Don’t let the tail wag the dog

Andrew Stanten


Jumping straight into tactics without following big picture is letting the tail wag the dog.

It’s impossible to put together a fire prevention plan when you’re always busy putting out fires. Regardless of the size of the company, the industry or the expertise of the people involved, the urge to jump straight to tactics consistently overwhelms the far more effective (and sustainable) strategic approach. The net result is wasted time, wasted money and wasted opportunities to grow the business.

Don't Let the Tail Wag the DogYears ago, new prospects would tell us, “We need a brochure.” It became an in-joke around the office. More often than not what they really needed was a plan. Office closets around the country are cluttered with boxes of unused print collateral, long since outdated. Typically these were commissioned by well-intentioned managers responding to pressure from above to “get something done”–with no real clue of who the audience is, how it would be distributed, or how it would integrate with other marketing efforts.

Today “we need a brochure” has increasingly been replaced with “we need a website”–but the principle is the same: Jumping to tactics without a plan. How can you decide where to go if you don’t know where you are?

It’s impossible to put together a fire prevention plan when you’re always busy putting out fires.

It’s easy to understand why people want to skip planning and get right to tactics: They’re tangible. They provide a sense of accomplishment. And they can be shown to the boss. But in the end, if you let the tail wag the dog, you’ll be following your business instead of leading it.

Last year we landed a new client and spent the first two weeks mapping out a year-long marketing strategy. We took a very systematic approach. According to the plan, phase one called for refining the brand message. (It was amazing to hear four different senior managers describe the company in practically opposing terms.) Messaging came first–because if messaging isn’t consistent, if it doesn’t resonate with target audiences, then the slickest collateral, biggest tradeshow presence, best sales presentation and most souped-up website will ultimately fail.

Phase two planned to rebuild a weak marketing foundation–redesign the website, create key print collateral and new tradeshow displays. We also recommended implemented a lead capture system on the website to allow the client to track who downloads case studies and white papers. This information, in turn, would be sent in real time to the VP of sales for followup. Concurrently, the case studies would be chunked into press releases, applications for trade show speaking engagements and award nominations in vertical and horizontal markets. Rock solid stuff. You can just smell the ROI!

Well, that was the plan. But the CEO didn’t bother to look at the plan. He wanted “PRs” and “Google Ad Words” and “sales slicks.” And he wanted them now. He didn’t want to talk about planning. Or messaging. Or solid foundations. He wanted action–which he mistakenly equated with results.

Let’s look at a Google Ad Words campaign as an example.

A “campaign” implies planning and knowledge. But we didn’t yet know what keywords the competition is buying or which terms people were using to search for similar companies. And the company’s website was so woefully inadequate that prospects who did click on a Google ad would find no clear messaging, no calls to action. And there was no lead generation process in place to capture them. Jumping right into a Google Ad Words buy would have been a costly mistake–one that could have done more harm to their image than good. Eventually, we won this battle, but the war for planning waged on for months.

There’s a method to the madness of marketing–a logical order of what needs to be done. So if you are asked to launch an Ad Words campaign, create a brochure or commission a new website, ask what other elements need to be put in place. If your CEO is more focused on updating logos than discussing macro level issues of vision and positioning, push back. If you are engaged in a discussion about branding and all one of your key stakeholders wants to do is talk about making the blue line around the text box yellow, ask her to look at the big picture. And when you get into the critically important discussion about how you are going to grow your business, don’t let the tail wag the dog.

Andrew Stanten

Andrew Stanten co-founded Altitude Marketing in 2004. As CEO, he ensures the right people are on board, delivering world-class marketing services to Altitude’s global client base, and staying true to Altitude’s mission, vision and values.
Andrew possesses an innate ability to process, organize and summarize massive volumes of client and market information and turn it into actionable, strategic thinking. This enables Team Altitude to get smart about a company quickly—and develop winning, integrated approaches that vault clients into a position of prominence and strength.
Andrew graduated from Syracuse University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University.