Ebiquity’s Chief Client Officer Andrew Challier says it’s time to remove the swim lanes that are holding advertisers back from truly integrated brand communications.

Swim lanes exist across businesses, for obvious – and understandable – structural and psychological reasons.

Structurally, functions and areas of responsibility need to be led and driven by individuals who are charged by their organization to make a meaningful difference to performance within a specific area of expertise. Budgets are typically and traditionally allocated against these functions. Marketing, advertising, digital, and PR all have fees and expenses associated with execution, and the individuals leading functional teams are required to spend their budgets optimally to deliver against objectives.

Psychologically, being responsible for a specific function means that those in charge are more likely to clearly demarcate and argue for this function, at the expense of – or indeed in competition with – other functions to which the budget could be reallocated. How else could they make the case for more budget next year?

This approach apparently made sense when the different functions were relatively separate and there were no obvious benefits of distinct and discrete – if ultimately complementary – functions working together. In an omnichannel world, a world in which a wide variety of different skills and disciplines make interactive contributions to the experience of the customer journey, silos are not only unhelpful – they are actively counterproductive. In an environment where, say, the marketing team is responsible for driving traffic to a company website and the e-commerce team is responsible for improving conversion rates, both teams need to work in lockstep, not competition. There is no bliss in ignorance of what colleagues are doing down the hall.

In an omnichannel world, a world in which a wide variety of different skills and disciplines make interactive contributions to the experience of the customer journey, silos are not only unhelpful – they are actively counterproductive.

Regrettably, in many businesses, complementary teams like these not only fail to work together – sometimes they either don’t know what the other is doing or, in extreme cases, that the other even exists. This can be the result of the radically different life cycles that diferent functions have – a year or less for marketing compared with two years or more for new product development.

Perhaps surprisingly, this even occurs in more modern, digital-first businesses less than ten years old, as well as considerably older organizations trying to adapt to the new realities of the digital economy. Too often we hear examples of retailers whose sales teams organize online promotions without finding out from buying teams first whether they have sufficient stock to meet the demand the promotion stimulates.

Why siloed organizations are bad for business

Swim lanes cause confusion within marketing and communications teams.

More importantly, they cause confusion for customers. A suboptimal customer journey with unnecessary friction, conflict, and contradiction along the way is quickly rejected by customers. One negative experience can outweigh 100 positive experiences, and negative experiences are much more likely to send users to social media in condemnation.

Under recent data laws, customers can ask brands to delete all data about them provided there are no legitimate reasons for retaining it. For siloed businesses that fail to remove all information from all systems – principally because individual customer records are splintered across the organization – there’s a risk of future contact if all traces of a customer are not deleted under a ‘right to be forgotten’ request. In Europe, businesses face fines of up to €20m for making this kind of mistake.

Swim lanes also make businesses function suboptimally. A disjointed business is much less effective than a joined-up business. They prevent knowledge share and shared learnings cascading through a business.

Working in silos means decisions are made in isolation. If you’re lucky, they’ll be complementary. If you’re unlucky, you’ll find potentially complementary functions working at cross purposes or in opposition to one another, like Dr Dolittle’s Pushmepullyou. And, worst of all, organizations that operate in clearly demarcated swim lanes actively lose money and alienate customers.

How to get this right

The utility of modern digital communications and the ease with which customers can interact with – and shape perceptions of – brands mean that marketing has evolved out of the hands of marketers and communicators and into the hands of those very customers. Accordingly, and to do its job with impact, contemporary marketing communications must work with a much wider collection of disciplines and functions within an organization than ever before.

Response 26 - key facts

Functions like marketing, sales, PR, digital, IT, social, insight, customer service, CRM, HR, internal comms, employee engagement … the list grows almost daily. And to achieve genuinely cross-functional working requires a fundamental shift in both attitudes and behaviors around ownership, hierarchy, and responsibility.

A disjointed business is much less effective than a joined-up business. Swim lanes prevent knowledge share and shared learnings cascading through a business.

Put another way, marketing is no longer uniquely – or even primarily – responsible for creating a positive experience on the path to purchase. There are other equally or more impactful touchpoints and contributory factors that marketing doesn’t control but needs to partner with in order to have meaningful impact. Again, this requires a change in working culture.

Teams need to talk, to meet, to be properly structured cross-functionally. To institute a change program with impact, you’ll need an executive sponsor to fight your corner, a program manager to create change, and a storyteller to vocalize that the pain everyone has to endure will be worth it in the end. All partners – and particularly the storyteller – will need to talk from senior to junior levels, inside and outside the organization, with department heads and agency leads. At Ebiquity we have the experience and the temperament to help companies deliver just this sort of transformational change program, to use the power of the different departments to tear down walls between them.

As Isaac Jaffey, the lead character in the Aaron Sorkin TV series Sportsnight, said: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people; if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” That’ll be your first experience of tearing down the barricades of silos. But quickly you’ll discover a new, cross-functional, integrated way of working that changes your business forever. Hold on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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