It was an inside accounting joke, those words. They were uttered often by those of us in the finance and accounting department of a corporation for which I once worked as we looked for ways to improve earnings. Our mentality was simply this: if the balloon in which we were riding began to lose altitude, the first articles of ballast to be jettisoned would certainly be found in the marketing budgets.
My job at the time was to help branch managers scour operating costs and move earnings out of the red and into the black. I learned a great deal in those days. While a cookie-cutter approach might have been a good starting point for dialog, ultimately what came into focus were unique complexities within each market. Complexities that required creativity and problem solving. For example, the regulatory environments of different states; confusing and varied tariffs on infrastructure; long-term contracts that were not easily untangled; departments with personnel under onerous union agreements; etc. While it was all in good fun (and always fodder for a chuckle), I’d begin many of these conversations with the words: “OK – bring me the marketing budget”.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m now one of the owners of a communications agency. Yep… public relations –a subset of most organizations’ marketing budget. Oh the irony! Or perhaps it’s karma?
As professional service organizations, PR agencies see the ebb and flow of economic tides “up close and personal”. We are on the front lines, and more times than I can recall, we have heard a client utter those fateful words: “we need to cut our budgets”. These days, I have a different vantage point.
I’ve learned much from many of our clients. There are those who know that to pull the plug on their PR efforts could sacrifice valuable momentum we have worked hard to build, and others who (I fear) may have adopted more of the “bring me the marketing budget” approach. The latter can lead to an unproductive and expensive start-stop-start-stop cycle ultimately disappointing everyone.
Creative thinking is one of the best roads out of a tight spot. You may be surprised just how few expenses are “etched in stone”. Undertake critical reviews of contracts; see what pricing can be re-negotiated (e.g., telecommunications costs and IT); you may find that some staff are looking for flexible work schedules over the summer; others for sabbaticals; etc. You’ll find that if you have a strong, supportive culture in your organization, people are willing to participate in the solutions. It doesn’t always need to be a “top-down” undertaking.
Business cycles are inevitable. Having a long-term vision and approach takes discipline, sacrifice and fortitude. One need not ground the balloon and wait for fairer weather. Sometimes dropping altitude and flying low is the right approach. What is most important is to know where you are headed and not lose sight of your destination. Nurture and keep your culture intact and do not stray from your vision. In cutting costs, look under all the stones and don’t be afraid to try creative approaches to solving a problem – and while that marketing budget may be one of many stones to look under, staying mindful of the traction and inroads you’ve made is key to keeping your communications strategies aloft.