Do you tend to say “yes” to nearly every marketing opportunity, project, and request –  taking on too much, while underestimating the amount of time something is going to take?  Does it leave you (or others) putting in more hours, scrambling to meet deadlines, hoping to feel caught up but never actually knowing if doing more work is making a difference or when it will end? It’s likely the result of a fragmented mindset that continually doing more is somehow related to accomplishing more.  And, as they say, the first step is recognizing you have a problem.

Here’s the problem: the research shows doing more is the exact opposite of an accomplishment, it’s a trap, a broken understanding of effective marketing, and a potentially abysmal way to live.  What if you knew – definitively – that doing more is setting you on the path to dissatisfying work, aggravated employees, and missed opportunity for real results?

Having experienced this first-hand in my own missteps as a marketing leader, I have spent my more recent career focused on eliminating the unnecessary.  So, here’s my plea to all marketers – it’s time we prioritize prioritizing and become more than leaders, but fierce “editors” of the marketing workload.  Thanks to recently reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, a transformative book by Greg McKeown, I have found the right words to apply to this philosophy: the essentialist marketer.  And here’s how to become one.

What is Essentialism?

Essentialism is simple – in this context it means less but better. It’s closely aligned to “quality over quantity” but with more intentionality.  Your guiding principle as an essentialist is best summed up by this quote:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”


And here’s my marketer’s twist: to attain madness, keep adding marketing programs. To attain results, keep subtracting marketing programs.

Essentialism in marketing can initially seem tricky – recommending running fewer marketing programs and eliminating projects can be an unpopular opinion.   Hey boss, this week I am going to do less, cool?  Well, if you like less but better results, then it is cool.

And once you’re bought into the idea that you can do less while simultaneously achieving more, the real work is applying this mindset to your work day in and day out.  In marketing, it takes the form of making the conscious effort to pause before saying “yes”, before doing more.  By shifting your effort to eliminating the programs and tasks that clog up the system and avert real progress, you might discover more purpose, more passion, and better results.

If essentialism resonates with you, use these tips to start applying them in your marketing organization today:

1. Acknowledge the problem

Once you understand that less but better should live within every decision you make, you have a new mindset, and that’s a great start. But an essentialist marketer is not simply cutting out work effort and kicking up their feet.  It’s about a conscious decision of spending more time enhancing and evolving the things that matter the most, and eliminating the things are “nice to have” or that simply aren’t producing any results.

This, of course, requires that you are tracking results and constantly looking at how the work is performing.  It can be simple like looking for decreases in your effectiveness (open rates are down, lead quality is lower, opt-outs are increasing), and it can be complex like analyzing campaign ROI and eliminating programs that don’t meet a certain threshold.

2.  Allot time and space for “escape”

Of course, if you are going to be watching how things are performing, you’ll need time to do so. Escape time in marketing means intentional time where results are reviewed, discussed, openly pondered and questioned. It’s also a great time to prioritize and get creative with trying new programs (subtract first) or improving existing ones.

You can create your own escape – one day per week with no meetings, a weekly priority-setting time, a quiet location where you can read and think –  and leaders, don’t forget to structure “escape” for your entire team both individually and as a group. If making time for this kind of work initially feels impossible, use that as a bright and flashing sign that the time is desperately needed.

3. Say “No”

In Essentialism, McKeown offers up a story from Peter Drucker, you know, the OG effective executive? You can read the story here but to summarize, he believes people are effective because they say no.  And Drucker did this with the kind of grace you’ll need as a marketer leader.

How do you know when to use this powerful tool?  Every. single. day.  Use it freely, and often.  You’ll know to say “no” because you’ve spent the time establishing clear priority filters, knowing what fits and what doesn’t.

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”

Josh Billings

Now that you’re building your essentialist muscles, here’s a few quick applications in your day-to-day marketing world.

  • Start small. Think about programs you are running that have been running for longer than 6 months.  This could be as simple as your blog posting or product collateral format.
  • Review the results, look for trends.  Connect the activity as best you can to change in the organization.  Is it directly supporting revenue growth?  Is it a vanity program so we can say “we do that”?  (we are all guilty of vanity programs…)
  • Filter, filter, filter. Have your priorities so clear they can be written up and shared regularly.  When a new project or opportunity presents itself, look at your list.  If your priorities keep growing and you can’t define a high priority, know that it’s time to reset.  Reset often.
  • Have a plan.  Know how you deal with random requests or last-minute opportunities. Know that you will be unpopular when you have to say “no”. Let go of your need to take on more or be perceived as a “go-to”.  Feel zero guilt for setting the necessary limits because the real guilt lies in allowing your marketing to be ineffective.

In closing, one of my favorite history lessons from the Essentialism book:

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.

Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple ‘first’ things.

People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism Author

Won’t you join me in becoming an essentialist marketer?


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