Recently, a colleague gave me the book, “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s what I call an easy airplane read, but it made me uncomfortable as I absorbed it and realized what a huge series of mistakes I’ve been making by trying to do more in my marketing job instead of trying to do my very best at the most important thing.

“The One Thing” is that essential element, or domino, that will make everything else fall into place. In all professions, it’s that not-urgent-but-most-important project or skill you need to have. In life, it’s where you spend your time and which relationships matter. Unfortunately, our society not only honors multitasking but has been shaped by an excess of technology and innovation that serves to interrupt us all day long. For that reason, we dissipate our energy and get lost in the small stuff, in every area of our lives.

What hit me somewhere over the Midwest on my flight from Los Angeles to Boston is that many marketers, including me, have lost focus on what should be the one big thing: our message. Instead:

  • We are all spending so much time finding content to put “out there” that our voice gets pointed in too many directions.
  • The sheer volume of ads, campaigns and social posts required is huge, and we try to be fresh, so we end up with multiple messages.
  • Let’s face it, we love the crayons. It’s tempting to jump to creative execution as you imagine how to express your ideas.
  • In the spirit of collaboration we sometimes “groupthink” or try too hard to meld ideas rather than cut away to clarity.

This year, I explained to our CEO that the marketing team wanted to take the entire first quarter to work on our message, and he was totally supportive. Like me, he could feel how our message was “almost there,” but still wasn’t doing justice to our company’s mission. We help people with a different system and process that ensures investing and planning are driven by deeply personal goals. We strive to improve their lives, not just wallets. In an industry full of glib marketing, false claims of personalization and many copy cats, what we are doing is real, tangible and groundbreaking. Our message has to be as human, authentic, inspiring and fact-based as we are. This objective is worthy of our complete focus and attention.

We presented a monthly plan that would get us to a place where we’d be ready to test our ideas. Our objective was not to finalize or launch anything, but just to settle upon what we believe to be true for us. This is a plan that requires patience:

  • January: Gather input. Think about what we offer until we get it sharp and down to its essence,
  • February: Examine how we talk about our offer in the context of competitors, customers and prospects.
  • March: Refine our offer based on the context and feedback and make it even sharper.

To execute this plan, we would slow down advertising and campaigns rather than speed them up. I would need wide open blocks of time on my calendar, our CEO’s calendar and the calendars of other key stakeholders. Each thought or moment of crystallization needs time to settle, so we would only think, not act. We would discipline ourselves to avoid the addictive, alluring call of the latest slogan, tagline, graphic or ad concept. We’d narrow the group working on this to just a few people. We’d encourage a debate, but in the end the job of threading the needle would take some time in solitude and self- criticism. We would mull, ponder and practice our concepts in chance conversations until they fit like a glove. Writing the ideas down to tear them apart, we’d finally have words worthy of sharing, then honing further. At this point, we’d embrace feedback and tire kicking and we’d refine again. Only then would we move to creative expression and design.

Until you try this, it may seem unimportant or easy. But I dare you to actually try. To me, this work is the hardest, purest and most important part of marketing, and it’s almost a lost art due to the pace and volume of advertising and promotion today. It should not be outsourced to agencies, or taken lightly so that your messages flip flop like a political candidate’s promises.

As a CMO, the message is “The One Thing” in your job that drives the effectiveness of everything else. Join me in slowing down to think. Instead of trying to do more, let’s try to do our very best at the most important thing. Patience will pay off.