Battlefield tested: Marketing lessons from the military

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Digital advertising and the Marine Corps have more in common than you think, writes VP of emerging solutions at Possible, Americas.

Years before I began my adventure in the advertising industry, I served in the Marines. I began as a telecommunications specialist and then served in the security detail at US embassies around the world.

You might think that digital advertising and the Marine Corps have little in common, but I constantly find myself surprised at how similar they are (except for the gunfire, of course). Digital marketing, as we all know, is evolving at a rapid pace, with technology and innovations pushing us in directions that seem to change daily. Likewise, military operations occur in an unpredictable, ever-changing environment. No two challenges are alike, and everyone is constantly trying to find new ways to be faster, better and more effective.

As a result, the operational parallels between the two fields are striking, and the requirements for success much the same. The only difference is that militaries have had much greater experience preparing for and living with disruption. They've honed the tools and processes they use over centuries rather than the 15 years or so brands have been dealing with digital.

As a result, brands and marketers have a lot to learn from my fellow Marines (once a Marine, always a Marine). While I personally find many areas to draw parallels and to adopt approaches, I'm most struck by the following:

Leading and supporting roles. Much like any multinational military operation, agencies are called on by global brands to lead or support a challenge on short notice. They put together collaborators who typically have limited experience working together. The military answer to this challenge is to assign leading and supporting roles. They do not merely serve to coordinate, however. The leaders should know when to act on a strategy, the supporting roles should know when to add to it. Both are creative and dynamic, they just have different purposes.

Ability to improvise. There's an old joke about Marines. Lock a Marine in an empty room with nothing but two ball bearings, return 15 minutes later, and one of them will be lost and the other broken. The idea is that you try anything to improve a situation or reach an objective. Inventiveness and creativity are critical to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as well as the ability to do the best with what you have available now.

Making decisions with imperfect information. Today, marketers, like militaries, are always seeking better data on which to base decisions. But the truth is that we never have so much information that it makes a decision for us. As a result, you have two choices: you can be paralyzed or you can find a way to get more information and take action. That means trying things out, living with and learning from the results, and iterating quickly.

Effective use of resources. Modern militaries have evolved from large infantry formations to specialized units tailored to specific challenges. In a similar way, digital has reshaped the types of capabilities brands need to reach intended outcomes. Deploying mass-media buys is often less useful than a focused strategy geared toward a specialized audience. This way, you lessen exposure and risk, and utilize resources more effectively. 

Cross-training and specialization. Any team is only as strong as its weakest link. Every Marine, from mechanic to cryptologist, and regardless of rank or time in service, is periodically trained in basic infantry skills and marksmanship. Brands and agencies should also continually refresh the fundamentals of their disciplines so that they don't lose sight of the big picture.

A culture of service. In addition to the larger operational similarities, we also find commonalities in how teams view their assignments. Militaries create a culture with a selfless mindset, focused on achieving objectives as clearly defined and connected to a common goal. Bootcamp famously turns "the many into the one." Civilians often mistake that as meaning we turn individuals into machines. Instead, it's about crystalizing individual value and the impact of that value to the team, while selflessly devoting oneself to the mission. Agencies and brands could learn a lot from this.  

These areas only scratch the surface of what brands can learn from the military. Marketers today emphasize the newness of their challenges. Militaries have been long familiar with them and have battle-tested ideas for dealing with uncertainty. Their successful approaches to people, culture and organization show the industry how to develop teams that can handle disruption and unknowns, and innovate to overcome challenges, while keeping their eyes on a common goal.

In marketing and advertising, the more we can create agile organizations that respond to imperfect information and disruptive stresses, the better we'll be.

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