Secret Marketer: Being creative in a long-distance team where direct engagement is vital isn’t easy

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In a world where flexibility of working is encouraged, we need to remember that marketing is still a people business and creativity demands direct engagement.

When I started my career as a young marketing assistant, I sat amongst the entire marketing department. I worked for a big bank, which had 200 to 300 marketers who were all based in the same building. They were responsible for everything from market research to new product development, from pricing and product management to advertising and sponsorship, from data management to telesales.

If you needed anything, you just got up and walked to the next bank of desks. If you were embarking on a new campaign, you called representatives from each area together in a room and mapped it out.

Of course, this was in the days before email and instant messenger, and our definition of social was going down the pub at lunchtime. But I do not recall many complaints about things going off half-cocked or people claiming not to know about a new initiative; and morale was always high off the back of such open communication.

When new people joined the team, they were expected to commute into that office, often necessitating a house move if that proved a challenge. No other option existed, and ‘working from home’ was pretty much seen as skiving.

So what happened? Today, my marketing team is spread across the country, and increasingly across the globe. On any one day, half may be in a different office than me, or legitimately working from home.

When we recruit a new hire, we suggest the nearest offices where they may like to be based, and pay the exorbitant travel costs should they need to come to head office for a key face-to-face meeting.

We argue that most work can be done on email, SharePoint, or by video conference. But at the same time we wonder why staff morale is low, collaboration is compromised, people bemoan that they never know what is going on, and why we are so beholden to technology working properly.

Clearly, the new world encourages flexibility of working, but at what price? I have built my career on being a reasonable leader of people, but even I find that difficult when I see some members of my team only twice a year.

Marketing is a people business and the creative process demands direct engagement – and that is something we should never forget.

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