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Committees: A great source of terrible marketing

“If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.” – Charles Kettering

It’s September, the time in the technology industry when the product launches and marketing campaigns that have been percolating over the summer get unleashed. What’s predictable is that much of this marketing will be shitty. And by shitty, I mean not just that the creative will be bad, although that is true, but that much of this onslaught will make little difference to the market share, market cap and valuation, or revenue of the companies doing the marketing.

So why do so many technology companies do bad marketing? In my experience, a major root cause is committees.

Committees = bad. This is probably true for most major initiatives in business, but it’s especially true in marketing, because good marketing is about leadership. To become the leader in your space, you must define and dominate your market category. For the most part, technology is a winner-take-all game. Building the company that wins takes a clear point of view about what problem your solving, what makes you different, and why people should buy your product and stock. Rarely do big groups make bold, decisive strategic decisions.

Does anyone think that Steve Jobs sought the approval of a committee before launching the “Think Different” campaign? Or that Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box, set up a committee to decide if they should attack Microsoft Sharepoint? Or that Nick Woodman, founder and CEO of GoPro, conducted a focus group before he proclaimed that his invention was “the most versatile camera in the world”. Not a chance.

The problem with most committees is that they are focused on process, not results. They generally try to incorporate everyone’s “feedback”, spend time “socializing ideas”, analyzing data and trying to make everyone happy. They strive to be collaborative and ensure that all constituents have a say. A structural problem with many committees is that a lot of people can say no, while at the same time, they are not clear about who can say yes. As a result, committees can end up producing compromise. They settle on the ideas that everyone could agree on.

The driver of committee behavior may be simple human nature. Some people find comfort in larger groups, because if the project fails blame can be spread. It has been said that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. While that may be true, ass-covering behavior does not build legendary companies. Accountability does.

To make matters worse, in the technology industry, many executives and board members seem to think they are marketing experts. They apply the “I like that” and “I don’t like that” test to evaluating marketing strategies. As if they were picking the color of their car or the name of their cat. I was in a review meeting with a CEO once where an orange motif was being presented. He barked, “Orange is awful. Don’t you people know that orange makes people angry!” Many executives forget that great marketing is not about what they like. Great marketing is about what works.

Now it is true that a group of smart, committed people can make a huge contribution to positioning and marketing strategy. Clearly there are massive advantages to having a killer team of brilliant people collaborating on solving problems, creating new ideas and plans.

But the group must be small. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously instituted a company-wide rule about “two-pizza” teams, which proclaims that any team must be small enough to be fed with two pizzas.

And for teams to win they need a leader. Great marketing teams must have one decider, ideally the CEO or CMO. The leader’s job is to define a process that yields the best ideas, while making the courageous decisions required to position your company to define and dominate your category.

In closing I’ll leave you with another quote by Electronic Data Systems founder H. Ross Perot, who said, “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

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