Death by marketing committee… is anything worse?

I was in a meeting recently – you know the sort. Those excruciating time-wasters where you think of what else you could have done with your life if only you didn’t have to attend meetings. In a moment of insanity I even tried to calculate how many meetings I had attended in my career and gave up north of 18,000.

Day-dreaming, I recalled a few meetings I’d suffered: one in which the account manager head-butted a client; another where I had to punch a creative director in the arm to shut him up (at the client’s request); or when the clients all brought their lunch but the agency staff weren’t allowed to leave the meeting to get anything to eat.

One of the worst ever was sitting with the politicians and bureaucrats trying to get copy approved for the introduction of the GST – never before have I sat in a room with so many stupid people full of self-interest.

John Cleese's "Meetings Bloody Meetings"
John Cleese’s “Meetings Bloody Meetings”

One meeting in particular got me thinking about today’s role of marketers in large organisations. It was a tad depressing really, having been a marketing manager of large and some not-so-large companies.

It struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time a decision about creative work was made as soon as it was presented in a meeting. Usually, when you present creative work to the person who owns the business, or a company that is not a “blue chip” advertiser, you’ll get a decision on the spot. Either the copy hits the mark or it doesn’t. Maybe some revisions are agreed and the job progresses.

But in larger organisations with well-stocked marketing departments, decisions are normally the last thing made when creative work is presented. Everything we do is governed by the collective commentary of committees.

I was pondering this recently after presenting the copy for a mailing going to current customers. It wasn’t a difficult challenge. It was an insurance renewal campaign – so the list was hot and we had a reasonable offer.

The mailing was a simple O/E with a personalised letter/brochure — essentially “you’re due for renewal, so here’s an offer for you to continue doing business with us”. Rocket science was not required, just some persuasive writing.

Four marketing executives attended the presentation, though the person who briefed us couldn’t make it. And these were no ordinary marketing executives — there was a brand director, a direct marketing manager, a campaign manager and a product manager — all well-paid intelligent people. Nice too. The humble mailing was in esteemed company.

The copy was presented and they (the collective of marketing executives) all liked it. What is the collective noun for a group of marketers anyway — a marketing mix?

Given the positive response, we asked if the copy was good to go, or if there were any revisions?

To our surprise, nobody in the room was allowed to make a decision. Despite their job titles and salaries, the copy firstly had to go before the lawyers — fair enough in today’s litigious world. But after the lawyers, it still had to traverse a special sitting of the senior marketing committee.

Apparently these committee members don’t attend agency meetings. They stand aloof in another land, waiting to judge what their marketing minions bring them. I wonder if their shareholders are aware of this behaviour, not to mention the gross waste of money and resources?

a marketing mix
a marketing mix

But the question has to be asked — why can’t a marketing manager be allowed to make a decision about a piece of copy? What are marketers being paid to do, if not to make marketing decisions? Why does it take at least six people with the words “marketing” or “brand” in their job title, to give their collective stamp of approval to a piece of paper with words on both sides, that’s going in an envelope to their customers?

Who let this happen? Who are these corporate constables neutering our marketers? Why do they hire dogs but bark themselves?

We’re not splitting the atom. We’re writing to our customers and asking them to continue to do business with us. Why can’t a university-educated well-paid marketing manager be allowed to say “yes that’s fine”, or “no that’s not right, we need to make these changes”?

Maybe we marketers have become so numb in our daily routines, we no longer recognise what we’ve been trained to do? Do we no longer question why we do what we do, or don’t do, as the case may be? That’s a lot of doo-doo by the way.

A real lot of doo doo!
A real lot of doo doo!

Marketers must make a stand. Don’t accept as fait accompli that committees rule. What’s at risk here…really? Have we been conditioned to accept committees so no individual gets blame or kudos?

Here’s the risk, as corporations look to cut costs — if very senior management executives believe they just need committees to make decisions about marketing messages, then what’s the future for marketing managers? Will they use briefing clerks to brief suppliers and forward the responses to the lawyers and a marketing committee for approval?

Another reason to address this problem lies with our universities. They don’t teach us to be committee members. We’re taught that a marketing manager makes decisions on products, pricing, promotion, placement, etc. So if marketers aren’t allowed to make decisions in the real world, we need to change our curriculum, so our young marketers are educated for the reality of marketing by committee.

If you search your parks and plazas you’ll not find monuments erected to committees. Monuments are erected for individuals. Those who achieved – often despite great odds… and pigeons.

pigeon shit

But I have to go now. I need to make eight copies for the presentation tomorrow — apparently there’s a big mix attending.


  1. Had to laugh – brought back lots of ‘committee’ memories! Seriously though, how do we teach marketing undergraduates that they won’t get to make decisions in real life as big as they make on assignment campaigns?

  2. Hi Malcolm, great article, it brought it all back to me in a blinding flashback! That GST work was something to remember. It certainly is a different process these days. All the best Glenn

  3. Great article, Malcolm – depressingly, this all rings true. I find that the problem is exacerbated by an unclear delineation of decision-making responsibility within these committees, so that you end up with the ridiculous situation of people from procurement, for example, having a say about copy or the colour of a logo! Surely matching expertise to responsibility is one obvious way to avoid ending up with a committee ‘camel’?

    • Thanks Ryan

      I don’t know why any intelligent executive would work for a company that buys marketing services via procurement departments. I once had a digi-manager complain that the banner ad concepts we showed her weren’t animated – I didn’t know what to say (politely anyway). Maybe all meetings should be limited to one executive from the marketing department and one from the agency and the meeting is not allowed to finish until a decision is made!

  4. Worse is when campaigns are dictated to the department, against all recommendations, then months later they ask why leads are down!

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