Growing family businesses often get stuck at a common tipping point: do I hire marketing talent internally or outsource it to an expert agency? If I hire internally, am I hiring for strategy or for execution? The answer is a third way: engage an experienced mentor to develop your internal marketing team.
My son, Henry, is in kindergarten, and has all of the sudden gained a new confidence in and love for drawing. He was never interested in it before he went to school (and had to do it every day), so it has been so fun to see a new world open up for him.
To encourage him, I have been finding new things for us to draw and experiment with, including, most recently, some doodling videos with Mo Willems, a children’s book author/illustrator who Henry adores. If you aren’t familiar with his books, Mo Willems recurring characters include a obstinate pigeon (from “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus”) and two odd couple best friends, Gerald (an elephant) and Piggie (a pig).
Henry and I were watching videos of Mo Willems teach us step-by-step how to draw these characters, and then trying it ourselves. There was lots of pausing, rewinding, false starts, angrily crumbled fails, and increasingly competent pigs, elephants, and pigeons.
When we were done, I looked back at the process we just went through, and started to reflect on it.
Believe it or not, I think there are some takeaways for family-owned businesses who have been caught between the rock and hard place of needing strategic marketing and positioning expertise, but without the budget to hire an internal marketing team.
Here is the situation I see all too often.
- A business has grown organically over the years. The founder or founding team has strategic relationships, grit, and a willingness to try, fail, and quickly learn that allow them to find a loyal customer base and grow it.
- That strong foundation yields new opportunities. — new markets or new channels or a strategic acquisition — which are high-stakes and need a new level of positioning strategy and marketing support to be successful.
- They are then faced with a hard choice. Do we pay a price premium for outside experts that leave us dependent on them while we grow? Do we hire a marketing generalist who can get stuff done, but who is looking to us for direction and strategy that we can’t provide? Do we hire an experienced VP or CMO-level strategic thinker who will command a high salary, and who will still need additional budget for execution support?
What is the right answer? It is a tough situation, and there really is no one “right” answer. That said, I do think there can be a path that allows these growing companies to have the best of all worlds.
Which brings me back to drawing Piggie with Henry.
Piggie is an extremely simple character to draw. Some ovals, some lines. That’s pretty much it.
But when I tried on my own to draw some Mo Willems characters from memory for Henry, the results were hilariously bad. Not even close.
Mo, on the other hand, has the skill to make these super simple shapes become highly engaging characters with a depth of personality and feeling.
In his videos, Mo Willems breaks down the shapes, and their placement. We start drawing “lopsided donuts” and adding elevens for nostrils and for eyes. We learn that you need to beef up the elevens for the eyes so they get a bit fat, since the eyes are the most important part of the character. You get the idea.
Henry and I are far from doing what Mo Willems does in his books, but with some step-by-step videos and about 90 minutes of iteration, you can see the progress in Henry’s artwork.
Not bad, right?
He is getting more and more confident with his drawings, experimenting with Piggie’s eyes and mouth to see if he can more closely mimic the expressiveness of the storybook characters he loves.
Okay, so what is my point? The solution for companies stuck with the choice of the agency hamster wheel vs. hiring either strategy or execution internally is this guided development.
Brand and marketing strategy is pretty similar to Piggie. How you successfully enter a new market or reposition a decades old brand for growth is a step-by-step process. The fundamentals are simple. Knowing how you apply them to various real-world scenarios takes more experience and finesse, but it is still just variations on and application of the fundamentals.
This step-by-step process for positioning a brand for new growth is no different than Mo Willems process for drawing Piggie out of simple shapes. Manipulating those simple shapes into a more complexly textured brand and strategy takes practice, but it isn’t impossible to learn.
Here is what a “third way” scenario could look like:
- The company hires a marketing person who can get stuff done internally who matches their values and really “gets” the brand and the vision.
- They have an experienced external guide “show their work” to this internal resource.
- The two collaborate, giving the emerging marketing talent the opportunity to experiment and learn, but with the guidance they need to not waste years of company growth opportunity and tens of thousands of dollars guessing.
This could be done in a number of different ways.
An experienced mentor could be found in alumni from some of the goliath brands in your niche. I just talked to a company founder who contracted the former head of global brand marketing of Reebok and the head of global digital advertising of Adidas to support a promising employee who now handles their marketing full-time. He said that her capabilities have blossomed, and he feels great about the investment in her future and in growing that resource internally.
You could also find a “fractional CMO” who could work on a part-time contract basis, and make mentorship part of their scope of work for your marketing team.
At Six-Point, we have also developed our own solution to support family businesses: a “do-it-with-me” version of our Solve for Y strategy system that provides six-week guided sessions for internal marketing teams. We work with the company leadership to set objectives, and then work with your marketing team of one or more employees to create a strategy and tactical plan to meet those objectives. The employees have understanding, buy-in, and ownership, and they are accountable for executing the plan and tracking agreed upon lead metrics.
The important thing is to remember that this critical junction in your company’s growth does not have to be an either/or. There is the opportunity to have both.
Investing in talent can be a bit scary, but not as scary as hiring a great person and setting them up to fail. As the business maxim goes: Don’t ask what happens if I invest in developing my employee and they leave? Do ask what happens if I don’t invest in developing them and they stay?
(Now, was that too much of a stretch to share Henry’s awesome drawings? This proud mama says no way!)