This week I’ve encountered two large (and I mean LARGE) organisations, equally oblivious to their need for serious marketing input. Neither understood that it is “marketing” that will fix their problems nor had a clue what marketing is or what a marketing resource looks like, but it’s not the first time and I am sure it won’t be the last. Despite the glitz and apparent sophistication of Dubai, businesses like these are commonplace here.

These two organisations had neither focus nor strategy and both thought (and despite my lengthy explanations probably still think) that the solution to their problems is to run some ads. Well, that’s what marketing is … isn’t it?

I am still amazed at how many substantial – and, from the outside, apparently successful – businesses survive with no real marketing resource. I don’t necessarily mean “marketing department” but people who know what marketing really is. The two, I’m afraid, are not always inclusive. “Survive” is the operative word here too, because, even though when you dig into these organisations many are not profitable and get by only on face-saving hand-outs from their wealthy owners, even the profitable ones are usually firing on just six of their eight cylinders and with a little know-how could very easily be made to perform much better.

I rarely feel sorry for people in these situations, but I admit to a tinge of sympathy for the guy who had blagged his way into the newly created senior marketing role at the one of these companies, with credentials that would barely qualify him to make tea in the UK. He’s been hired on the basis of his previous positions somewhere in the marketing departments of a few businesses with names that the hirers recognised and because, as far as they were concerned, he therefore “knew marketing” he became their “chosen one”. This was all helped by the fact that he promised to deliver things that were impossible almost to the point of defying the laws of physics, but that’s often the case here. Both in the case of recruitment and when “consultants” pitch clients, people make sweeping undertakings. Everything is possible until you are confronted by the need to deliver. That’s when the excuses come piling out! The core problem you see is that the owners and senior managers who are hiring, are rarely able to discriminate between realistic expectations and cloud cuckoo land. If some idiot comes along and offers them the earth (in this and most other cases I have encountered, in exchange for a salary or fee equal to half the going rate) he’s their man! When it all goes tits up, of course, they wring their hands, act bemused and usually also cry “foul”.

The second of these two organisations was no better. Bigger by all accounts than the first, they had no marketing function whatsoever and therefore no marketing strategy. In fact what they consider to be their business strategy seems to be no more than a vague idea in the minds of senior executives and there’s no reason to suppose that the ”idea” in one director’s head is the same as that held by any of his colleagues.

They had tried hiring marketers in the past and unsurprisingly the initiative had failed. They took on young lightweights because “young people are energetic and full of ideas”, whilst failing to recognise that innovation isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young and anyway is just a small part of a much bigger matter. As the head of an incubator said to me a few weeks ago “We have more ideas than we can handle. What we need are people who know how to make them happen”. And that’s the point. In a disorganised and inflexible organisation like these and many others in the Middle East, turning any thought or idea into positive action demands the political finesse, skills, experience and toughness that only comes with many years in the business.

My introduction to the first company was a cry for help from the marketing head. He had set out to find contractors and partners to deliver his promises in the time and at the price he’d agreed with his employers and basically, he wanted to know why his efforts hadn’t produced a result. I’ve been known to perform miracles, but the only answer I had for him was that he had promised the impossible. This answer didn’t satisfy him and he subsequently went off in a huff only to discover that the only people who could get close to meeting his requirements were equally stupid, unskilled and inexperienced people who might produce what they (but nobody in their right mind would) consider to be a solution for a few bowls of rice. My best offer was a “Plan B” and coaching on how he could present this to his employers with minimum loss of face and possibly hold onto his job. As far as I was concerned, he was misguided on two points. Firstly that my years in the business had provided me with the super-human powers required to deliver his promises and secondly, that even if they had I would consider sharing them with him for free! Anyway, he chose the bowls of rice solution. I can’t wait to see the outcome!

Of course, if you apply these business principles on a larger scale you get Malaysia Airlines! Their problem wasn’t that they lost two planes in quick succession. It seems unlikely that they could have avoided that. What buried them was how they handled the situation after the dots had disappeared from the RADA. In their case they turned a disaster into Armageddon!!

Lucky to survive at all, re-branding was clearly a necessity for Malaysia Airlines, but when I heard this week that they felt they were ready for re-launch my suspicions were aroused. Even in a developed market, with the best marketing brains on your team, the amount of work that Malaysian Airlines needed to affect a rebrand is unlikely to have been competed in such a short time. In Asia I knew there was not a chance that this was anything close to a re-branding and it seems I was right. In fact, all it seems they did was tweak their logo, create a design guideline manual and launch an advertising campaign. A classic case of wallpapering over the cracks. It NEVER works, so the fact that some idiot decided they could get away with such a crap response when the eyes of the world were upon them only serves to make this more incredible.

The result is a campaign that frankly leaves me, and it seems most of the people who have witnessed it, speechless. In a competition entitled “The Ultimate Bucket List” (Yes you read it right!) they invite entrants to list the places they would like to see before they die! (Begging the question – Does this necessitate getting these trips in before their next Malaysia Airlines flight?). We can only guess how much additional damage was done before they realised their gaff and pulled the campaign, but it must be something akin to a power cut in a critical care ward!

I’m not even going to start on the utter stupidity of such an idea in the context of any airline. What fascinates me is how many senior people must have seen and approved this campaign before it hit the market. Whoever they are, the guilty parties deserve to be shot, purely on the grounds that they are taking up space on this earth that could more usefully be occupied by an amoeba!

Were these people cheap hires, over-promisers, under experienced? Probably all of the above. If not the outcome is yet another mystery in the annals of Malaysia Airlines, but there’s a lesson here for everyone and especially businesses in developing markets – THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS! Only the best people will produce the best work and there is no place in today’s competitive marketplace for anything but the best! So if you can’t balance your books with a business model that includes hiring the right people for the job, you should just quit before you waste more resources.

Originally published on LinkedIn September 2014

Phil Darby
August 1, 2018

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