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Pete Winter

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Pete Winter

May 11, 2021

How to become a bureaucracy buster in a data-driven marketing world


Why it’s time to add speed to your marketing team with data-driven processes.

When people talk about bureaucracy they are typically using the word in a negative sense. Bureaucracy is often used to describe a series of rigid processes and formalities that cause delay. But in a digital world where speed is recognized as a competitive advantage for marketers, why is bureaucracy still an issue? And what impact does it have on marketing activities today?

The definition of bureaucracy

Max Weber, a German scientist, defined bureaucracy as a highly structured, formalized, and impersonal organization. He also stated that an organization must have a defined hierarchical structure and clear rules, regulations, and lines of authority which govern it.

For the sake of brevity we can summarize Weber’s main points as follows:

  1. Bureaucratic administration is undertaken by professionals and specialists, those who are (or have the potential to become) technical experts.
  2. The bureau is managed according to a codified and exhaustive set of procedures or rules, as well as through a managerial hierarchy.
  3. The bureau tightly controls information, knowledge and communication.

That’s the academic theory. Chances are we’ve seen how that bureaucratic theory can be put into practice in a way that negatively impacts marketing. For example:

  • Waiting for senior decision makers to approve marketing strategies.
  • Watching a chance to engage on a popular trend drift by because senior executives are too busy to dedicate adequate time.
  • Being unable to optimize channel allocation, go-to-market tactics or budget because you’re only told half the story.
  • Having to check boxes and ensure rigorous processes are followed when submitting a proposal.
  • Wasting time and energy coming up with new marketing ideas that will never be actioned.

Faced with stifling bureaucracy, most marketers will stop suggesting innovative proposals. As Albert Einstein once said: “Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.”

Bureaucracy in a data-driven marketing world

How does Weber’s thinking resonate in a modern digital society where we’re surrounded by information available on demand? It’s worth noting that digital transformation is only part of a bureaucracy busting solution for marketers. Data is not a silver bullet in and of itself. How an organization operationalizes data is key to success.

Many businesses—and marketing teams—claim to be data-driven (or are at least on a journey to become data-driven.) While data does indeed influence decision making, this doesn’t necessarily reduce bureaucracy.

For example, a team of data engineers or technical experts may be needed to set up event tagging to allow marketing to collect data and monitor customer engagement and behavior. Once that data is generated, another team of data scientists is required to clean and structure the information before it can be analyzed.

In other words, Weber’s definition of bureaucracy still stands true. A small group of experts controls access to, and dissemination of, vital information. Marketing—and indeed the wider business—is still held hostage to the speed with which they work.

The need for data democratization

Modern martech democratizes data by removing the need for IT experts. For example, customer journey analytics platforms can automatically capture key customer activity out of the box, and present that information in a structured and formatted way that makes it easy for marketers to analyze.

This delivers two huge benefits: speed and confidence. Speed is a vital ingredient to keep the business moving at pace and remaining ahead of the competition. Research shows that fast organizations outperform their slower peers by up to 480% across key metrics such as innovation and growth.

Speed is especially important as marketers still grapple with changing customer behaviors as a result of the global pandemic. Adobe reports that 63% of B2C organizations saw an unusual growth in digital customers following COVID-19 restrictions. Understanding who those customers are and what’s important to them will enable them to better serve their needs—and this has to happen quickly so that disgruntled customers don’t take their business elsewhere.

As McKinsey says: “An organization designed for speed will see powerful outcomes, including greater customer responsiveness, enhanced capabilities, and better performance, in terms of cost efficiency, revenues, and return on capital. The speedy company might also find it has a higher sense of purpose and improved organizational health.”

Flatten the organizational structure

Weber’s bureaucratic hierarchy revolves around a select few deciding what’s best for the company as a whole. This methodology offers benefits in certain situations—a relatively inexperienced or widely dispersed workforce may require more guidance and control, for example.

By taking advantage of reliable data insights, however, businesses can streamline their hierarchy and give more junior colleagues greater decision-making capabilities. In this way technology can add years of experience to even the most youthful marketer.

When the marketplace changes as radically as it has done since the start of the pandemic, existing knowledge loses its value. Marketers need to deal with what’s in front of them today, not what they were used to seeing last year. It can be argued that data holds more sway than experience, telling marketing the truth of what’s happening rather than a reliance on instinct or intuition.

“A speedy organization has more people taking action and fewer people feeding the beast of bureaucracy—briefing each other, reporting, seeking approvals, sitting in unproductive meetings (and then huddling up in the meeting after the meeting to have the real conversation). Rigid hierarchies must give way to leaner, flatter structures that allow the system to respond quickly to emerging challenges and opportunities,” says McKinsey.

Remove the fear of failure

Fundamentally, bureaucracy is designed to take risk out of the equation. Senior marketers want to avoid the dangers of untrained and inexperienced colleagues making errors that open up the organization to risk. Those at the top are best positioned to decide on what actions should be taken.

But in today’s environment, acting too slowly is a bigger risk than getting it wrong. Fail fast is the new mantra for marketers today. Analytics platforms allow the marketing department to take calculated risks and experiment more freely, safe in the knowledge that they can assess performance in real time and adapt at speed.

There is a far greater tolerance for small errors nowadays. Technology mitigates the risks involved and allows marketers to understand what did or didn’t work, why, and how to apply those learnings to future initiatives.

In this way, minor “failures” will not put the future of the enterprise in jeopardy as bureaucrats fear. In contrast, knowledge gained by giving marketers the freedom to take risks is what will allow the business to continuously evolve. Failure will future-proof the organization, not put it at terminal risk.

Busting bureaucracy with an agile agency

This is where the right marketing agency can help your business to rise above bureaucracy and enable you to achieve your marketing objectives at speed.

For example, an agency that is truly data-driven can create and deliver an agile, insight-led go-to-marketing plan that ensures you get the ideal message to a defined audience through optimized channels.

Every aspect of your marketing activities work at pace so you can realize their full value. Engagement is constantly tracked, with best performing channels dialled up and those that don’t deliver switched off.

An agency doesn’t bust bureaucracy by acting independently. Crucially, it exists in harmony with your internal team, combining agency efficiency and creativity with in-built industry expertise. While bureaucracy chokes innovation, restricting a business’ ability to experiment or find new ways of working, this hybrid approach rewards calculated risks at speed.

The digital age has restricted the scope of Weber’s bureaucratic principles. As the pandemic has shown, the businesses with the ability to pivot at speed will be the ones to succeed in the new normal. And the best way to escape internal bureaucracy today is to work with an agency that adds velocity without subjecting you to risk.

To quote McKinsey: “Gone are the days of waiting around for best practices to emerge. CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run. The winners are experimenting now, and boldly.”

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