the fences" and "small ball" tactics. How is your team doing?
John Nardone is chief client officer for Marketing Management Analytics.