Wider business and commercial skills for marketers
Emily Morris explores what you need to know and what skills other departments in your firm can teach you.
This article first appeared in the PM Forum Magazine – Winter 2021 issue.
An excellent PM Forum panel session in London a couple of years ago ran an interesting exercise of asking the audience at the start of the session and then again at the end to rank certain skills. The conclusion of the debate was that ‘commerciality’ was the most important skill for a professional services marketer scoring over soft skills (mostly about influencing), data and analytics (still important although often much misused) and innovation (which without commerciality is arguably often adrift anyway).
For many marketers beavering away at their desks in the kitchen/sitting room/bedroom/garden shed over the last 18 months, investing in their broad business and commercial skills may not have been particularly easy. For all the improved access to online courses and a plethora of webinars and virtual talks, they don’t entirely make up for what in my book is the best source of wisdom – one’s colleagues.
As many start to head back to the office more often this autumn, the joy of seeing colleagues in person, in many cases for the first time for 18 months, isn’t all about checking out their new haircuts and catching up on gossip at the coffee machine. Being back in the office provides an opportunity to benefit more fully from the insights and skills our colleagues can offer us.
Why is commerciality important?
Understanding what makes your firm tick and how you can help it tick faster will improve the quality of your ideas and output.
Demonstrating that you understand what’s important and presenting your ideas and arguments in a proper commercial context will increase your internal credibility and ability to get buy-in.
This may be doubly important after 18 months staring at the same four walls because marketing and business development heavily rely on internal stakeholder buy-in to get things done. Remote working effectively has relied largely on relationship capital built pre-pandemic and most of us will have some work to do to build new and renew existing internal relationships and networks when we are back in work in person this autumn (fingers crossed).
What do we mean by commerciality?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines commercial awareness as “knowledge of how businesses make money, what customers want, and what problems there are in particular areas of business”.
It is amazing how many marketers don’t always have a good handle on the first one of those – how their firm makes its money.
When you get back to the office, it’s a good idea to make friends with the finance department if you aren’t already. They can help you understand what the key financial levers the business you work for needs to pull to make (more) money. They are also an excellent source of wisdom on how to get an excel spreadsheet to do what you want it to! So not only will you understand the key numbers, but your data analytics and data visualisation skills will improve too.
In the old days information about the bottom line in professional services firms could be quite hard to get at particularly as a junior member of staff. These days most firms are much more transparent but even if not all the actual numbers are available to you, you should be able to get a handle on the general shape of the firm’s business.
Knowing how to read a balance sheet is a really useful skill. Money comes in and money goes out. Having a rough idea of where it comes from and why, and where it goes is vital. Arguably you can’t be an effective marketer without knowing that – everything you should do should in some shape or form be aimed at making ‘the boat go faster’.
It’s worth learning the key business finance terminology and being able to use it with confidence. Words like balance sheet, assets and liabilities, cash flow, liquidity, gross profit, income and revenue, turnover, markup, margin, overheads, variable and fixed costs, ROI, amortisation and depreciation, profit and loss, year-end, market capitalisation and valuation should trip off the tongue.
What do clients want?
Much has been written in PM about the second part of the dictionary definition – the importance of client feedback and insight. I would doubt there are many if any readers who don’t understand that decisions made without considering the client’s point of view are often poor at best and disastrous at worst. Just ask the architects of the failed European Super League.
There is however a lot of debate in the business world generally at the moment about what the post Covid world of work will look like. Expectations and working practices have changed and will continue to change more rapidly as a result of the experiences of the last 18 months so avoiding making assumptions about what customers and clients will want, need and do is even more important than ever. For marketers who struggle to engage particularly senior fee earners in sharing insight on what their clients think, need and do, a time of great change generally opens up opportunities to instigate and engage in these discussions much more easily than when everything is business as usual. Digesting and being able to articulate an informed view on the changing landscape will also improve fee earners’ confidence in you as someone in touch with the commercial realities of the moment.
What problems are there in particular areas of business?
The third part of the definition seems a bit of a shame and cheekily I’d rewrite it to add the words ‘and opportunities’ because I was always taught to think in terms of solutions and opportunities not problems per se. Not always easy but if there was ever a time that we need to look on the bright side this is it.
Marketers need to be looking for the opportunities all the time while being cognisant of the problems, limitations and risks within their firm and the wider market. One doesn’t want to get weighed down by the problems but plans and ideas that aren’t rooted in reality won’t get buy in and if they do, won’t work.
Talking to IT, operations and HR and understanding their priorities and concerns will help you to understand what the numbers don’t immediately reveal. HR is also your partner towards your own lifelong learning and thus always to be courted.
IT and operations also have project and programme management skills that marketing can draw on which, as the scope of what marketing and BD do, as the complexity of production and channels to market increase, can be a life saver.
Your job after next probably doesn’t exist yet
Many of the statistics about what percentage of current job roles will still be there for the next generation are anecdotal at best and there are arguments on both sides as to whether technology has destroyed or created jobs in aggregate.
However a lot of people’s confidence about their ability to embrace change will have been challenged by the enormity of the pandemic’s tsunami effect on so many livelihoods and careers, and the aftershocks are not over yet.
But what’s undeniable is that it has forced change on many of us – the winds of change are a constant presence whether they be brutally unexpected storms or a constant breeze. The best defence is to continuously acquire new skills along the way and to keep one’s eyes open. Improving one’s business and commercial skills should always be the bedrock of that effort.