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March 08, 2005

What Ries Doesn’t Get About Execution

There’s been some blog chatter on Al Ries’ latest Ad Age article, “What CEOs Just Don’t Get About Marketing.”

I think Ries’ penchant for hyperbole is overshadowing the crux of his argument that good execution of a bad marketing strategy will not deliver exceptional results.

However, I can’t blame anyone for jumping all over him when he writes such blanketed statements like, “Marketing is 90% strategy and 10% execution. With the right name, the right target audience, the right position and the right timing, most marketing programs are bound to work. The difficult part is the 90%. The easy part is the 10%.”

Has Ries undervalued the importance of people (employees) executing a marketing program? Oh yes ... he has grossly undervalued the importance of people making marketing happen.

I just don’t buy his argument that most marketing programs are bound to work if the right name, right audience, right positioning, and right timing are in all place. I also disagree with his statement that the easiest part to a marketing program is the execution.

My experience at Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods Market tells me marketing is more like 35% strategy and 65% execution. A so-so marketing strategy can deliver exceptional results if those responsible for executing it are informed and inspired to make retail magic happen. The real trick is how best to solve for informing and inspiring customer-facing employees to make retail magic happen.

Brand Examiner Paul and I wrote about one such way we solved for informing and inspiring Starbucks partners to make retail magic happen in a Fast Company blog posting from December of 2003. Click here to read about Blended Beverage Bingo.

So … from your experience, what % of marketing is strategy and what % is execution? Is it 90/10 or is it more 35/65?


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Moore references "Blended Beverage Bingo," a campaign he helped formulate for Starbucks. Great campaign. No qualms there. What I do have a problem with, however, is the fact that the description of the program that Moore provides does a great deal to... [Read More]

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Hey John,
I am a devoted Al Reis disciple, but I can't tell you how many *brilliant* (well, not horrible) marketing strategies we have concieved, built, named, and then executed poorly. Basically following the 90/10 rule. All failures (as they should have been). No, it's in the execution. Case in point: How many times have you responded to a marketing piece that sucked? For me, many times - often just because it was there, and nothing else was. What Al should be saying is that in the competition between crappy but well executed marketing, and great and equally executed marketing, the great marketing will win. So, I guess I am kissing your ass John :), because I agree with you - 65/35.


In order to "make retail magic happen" the customer-facing employees must have the right product to sell. And customers to sell it to. Getting this right is the result of getting the strategy right. Strategy first. Execution second.

Mr. Smock ... I agree totally strategy comes fist and execution comes second. Would love to hear your thoughts on what percentage is strategy and what percentage is execution in a successful marketing campaign?

Mike ... I too am an Al Reis disciple. We agree far more than we disagree on marketing matters. However, I do tire of his penchant for hyperbole and dogmatic tendencies.

Hi John,

The right mix (for me) of strategy and execution is 50/50.

I have to agree with Mr.Smock's 50/50 ratio. Although my career being focused on the creative execution of a marketing campaign (design) my personal bias might be closer to 25/75!

I'm gonna say 100%/100%. Because asking which is more important, strategy or execution, is like asking which part of the band is most important; the guitar or the drums? I really don't get this whole "let's divvy things up and get philosophical about percentages" deal-i-o.

What is Ries suggesting? That we tell our clients, "This marketing strategy we've prepared for you is so great, that you can pretty much blow-off the execution, because we've designed in everything you need to succeed." Or, on the flip side, if it's 25/27, do we tell our clients, "You don't need our help designing great marketing, because, really, in the end, your efforts are worth 3x any kind of input we can make to the program."

In my experience, execution is part of the design; you account for how you are going to implement your marketing program while you are designing it. You don't develop advertising that overpromises or requires salespeople to perform Herculean tasks. You don't create merchandising that breaks at the drop of a hat. You don't design confusing packages that keep customers standing around trying to figure out which product is which. Great execution is, in many ways, the final stage of great strategy and flows from it.

Truly bad strategy simply CAN'T be executed well, because it's like trying to plug a swan into a bagpipe. And really great strategy is hard to screw up operationally, because it takes into account many of the nuts-and-bolts activities that close the deal.

It ain't over until the fat lady swipes her credit card. Whether it's strategy or execution, we marketing goons are responsible for making sure that the process works from 0-to-100, regardless.

George Stalk and Tom Peters have different viewpoints on strategy and execution. We blogged about it here:

I think Ries has it right, if you accept that the "good strategy" includes being consistent with the company's current market position, business model, and brand attributes/momentum or lack of it, (as he writes in many of his other books). In fact I wonder most often if it isn't more like a 95/5% split. He doesn't say execution isn't important, despite the 10% figure. He says it's "easy", but only in relation to the "harder" strategy part, which is where most marketing surely fails, as analyzed in hindsight against the profitability of an initiative or the company as a whole, over a given cycle. I totally agree with him on this. (Getting the right people capable of executing the strategy properly is a prerequisite. Execution failures are never an excuse, and require people changes).

Well-executed, bad strategies work only in a competition vacuum, (as was stated above in Mike's comments), and even then, not for very long. We can also be mislead into thinking we have (short term) success with a bad strategy, when we have "bought" share with an artificial price advantage, or overspent to market the idea without a real market, or real sales potential. But these are not marketing wins. We can achieve awareness with good execution and not get demand. We can get demand with good execution and achieve sales of a product not consistent with the brand or business model. Both might appear to be a short term marketing success, but lead to brand/profitability disaster, and both point back to flawed strategy.

I don't think the Starbucks example is a good one. Without the built-in validity of Starbucks market strategy from day one, (which is built-in to any current initiative or strategy involving their retain stores), execution would be far less "easy" than it now must seem to be. In other words, most any strategy for selling more coffee in the retail stores is going to be a decent one, more or less. If Starbucks were Tim Horton's on the other hand,(successful Canadian/Northeast US chain specializing in "regular" coffee and doughnuts), it could execute Starbucks-syle product/campaigns even better than Starbucks, but still fail miserably at selling espresso products and fancy coffee stuff. Bad strategy. Execution can't overcome it.

If you are in the marketing consulting business, the equation is different, depending on who is paying your fee. It's often 100% "please the client with what he already is convinced he wants, but cannot see yet, whatever the strategy". It's a whole different dynamic. You are selling a client more than you are inventing marketing initiatives, or following marketing "rules".

Andy, I liked your post, especially this: "Truly bad strategy simply CAN'T be executed well, because it's like trying to plug a swan into a bagpipe. And really great strategy is hard to screw up operationally, because it takes into account many of the nuts-and-bolts activities that close the deal." That sums up what Ries is saying very well, I think.

I liked the take from the UK John Moore on this issue -- "I think the Ries and Trout school of marketing has an arrogant belief in the power of a small cadre of frightfully clever people who invent strategy. This is classic consultant thinking, used to justify whopping hourly rates."

It does seem awfully arrogant to say marketing is 90% strategy and execution is only 10% of the equation. Then again, that statement is coming from a marketing consultant in Al Ries. (Hey wait a minute ... I'm a marketing consultant too so shouldn't I also think the strategies I offer up clients constitute 90% of the marketing equation? If I do, then I know it is time for me to get out of the marketing biz. Dig?)

As for the comments on great strategy solves for troublesome executional nuances ... I can agree with that to an extent.

Great strategy might help make the execution more turnkey but ultimately, someone has to turn the key to make marketing happen. And I would never ever want to insinuate that frontline employees are only a tiny fraction of the marketing equation. After all ... frontline employees can make me look very good or make me look very bad. Double Dig?

Hey John:

Great question and some great responses. I'd not call myself a disciple, but I certainly give Ries a big nod as a marketing authority. That's why I was initially surprised at his 90/10 thing.

Having read his statement in context of the full article, however, I can find situations where he would be right, such as marketing a consumer product that requires little in the way of customer service. As an example, toothpaste. I buy Tom's of Maine because it's all natural.

When it comes to a Starbucks or any situation where employees have a significant impact on establishing the brand, I'd say he's off the mark. In this case, I'd say it's at least 50/50 with a bias toward execution.

In HP's case, as the article discusses, did they even have a strategy? When I think of the HP brand, it's just sort of this nebulous blob of a compnay that sells a lot of gadgets, but who the hell are they. What do they stand for? What's their shtick? "HP Invent?" What the hell does that mean to a consumer? Ries did have a great point about that.

I suppose we could also get into how Ries defines strategy vs. execution, but that's just way too much mental masturbation for me right now. Wasn't there something about tactics vs strategies in one of his books? Bottom Up Marketing, I think. I'm surprised he didn't mention that in the article.

One factor is missing in this discussion. It has been my experience that the execution of good strategy is less expensive than the execution of bad strategy. It costs more to dress up the bad strategy and I always pity the poor copywriter. In my market, though, few will pay for marketing strategy while they will open their pocketbooks for execution.

Great add E.G. There are significant costs to course-correcting bad strategy. I can recall too many times having to devise and send out course-correcting communications and course-correcting signage to Starbucks stores to make-up for bad strategy.

So … does course-correcting count as execution in the marketing equation?

Frontline employees, are like footsoldiers in a war. You can't win the battle without them, but you can sure lose the war with them, no matter how many you have, if the warplan is wrong. If you send 1,000,000 men to the wrong place/battle to fight, with the best weapons(bad strategy), you still lose. That's the meaning of 90/10. It's not arrogance, it's an uncomfortable reality.

Marketing is not the battle, it's the war. The battle may be 50/50. The war is 90/10, at least.

Nice stuff Thomas. Thanks for sharing.

I see the marketing war as indeed being 90% strategy and 10% execution. But I see the marketing battle as being 10% strategy and 90% execution.

John, that makes sense to me, I like that. Especially if closing sales is hand-to-hand part of the battle.

Love the site by the way, just found it today, and it consumed my evening!

Thomas makes some good points. But I wasn't really agreeing with Ries. Or disagreeing with Ries. I was arguing against the argument.

My father loved to ask the following riddle: "Which is rounder? An orange?" To be followed up with, "Did you ride the bus today or take your lunch?" He was a big fan of Monty Python (as am I) and we both love disconnected humor that stems from the idea that a sense of the absurd is really very necessary for survival. See: "Monkeys with lizard brains, playground rubbish and other white noise, Episode Stoat."

That being said... the argument over percentages of strategy vs. execution continues to trouble me. It's like arguments about McLuhan's famous statement, "The media is the message," trying to parse it out exactly. Or arguments about how "The Terminator" couldn't really happen because of time travel paradoxes.

Strategy is important for many reasons. Go list them and show the list to your clients. They will be impressed and pleased. Execution is important for lots of reasons, too. Go make that list. Guess what? A great many of the items on both those lists will overlap. Why? Because many of the core sensibilities having to do with quality in strategic marketing development and quality in operational planning are similar; i.e., great minds think alike.

The next time you need major surgery, ask yourself if you'd be comfortable with a surgeon who assigned numerical priorities to pre-surgical procedures like x-rays, MRIs, blood work, anasthesia, etc. vs. the actual cutting. 90/10 sound good to everybody? As long as all the pre-op planning is done right, the actual hacky-hacky-vroom-vroom should be an (ahem) piece of cake, right?

We're paid to get it *all* right. The execution is part of the strategy. The soldiers are the responsibility of the generals. And the generals need to listen to their soldiers. 10/90, or 90/10. Either way, if the war is lost, we're all speaking German.

Andy, I get what you are saying, and agree on a lot of's tough to reduce it all to a simple percentage split. It can appear to cheapen what we all do.

On the surgery analogy, I would add though, that marketing strategy may be more like the diagnosis of the health problem, combined with figuring out which surgery to perform if at all, and who's insurance is going to pay for it, or not. The surgery proceedure itself would all be execution of a known technique, (and to your point I'd want the best I could get executing it!).

The other thing I agree with is that we are paid to get it all right, like you say. That's why the best thing you can do sometimes as a marketer, is to just not take the job, if it means working for a CEO who is trying to perpetuate previous/current bad strategies, by insisting that your repackaging of it and better execution of it will be the hot new ticket and savior of his arse. These guys are everywhere it seems, and I think that's who and what Ries is referring to. You can't win in that situation as a staff marketing executive. On the other hand, that is precisely the CEO who keeps marketing consultants in business, so I suppose we should be glad they are there!

EG's comment about the (un)willingness of clients to pay for strategy is consistent with our experience. Traditional ad agencies feed this execution bias by giving away their strategy and creative concepts during the account review process. Which is why we stopped doing reviews.

I agree with Mike and EG on clients' unwillingness to pay for strategy, and have experienced this myself. They, (CEO or SVP Marketing), often tend to believe they already have a bulletproof strategy, no matter how terrible the bottom line may look. Often, they are just looking for the next ad campaign or image re-do, to carry into the Board of Directors meeting, to keep hope (and their job) alive for a little while longer. In that situation, we can only offer what they want, and are willing to pay for, or we can just walk away from the job sometimes. But that doesn't change the fact that what they NEED is a whole new strategy, business model, and often a leadership change. I find that CEO's who come from pure sales backgrounds tend to suffer the biggest dillusions. They often believe that success at the bottom line is just an ad campaign or line extension away. And to Mike's point, there is no end to the number of expensive agencies willing to jump in and say, "Yessir, you are so right, sir. Pay us $XXXMM this year, and this swanky hot new image campaign will solve all your problems, you'll come out of it looking hotter than an iPod in an atomic explosion".

What Mr. Ries is arguing is that marketing is "in trouble" and that he doesn't want the CEO to take away "its strategic powers." What he is arguing is that I helped to collapse marketing into branding and positioning and I don't want to accept the fact that marketing is a global function and it takes an entire company to execute a corporate strategy with someone sitting at the table with marketing expertise. Just re-read his statements, "How do marketing people deal with CEOs who have the power to make strategic decisions...blah blah."

The point is that marketing has become a global corporate game and it is now a corporate identity that every associate takes on, the CMO is in charge of relationships internally and externally, measurements and metrics are imperative and that means that everyone at the table must be engaged in the strategies and execution.

We all agree that marketing is going through some identity problems, we are our own problems ... but I see us looking forward; perhaps like others have said it's those who have made a living on the past that are having trouble making that neural interrupt.

I like Laura and Al's work...have their books, but I didn't agree with his article. I've love to talk to him about it.

I completely agree...perhaps even 25/75.

Developing the product and making up the story requires creativity to be sure. But, living it, spreading the word and cultivating relationships requires the most talent in my humble opinion.

I believe that it boils down to the sequence, not the percentages. Numbers are impossible to calculate accurately. What is the percentage of a process if the idea takes 10 years to formulate? What is the percentage of a process if the execution takes 1 year to come to fruition?

The key to Al's advice is to have "the right name, the right target audience, the right position and the right timing" before one tries to execute anything.

It appears to me that most companies struggle terribly because they did not follow Al's advice in the first place.

The mix, therefore, is irrelevant. Without first building the right brand, all the strategy in the world will not save the poor brand.

A brand without a chance is a sad, sad affair. And all of the execution in the world will not save it.

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