Using Slowed Growth to Build Efficient Marketing Systems


By Tom Swanson, Engagement Manager at Heinz Marketing

How quickly priorities change.  As a recession looms, organizations are now speaking less of scale and more of efficiency.  With less energy in the system (whether via lower sales or less investment), the drive for growth at all cost falters.

Make no mistake, this is a bummer.  However, the momentary break from scaling allows us to take a breath and re-evaluate how the bureaucratic systems that support our marketing process can be made more efficient.

Readers of my posts will recognize the common thread here: bureaucracy and scale must move in lock-step.  In most cases, bureaucracy is not developed intentionally, but rather ad-hoc as issues or needs arise.  This leads to ill-fitting systems that do the job, but not particularly smoothly.

As you have grown, perhaps you have experienced some of these issues:

  • SLAs not being followed
  • Strategic changes not populating into tactical execution
  • Inflexibility within the workflow
  • Inability to prioritize requests from different stakeholders
  • High turnover in some marketing functions but not others

There are many different ways to tank operational efficiency, and all of them stem from band-aid solutions applied in a slapdash way.

With the drive to scale being pre-eminent, we don’t often get the chance to take a breather and reformat our bureaucracies to be more efficient and effective.  The growing threat of recession is scary, but turning your lens inward now enables you to hit the gas when this downturn ends.  Some introspection and systems development now will lead to big gains as growth retakes its position at the top of the org-health chart.

In other words, a well-designed, efficient bureaucracy is a thing of beauty, and now is the time to build it for yourself.

Before you start considering the below pieces, one piece of advice: talk to your teams.  Understand their needs, issues, and ideas.  In most cases, you will get a better idea of where you need improvement from talking to them than anything I can offer in a blog post written for a general marketing audience.

That being said, here are some things to review:

Your operating model

There has been quite a bit of discussion around operating models for marketing teams in the past few years.  In most cases, marketers are still operating under a standard model of strategy development, tactical planning, and execution.  However, the digital era has opened up many new options to marketers that were not plausible before.

Scott Brinker, in his book Hacking Marketing, shares some new ways of implementing agile methodological principles into marketing teams.  While certainly not the right decision for every team, there is a need for greater flexibility and faster responsiveness to maximize the power and efficiency of digital tools.

If you are looking for a place to start, then this is the right place.  Are you operating under a standard waterfall model?, or do you have iterative cycles that allow for greater responsiveness to market trends and real-time data?

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are we easily able to adapt our plans to changes in the market?
  • Do we often release new tactics, messaging, creative, or other such assets?
  • Are teams well informed about our overall strategy and able to activate it across channels?

If you answer no to these questions, then it might be worthwhile to take a look at your operating model.  Check out Scott’s book for more info here.

Inter-team workflows

Ahh the workflow.  One of the greatest popularization stories of the visualization age.  Now, using all sorts of different tools, we can create flexible, dynamic workflows that take our operating models and activate them.

For teams of teams, workflows provide guidance and a model that drives ideas into reality.  For smaller teams, they help everyone collaborate and define how to handle inevitable exceptions.

Yet in many cases, we create workflows, train the team (in the best of situations), and then activate and hope for the best.  This is not the way to glory.

Workflows demand frequent re-visitation and input from all of the teams involved.  We cannot simply create these diagrams, put them into play, and then forget about them.  They need to be optimized, and that takes feedback from the folks working within them.

Here are some questions to ask if you are feeling the burn from bad workflows:

  • Have I talked to the teams involved to see if it is flowing as intended?
  • Are teams able to prioritize work within the flows?
  • Do teams know how to handle exceptions when they come down the pipe?
  • Do teams know who owns what at each stage, and thus where to get answers to questions?

If you answered no to any of these, then you may have some issues with your existing workflows, and a good recession activity would be to fix these up.

The Org Chart

This is a nice and straightforward one, right?  Wrong!  Org charts are never one-size-fits-all, and they change all the time. In a scaling organization, the chart needs to be evaluated and updated frequently.  New functions will be added, new teams will spring up, and marketing organizations need to have an understanding of who is responsible for what.

Without a developed and current org chart, you run the risk of your teams struggling to collaborate, pains around the vaunted “accountability”, and the possibility of organizational paralysis through a lack of leadership clarity.  It really is a nightmare.

Improving operational efficiency means having a clear chain-o-command by which decisions are made and market forces adapted to.  It is unlikely that you will be able to be effective if there is no clear decision-maker.  As you are scaling, it is crucial you re-evaluate the org chart often.

This is also true of scaling back.  If you are in the unfortunate position that you have to make cuts, then knowing what your ideal org structure is will help you avoid removing key roles.

Stack Elasticity

I am a big fan of Scott Brinker.  One of his posts talks about the importance of tracking use-cases when considering additions or subtractions to a tech stack.  In the effort to become leaner and increase margins that recessions often inspire, you may need to begin considering the use cases that are essential vs. those that are expendable.

In a recent course on positioning within a recession, I discussed the importance of being realistic about the elasticity of your product.  Think about your tech through this lens as well.  How much would you be willing to increase what you pay for a solution in order to keep getting it?  If the answer is “not a penny more”, then that may be an expendable service that you could do without.

Highly elastic products are those that have demand highly effected by changes in price.  Each piece of tech you use should be evaluated during a recession.  There are numerous ways to do this, but to get you started, here are a few questions to ask when evaluating each tool in your stack:

  • How much more would we pay for this tool?
  • Does this tool serve a crucial role, or could we pause it for a bit?
  • Does this tool serve multiple use cases?
  • Is this tool in use by multiple teams?


Finally, we arrive at the SLA.  Assuming everything else in your system is working tolerably, then we can finally settle into how it should be documented.  SLAs serve a key role in being the agreements in place between all of the teams.  If you aren’t aware of what these do, then here are some helpful links:

What these boil down to is pretty straightforward: accountability.  The goal of an SLA is to be able to hold teams and individuals accountable to the needs of the workflow, the teams, and indeed to the organization as a whole.

If your processes are undocumented, then do you even have them?  You may as well not.

It may feel cumbersome and sometimes unnecessary, but for teams that are growing, being clear about accountability, responsibility, needs, and timing is of critical importance.  If these are poorly designed, dated, or just irrelevant, then they won’t be used and you will lose out on great talent as people get frustrated trying to swim upstream against the current of inefficient bureaucratic processes.

SLAs between teams should be simple, no-nonsense documents that outline who is involved, what they are accountable to, what they are responsible for, the timelines that need to be followed.  If you want more detail, look again to the links above.

However, there is one key piece that I will call out here: good SLAs don’t dictate the work process itself.  Leave that to individual teams.  The job of an SLA is to set out the requirements for the work, but the process itself should be built out by the teams doing it.


I will never shut up about the glory of efficient bureaucracy.  It is rare that scale slows down at all and gives us the chance to build the scaffolding up to support it.  Use this chance to take a deeper look at your systems.  Efficiency is already a good play in an economic downturn, but focusing just on your marketing strategy, and not on your operations is a mistake.  The strategy will need to change again after the downturn, but improvements to operational efficiency will deliver benefits for years.

As always, I am more than happy to chat about how to balance bureaucracy and scale, just reach out: