Think marketing is all about your customers? According to Tim Parkin, marketing advisor to a portfolio of multimillion-dollar brands, you're thinking about it all wrong. Instead, you need to be looking inwards and focusing on marketing internally to get everyone engaged, motivated, and on brand.

Ready to fly in the face of everything you've been told about marketing? Then read on, because Tim's ideas aren't as crazy as you might think.

Originally an episode of CMO Convo, but now you can read at your leisure.

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Prefer to listen? Check out Tim's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Tim’s background in marketing inside out

Hi Tim, thank you for joining us. We’re going to be talking about the importance of marketing internally and the ability to align the rest of the organization using marketing. We often think of marketing as being very external, but it's important internally as well. Whether you're in B2B or B2C, you need to be making sure your organization's aligned.

But before we get down to talking about that, maybe you can tell us a bit about yourself and why we're talking to you on this subject today?

Absolutely. I'm an advisor to marketing executives around the world, including at some billion-dollar brands you’ve probably heard of. I help them and their teams increase their revenue and their marketing results. I've seen a lot internally – good and bad – so we have a lot to talk about here.

I'm fortunate enough to work with huge companies with massive marketing teams. When I first started out, I thought, “They know what to do. They have all the processes, and they're experienced and skilled at doing marketing.” Their problem, I thought, was that they just couldn't reach the customers or understand what they really wanted. Once I got inside these companies, I realized pretty quickly that it's not about the customers at all.

We have to ignore the customer. Forget about the customer because the real problem here is the internal fundamentals – the skills, the collaboration, the strategy. Internally, it’s a mess! And the bigger you are, the more of these problems reveal themselves, and the more intricate and tangled in politics and hierarchy they become.

Whether you're a startup or an enterprise-level company, the team and how they operate is so important. And that's why I talk about “marketing inside out” – we need to focus on the inside first. If we can nail that, that's how we can best serve the customer and have the best result.

What kinds of processes can be refined through inside-out marketing?

There are so many, including some fundamentals like project management. Most marketers are more creative, and they don't have that kind of project management skill set.

We also often need to refine how we do marketing. Marketing, even inside of its own department, is pretty siloed. You have the paid channels over here, SEO over there, and PR over there. They don't work cohesively, so the strategic collaboration aspect needs work.

Another thing I've found is that people think they know what’ll work. They see what our competitors do, and they think that if they copy that they’ll succeed, or they think they know the customer better than other people. The reality is that nobody knows what will work. I don't know what will work, despite being an advisor. You don't know what will work. Your agency doesn't know what will work. Your customers don't know what will work.

That's what led me to realize that testing is fundamental to marketing and that we have to develop those skills internally. I call it test-driven marketing. We have to test our way to success because no one knows what will work.

Internally, there's often this assumption that we've done the research, we have the experience, and we've been doing this as a company long enough. We have to throw that notion out because if there's one thing marketing does, it's change.

Internal marketing in hybrid teams

Definitely. Our entire marketing ecosystem has changed in the last couple of years. The way people live their lives has changed. The way we consume media has changed. The way people work has changed.

That also ties into the importance of inside-out marketing – if everyone's working remotely or in hybrid teams, you could have teams split across continents, so it's got to be hard to align people. Having a more formalized process for internal marketing must be important in the world we're living in at the moment.

Absolutely. It's so spot on that most companies are not used to the idea of working remotely, and they still don't accept the idea. I’ll often hear clients say, “No, we're not going to have remote employees – we're going back to the office.” That's a crazy idea. I've been working independently from home for 15 years now, but there are still big companies that don't accept that notion.

On the flip side, some of my clients will have headquarters in one country and offices in other countries. That's a big challenge because there's communication happening in that home base that's hard to share outside. After all, you're not walking down the halls and having that conversation. You can easily forget to formalize that communication to share it out.

There are a lot of intricacies to how we operate and collaborate as marketers, and that's where most of the waste in marketing is. We talk about wasted spend on ads that don't convert – that's half of it. The other half of marketing waste is inside – it's in your team. It's how your team is not operating efficiently and effectively together. That's a massive, massive waste. Fortunately, that’s something you have control over.

We've talked a lot with previous guests about the importance of having independence in remote or hybrid settings. Still, being disconnected can make you less willing to experiment and be adventurous with your ideas because you don't have a support network backing you up.

You can't just go to your boss and say, “Let's try this out.” You have to go through quite a few formal steps before you can have a face-to-face meeting to get the go-ahead.

Inside-out marketing and test-driven marketing have got to be quite intrinsically linked to an atmosphere where people are willing to take risks, and that's essential for marketing.

100%. When I first started out, I thought culture was just a buzzword, or that culture is just what happens if people are nice to each other and you enjoy hanging out with them. I’ve since learned that the opposite could not be more true. You can create a culture, and the culture you create, whether you do it intentionally or accidentally, is a real thing that impacts the whole team, your performance, and your results.

We need to create a culture where we reward testing because the reality of testing is that it's not about getting it right; it's about learning something. Testing is not about the results and the outcome; it's about the insights that you get. If we can create a culture where people are willing to try things and fail, that's a net positive.

Marketing is about figuring things out. It's about learning what works and what doesn't, how people respond, and how they won't. That's a capability that most marketing teams lack. They lack the ability to generate powerful and useful insights.

It's a huge problem, and it costs companies millions and millions of dollars a year. They're “doing marketing,” but it's not effective because they have no insights, and they've never looked internally to develop those capabilities and ask, “What are we really doing, and how do we do it better?” We need to pause and reflect before we keep running faster and faster, with no reason or direction.

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Empowering marketing teams to think outside the box

There's the old piece of wisdom that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. But you can't do that in the working world easily. It's a hard thing to get people behind because it can cost money to make these mistakes. Even if having this knowledge pays off in the long run, you still have to get the buy-in initially, and then you might lose trust if it's a failure.

That’s another part of marketing internally – marketing the need to take these chances. CMOs have to work with the rest of the C-suite, particularly the CFO, to get buy-in on projects. You've got to market to them why you need to run these experiments and take these chances.

Yeah, and this is the reason the CMO tenure is so short – because marketing is seen as an add-on to a company. There’s a tendency to think, “We're a company; we sell something; we have a sales team – let's add on marketing and hope that it helps us and support sales.” That's a terrible approach.

Marketing is not something you do; marketing is who you are as a company. Look at Apple – they embody marketing. Everything they do is marketing. They're not selling products – you buy their products because their marketing is so good. That's what we need to learn. We look at Apple and think they're cool and hip, and they are, but we forget the brilliance of their marketing. Steve Jobs laid the foundation for the whole company, but they're brilliant marketers.

When companies tack on a marketing function and then hire a CMO and say, “You better figure it out,” that's not sufficient. Marketing being seen as the core of the company needs to start at the top. In companies that are driven by marketing, it's apparent. You can see it clearly because they're so successful as a result.

I’m gonna tell you one of my favorite marketing stories. My mom had a dog – his name was Buddy – who was very old and had been through surgeries. She’d ordered some special dog food for him from this well-known pet company called Chewy. Right after she got the food, Buddy, unfortunately, passed away. And so she wrote to Chewy and said, “I got this dog food I can't use. Will you take it back and give me a refund?”

They immediately refunded her, and they said, “We don't want the food back. Donate it to a shelter – they need it more than we do.” Amazing, right? But then a couple of days later, she gets a knock on the door, and 1-800-Flowers had come and dropped off a bouquet from Chewy, with a note that said, “Hi, Marge. We're sorry to hear about Buddy. Hope you're doing okay.”

She's told everyone. I've told everyone. You can’t beat that kind of marketing. And what’s wonderful is Chewy does this with every type of situation you can imagine.

That's how companies and CMOs need to think, but that type of marketing is only possible if you can sell it internally because what's the ROI of that? It's infinite, but it's also immeasurable.

What we have to realize is that there's a case to be made internally that marketing is about treating people the way we want to be treated as a customer. If we can believe that, and if we can accept that culturally, then we'll have huge success.

There's too much focus on marketing delivering an ROI, but we have to accept that you can't always calculate that. Internally, there's a huge sales conversation to have about what marketing truly is and how we want to embrace it. Leadership is key here. You have to demonstrate how this is possible, and you have to help your team be creative with this as well.

Another great example is TripAdvisor. The CEO created what he called “404 tests.” They would come up with an idea for a product or a page for the website, and they would put a link on their website to that page or that feature, but they wouldn't build it. So people come to the site and click the link, and it says, “404 not found.” They’d realized that when people saw that error message, they thought it was their internet or their computer; they didn't blame TripAdvisor.

But TripAdvisor could see how many people clicked this link, and if enough people clicked it, they would say, “Aha! This is a good idea. Let's go and build the thing now.” And it cost them nothing.

You can get creative like that as long as you can get the buy-in internally. You need your leadership to say they’re okay with this temporary discomfort to get a better result, save money, and learn something. There are a lot of ways we can experiment with things, but we also need to change the culture and the perspective of what marketing is in order to be successful.

It’s about equipping the team to be creative and to try things that are unconventional or against best practices, or that simply might not work. If we just operate like robots – “You go do the SEO, and you run the ads, and let's just hope everything works” – that's not sufficient. We're focusing on the customer, sure, but we can't serve the customer well until we're serving ourselves correctly.

On the plane, they say if the oxygen masks pop down, put yours on first before you help somebody else. The reason for that is, if you don't, you'll pass out, and then you can't help anybody else.

This is how marketing teams need to think – we need to help ourselves, build our skills, and get our ducks in a row before we can serve the customer. We're too focused on serving the customer first and putting ourselves last, and that's hindering our ability to truly serve our customers, make a difference, and fight the competition that's out there.

Companies like Chewy, who are building internal capabilities and then putting the customer at the center, are doing an exceptional job, but if you try to do the opposite, you're going to struggle.

Employee retention is important in that as well. If your employees are happy and empowered, they're going to stick around, and they're going to keep doing good work. If they're not able to put their skills to good use, they're gonna get bored, they're gonna be unhappy with their work, and they’re gonna take their skills elsewhere.

By building a positive culture and supporting your team through internal marketing, you're going to get better work out of them, would you agree?

That's a brilliant point. It's funny that you mentioned that because I do a lot of assessments of marketing teams to figure out their problems and how can they improve. As part of that, I interview many people on the team. Because I'm an outsider, they implicitly trust me and they tell me a lot of things they wouldn't tell their boss or colleagues.

Just this morning, I was talking to a member of a marketing team at a global company, and they were expressing to me exactly that – their frustration that they see the needs internally, they have the vision, and they've expressed several opportunities for improvement, but nobody’s listening because they’re a newbie. That person might be a flight risk.

There are so many disadvantages when people’s talent is not fully utilized. We need to embrace our team’s skills. They’re smart people – that's why we hired them, right? We have to get out of the way and help them work together effectively because there's a lot of frustration among marketing teams in particular about the inefficiencies of how we work, what they can say and can't say, and how they can collaborate.

This is why we need marketing inside out more than ever. It's so important, especially right now with the great resignation, with people leaving and competitors poaching your employees. It's expensive to get new people, and then there's a whole timeframe to onboard someone new, get them acclimated to the team, to just have the same issues. So we need to, again, pause, look internally, and fix these issues.

How to build a culture of experimentation

We've talked a lot about why it's a big advantage to market internally and encourage this culture of experimentation. What are some practical steps that CMOs and marketing leaders can take to create this kind of atmosphere?

There are two really practical steps you can take immediately today that I'd recommend. The first is to just be real with your team. I see this all the time with marketing teams – everyone knows when there are problems or when there are opportunities to improve. And there's room to improve in every marketing team, no matter how big you are, or how well you're doing.

So the first step is to have a conversation with your team. Have a town hall meeting and say, “Here's the situation. We're sure there are issues, and we want to know what they are.” And you can have people submit those anonymously or however you want to do it.

Let your team know that the company wants to improve, you want to constantly be doing better, and you’re gonna take that seriously, so you need those ideas for improvement. But more importantly, make this a regular thing.

I recommend my clients do this every month, or at least every quarter. Have a day, even if it's two hours on that day, where you get together or you work individually to find ways to improve your processes, your process documentation, your collaboration, and your communication. Those internal fundamentals will help you tremendously, but we never take the time to work on them. That's the first thing.

The second thing is what I call the book of knowledge. It's basically an internal wiki, a document, that houses everything about your marketing team. It starts with the basics of who's on the team and what they do. If you have a responsibility matrix, that can be helpful too.

Then you list all of your processes, so a new person could go in there and reference that. You put all your onboarding documents and links in there too, as well as your vendors, your tracking and targeting lists, and links to reports and dashboards. I could go on and on, but you get the picture – anything and everything related to how you do marketing goes into this book of knowledge.

Most importantly, you want to include your reports, updates, changes, and campaign performance. You want to be able to see what's worked, what hasn't worked, what we can do differently going forward, and how we can improve our operations and optimization – the two areas that really matter – to get better results from the marketing we're doing.

That book of knowledge grows and grows over time to become a truly valuable resource that people can reference and see what’s already been tried and what hasn’t been tried yet. And have an idea log to show what we need to do in the future. It becomes an invaluable resource, as your team keeps adding to it and maintaining it.

As a marketing team, there are so many demands on us that we forget the great ideas that we have. We’ll figure out a change we need to make and then get distracted by something else. Having that documented is so important and so valuable.

As the team comes up with insights, they can add them to this book of knowledge, then the rest of the team can apply those insights and scale them throughout all of your marketing, so whatever little thing you learn can be amplified and multiplied. It makes everything so much better.

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Proving the value of internal marketing

Marketing inside out has the word “marketing’ in it and that means it's gotta be measured – you've got to have some KPIs. So how do we measure internal marketing?

That's a great question and a fair question too. I'm a huge fan of the OKR framework – objectives and key results – that's used by Google and IBM. OKRs are just so simple and so effective.

Essentially, for those who don't know, OKRs are objectives and key results. The objective is your direction or where you want to be. The key results are the measurable components of that. If we achieve those key results, we'll know we're headed toward our objective.

One of the benefits of OKRs is that they’re hierarchical, so you can have marketing organization OKRs, those can be broken down into individual functions on the marketing team, and then those can be broken down into the individual roles within that function. That way, you have full accountability from the top to the bottom of the team.

That's, to me, one of the simplest, most effective ways to monitor, measure, and manage the performance improvement of the team. A lot of those OKRs will be centered around the things we talked about, like communication, collaboration, project management, and things of the like.

One of the great things about the OKR model, which ties into what we're talking about today, is the transparency. Everyone in the company knows about these OKRs, and they know who's working towards what and why.

That ties into internal marketing because it’s part of building a working culture. It's quite hard for people to feel like they're aligned and working towards the same goal when they're in remote or hybrid situations, so having the kind of Northstar that OKRs provide can be very valuable for any kind of organization.

That's true. There's this acronym I have, and it's kind of cheesy, but I'll tell you anyways: TEAM. It stands for transparency, expectations, accountability, and metrics. Those are four of the things that every team needs.

Transparency is paramount. We have to see what each other is doing. Also, we have to make that visible outside of marketing so other functions know how we’re contributing. OKRs help bring that transparency and that visibility.

The second part is expectations. When we collaborate internally, we have to be clear about our expectations. It's not just “Hey, go and do this.” We need to be clear about how it should be done and why we're doing it. Too often – especially in marketing because it’s more creative – there's a lack of expectations. It's just, “We're going to do this thing – who knows how or why – but let's just try it and hope something comes of it.”

The third part is accountability. Again, being creative, in my experience, a lot of marketers need more accountability. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to instill that.

And the fourth part is metrics – high-level OKRs to manage people and processes. Functionally, however, there's often a lack of understanding of what numbers we should be looking at, what they mean, and how often we are looking at them.

Getting C-suite buy-in for marketing inside out

Lots of CMOs and marketing leaders will be thinking, “This all sounds great. I want to do this, but how am I going to get buy-in from the top? How am I going to convince them to invest time and resources into it?” How would you recommend they go about it?

In my experience, it's a lot easier than you may think. Everyone realizes the amount of waste and struggle that can happen in marketing teams, even in large companies. On top of that, marketing teams are traditionally underfunded.

It's a question of how you can do the most with the least, and that's a tough place to be in. You can't get more money to spend more money, and so it comes down to the people and resources you have, and you have to maximize those.

Marketing inside out is the most effective way to do that. All you can do is improve how you operate and the efficiency with which you operate. Both components are so important – improving your team, your collaboration, and your processes, and improving how you do what you do.

The other element is test-driven marketing. If you can test and validate things like TripAdvisor has, you can expedite the process. You can get the insights that you need to do great marketing and have the biggest result with the least effort and the least investment.

Thinking about it conceptually like that is often enough of a case for CEOs or whoever you’re trying to get buy-in from. They probably already realize it if the team doesn't have the right skills or is being stretched too thin and we need to make the most of it. And so the question becomes, what's the best way to do that, that's not going to cost us a lot and will have an annualized return?

The last part is the most important – if you improve your team, you can improve all of your marketing now and in the future. There's this infamous, perhaps made-up conversation between a CEO and a CFO, where the CEO says, “What if we invest in our people and they leave? And the CMO says, “What if we don't and they stay?”

That's the reality of marketing inside out – we have to invest in our people and we have to invest in our process. If we don't, every day that goes by, every dollar that we spend on marketing has more and more waste.

If you're not willing to invest in your people, then how are you willing to invest in your customers? It's a paradox that we're willing to put money into getting customers, but we neglect the people who are doing the work. The team has to come first and then the customer. That's the only way to approach this. If you ignore your team and hope you can reach customers and sell things, you're mistaken.

The golden rule of marketing inside out

We normally ask our guests to wrap things up with a golden rule, but you've hit the nail on the head there – if you're not investing in your team, you're not properly investing in your company, and you're not investing in your customer. Are there any other golden rules CMOs need to have in mind when it comes to marketing inside out?

Absolutely. Forget about your customers. There's too much focus on customers and not enough focus on teams. Marketing, despite being creative in nature, is more of a process than most people realize, and that is more true today than ever before. There's too much noise out there. We have to approach this methodically, and to do that we have to put our oxygen masks on first before we can go and help our customers.

That's not selfish. It’s how we can better serve our customers. It's how we can reach more customers so we can be more profitable and have the best results, so it's really important that we stop, pause, reflect, and look inside before we look outside.

That’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us today, Tim.

Got thoughts on taking a "marketing inside out" approach? Maybe you're looking for advice on how to market internally. Head to the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel and join the conversation with a global network of CMOs and marketing leaders.