Leadership Tips: Don’t Fire Your Marketing Staff in a Recession
There’s an old astronaut saying that is really helpful for us when we think about business and recession, “In space, there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” If you were one of the lucky few to be on one of the first five missions to space, you had a one-in-five chance to gloriously explode in the atmosphere. By the time the 1990s rolled around, that stat only worked its way up to one in 34.
Astronaut work is serious work.
Astronauts know a thing or two about risk. They know that whatever danger they are currently experiencing, there is always a potential for a larger danger just around the corner if they do not perform their tasks with precision and accuracy.
The same is true for business. Whatever bad reality a business might be going through, it’s always possible for it to become more severe. As I write this, business owners are both currently experiencing hardship (think 6.5% inflation) all while we’re on the verge of entering a new recessionary moment, thus more hardship. According to Bloomberg, economists hold the likelihood of a recession at 70%. In the words of Bill Adams, chief economist at Comerica Bank, “The US economy is facing big headwinds from surging interest rates, high inflation, the end of fiscal stimulus, and weak export markets abroad.”
I think we can summarize Bad News Bill’s words this way: “things are gonna get worse before they get better.”
If you’re leading a business at this moment, this is enough information to make you freak out—seriously. It’s one thing to navigate the inflation of 2022 — officially 6.5% ““ it’s another thing to then weather the storm of a future economic recession just over the horizon.
Businesses must cut
For a business to make it out of these troubling times, it must make some deep and serious decisions about spending and strategy. If they don’t, they will struggle and stumble, and some will shut down altogether. The type of spending that a company will look to cut is “deferrable” spending, spending that can be deferred to some future moment. For example, a company may have a plan to build a new warehouse because they are tight on space, but if the economic headwinds change, they may begin to think, “maybe that is a project for a future date.”
You get the idea.
Businesses generally look to four main areas when they’re slashing costs: personnel, office, third-party vendors, and marketing. Cutting somewhere is inevitable. Some of these cuts are smart, but some of these cuts run a little too deep. The first category of spending generally cut is marketing, but this isn’t wise. To cut your marketing budget in the midst of a recession is like dropping your canteen in the midst of a desert because it’s too heavy ““ it’s short-sighted.
In tough economic moments, a company’s decisions need to be smart, strategic, and forward-looking. If a management team is haphazard and simply pulls back for the sake of “pulling back,” things can actually become more severe than if, on the other hand, wise and discerning decisions won the day.
In this case, the old astronaut saying is helpful: even though things are bad, if we’re not careful, they can get worse. In the rest of this blog, I want to make the case that marketing is the last area you should cut. I’ll give you three words to make this case: MITIGATION, RECOVERY, and FUTURE.
Mitigation: Marketing reduces the severity of a recession
Mitigation is a disaster term—one the restoration industry knows all about. It’s often used in times of natural disasters like flooding, fires, or earthquakes. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the action of reducing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of something.”
If you’re mitigating a flood, you’re attempting to prevent any more damage than what’s already happened. Pumping water out of a building is a “mitigation” process.
In a similar way, marketing during economic instability is a mitigation process. It is one of the few responses that a business is able to make to limit the impact of inflation and recession because it actively seeks to keep the business’ doors open.
To best understand this, let us picture the problem. During difficult economic times the fear that all business owners fear is decreased business. People are now spending less because they have less discretionary income. Business then begins to decrease and cash flow is tightened. The marketing department is cut and outreach for new business is stalled. This business is now hurting because of realities happening on two sides, things happening externally and, now, things happening internally. Externally, the economy. Internally, we gave up looking for business.
In any inflationary and recessionary moment, it’s not that all business is gone, it’s that the amount of business that existed is diminished, and people are spending less. To cut marketing is to give up what little business is left.
The good news for you is this: most businesses will cut their marketing spend. If you look at this moment as an opportunity rather than a difficulty, your aggressiveness in marketing will push you through the stagnant economy and help reduce the severity of what could have happened.
If you want to navigate the upcoming recession of 2023, don’t cut your marketing budget.
Recovery: Marketing prepares customers for post-recession spending
One of the mysteries of marketing is the impacts that are not immediately seen. Marketing is much like farming; you’re tilling the soil, you’re planting seeds, you’re praying for healthy winds and decent rains, and then eventually, you’re waiting for the crop to come in. Marketing works in similar ways, especially in difficult economic times. Marketers are churning the social media grist mill, they are ad-spending, and producing artwork that communicates their brand. If a recession is flowing at full force, those efforts will have a diminished immediate effect, but your customer’s eyes still see them ““ and that’s the point.
Even though spending is paused, your marketing efforts are creating post-recession wants. As soon as the “economic resister” is removed, those customers now come back to you for the services or products they’ve missed.
Now imagine you making a different decision. You decide we must kill all deferrable spending, marketing is out, employees are gone, vital services are on hold—what’s left of your company? You’ve essentially shuttered your business without shuttering your business.
You will not benefit from the potential trickle of work that may make its way through and you will not be positioned for new work once the economy bounces back.
Kelly Roach — a popular entrepreneurial podcaster — shares a post-pandemic success story on her podcast. She tells the story of a person who launched a travel business right before the onset of the COVID pandemic. Of course, this business not only stalled, it didn’t work at all — no one was traveling during COVID. This entrepreneur had to make a decision, throw in the towel or push through, they decided to push through. They focused on marketing, they got their name out there, and when travel re-opened, their business thrived. They spent the pandemic creating business opportunities and then cashed in on that business when people were ready to travel.
This can be true for your business too. When the inevitable difficulty of a 2023 recession comes, don’t trash your marketing budget — double down and push through. It just might make all the difference.
If you want to navigate the upcoming recession of 2023, don’t cut your marketing budget.
Future: Marketing is future-oriented
A business’ relationship with its marketing team is a glimpse behind the curtain and speaks to the deeper philosophies that drive that business. Marketing, by its very nature, is future-oriented. If a company has a strong synergistic relationship with its marketing team, that company is building strategies and customer relationships that will last months and years. If a company is constantly chasing momentary gains, regularly in the cycle of ‘launch then abandon,’ then that company will have a more shallow relationship with its customers and will struggle to maintain momentum.
If a 2023 recession does become a reality, individual businesses will need to make decisions about their marketing strategy, and those decisions will be one of two things: either future-oriented decisions or short-sighted decisions. Future-oriented decisions are the types of decisions that build long-term momentum. Short-sighted decisions are the types of decisions that stall growth.
You decide — if you want to navigate the upcoming recession of 2023, don’t cut your marketing budget.
The end of the matter
Like Astronaut work, business work is hard work. Economically difficult times are just that, they’re difficult. But there are ways forward. Primarily, keeping your focus on your business, and marketing your way through the recession rather than attempting to dodge it.
It’s not to say that marketing will solve all your problems or will fully relieve your business from any impact, that of course is not true. But it is to say that proper marketing — marketing that is smart and targeted — will diminish the impact of a hard economic time and will prepare your business for greater success in the future.
Go ahead, give it a shot.