Notes From the Road to Marketing Nirvana - Part 4

In Notes From the Road to Marketing Nirvana by Joe Aragona December 18, 2017

The Message Is the Message

True story. 

There was one time I really wanted to quit this profession for another. It was during a key messaging and positioning session I was facilitating on-site for a client. The marketing director had managed to corral the company’s president, CTO, vice presidents, and directors into a conference room for what should have been a one-day exercise. The session seemed to be going as planned. But about an hour after lunch, it all went sideways. Fast. And the atomic bomb that went off in the room was tossed on the table by the CEO.


“I have to tell you guys, that none of this is working for me,” he said to everyone in the room. “I don’t agree with most of what I’m hearing. And I’m surprised by the direction you’re all taking.”


“I have to tell you guys, that none of this is working for me,” he said to everyone in the room. “I don’t agree with most of what I’m hearing. And I’m surprised by the direction you’re all taking.”

The entire room was suddenly very quiet. All eyes turned to the CEO. I noticed the marketing director slump in his seat. One of the VPs leaned back in his chair and shot an exasperated glance to the ceiling.

It took me a few seconds to register what I had heard and figure out how to address the statement. There were many things I could have said, but I opted to try to sidestep the impact crater and rein in the comment as part of the ongoing discussion around product value.

“Mike, are you saying the value statements that we’re putting up on the board aren’t accurate?” I ventured.

Mike shot his dark brown eyes my way and then turned back to the others at the conference table. Clearly, he had other targets in mind. “No, I’m saying that I don’t agree with any of the ideas we’ve been discussing. None of this fits with the business vision.”

Again, there was silence at the table. I didn’t expect that answer and was momentarily at a loss as to how to proceed. I decided to take the direct approach and was about to ask Mike to explain when one of the VPs tossed his own grenade.


“That’s because there is no business vision,” he said flatly. “If you’ve got one, by all means share it.”


Typically, these sessions are straightforward. They are carefully structured to extract the raw input needed to create marketing messaging and positioning statements, which serve as the cornerstone for all marketing efforts. The messages inform the brand positioning, are woven into all content, are emphasized on the website, and are leveraged for media and analyst relations.

As facilitator, I take the senior team through a series of cascading questions, which are crafted to focus on value, benefits, credentials, and vision. The objective is to allow participants to present their different ideas and points of view. Through discussion, the team is brought to a consensus about how the organization and its market offering should be presented to target audiences. With these sessions, we accelerate message development and consensus building, which could take months in some organizations if we relied on a document-based process.

Usually, discussions are lively. Sometimes the minds in the room are not aligned, but they reach alignment through conversation. Occasionally, there are minor disagreements and consensus takes a little longer. But the focus is always on marketing. I always assume that the team is aligned on fundamental business issues. Like what the business is and where it’s going. So, I was not prepared for a major disconnect between the CEO and his management team. 

It would be a cliché for me to say you could’ve heard a pin drop in the room after the VP’s statement. So, I won’t. I will say that it was so quiet I could hear a toilet flush beyond the closed door of the conference room and three doors down the hall. Everyone was waiting to hear what Mike would say.

The marketing director told me later that Mike had a reputation for being a little explosive in executive meetings. It was not out of the ordinary to hear yelling and screaming coming from behind the closed door of his office. Many of the VPs tried to avoid one-on-one sessions with him, if they could.

In his mid-forties at the time, Mike was a tall, husky, and imposing man. The scowl etched on his face a few minutes earlier was suddenly replaced by a deadly glare that shot daggers at the VP. His complexion had gone beet red and he looked like he was about to explode. But, he contained his anger as he responded. 

“We’ve been talking about that for weeks,” Mike started. “But I’ve been sitting here all morning listening to you guys talk about the business and what we’re offering as if we haven’t had any discussions at all.”


All hell broke loose. Everyone had something to say. Everyone disagreed with Mike. And no one was shy to say so.


All hell broke loose. Everyone had something to say. Everyone disagreed with Mike. And no one was shy to say so.

What it all boiled down to was a fundamental disagreement about what the company had to offer. Although it made one product, Mike thought it should be making a different product. But the VPs didn’t think that would fly. They argued that the company was not in that business. It was not possible to shift to that business. It wasn’t a core competency. There was no way to make the move. Product was already out the door and there was too much invested in the original path.

After an hour of heated discussion, Mike was still not convinced. In fact, he seemed more entrenched in his belief that everyone else in the room was out to lunch.

The voice of reason finally came from John, the VP of Business Development who had been quietly watching and listening to the whole mess from his seat at the far end of the table.

“You know guys, this isn’t helping any,” John started calmly. He paused for effect in a way that managed to get everyone to stop and listen. Calm and controlled, John was a mellow individual. He measured his words carefully and let them out in a smooth, even flow that matched a demeanor of quiet cool, which was probably fueled by his other life as a bass player in a local jazz trio.

“We’ve been dancing around this discussion for weeks and we’re no closer to a conclusion,” he went on. “The facts are the facts. You can’t sell donuts, Mike, if you’re making pizza. And we’re only equipped to make pizza. That’s our business, man. We make pizza. Get with the program and let’s move on ‘cause I’m getting a headache and I’ve got a gig to go to tonight. And I can’t play bass with a headache.”

He paused for effect and then went on.


“What I’m saying,” he concluded, “Is that the business is the business and that’s all there’s to it. And the message is the message. So, let’s wrap up this $&%@ and get back to the message so we can all go home without a headache.”


“What I’m saying,” he concluded, “Is that the business is the business and that’s all there’s to it. And the message is the message. So, let’s wrap up this $&%@ and get back to the message so we can all go home without a headache.”

Nobody said a word. I figured they were confused. Finally, Mike burst out laughing and all the tension escaped from the room.

“I don’t have a $5#@!%! clue what you just said, John,” Mike offered with a smile. “But I’m all for going home without a headache.”

The key message session was rescheduled for the following week and it went a lot smoother. Everyone was in sync. Somehow, they had managed to get past their issues.

The marketing director moved on to a less stressful job with a nonprofit.

John’s jazz trio continued to have success in the area.

Mike was replaced by the board.

And I’m still somewhere on the road to marketing nirvana.

But that’s another story.

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 This blog is based on a true story from my notes on the road to marketing nirvana. The names of the companies and people involved have been eliminated or changed to protect the guilty.

Joe Aragona

Written by Joe Aragona

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