I was thrilled to talk today with Linda Popky, marketing guru, friend, and colleague. She invited me to her MarketingThoughtLeadership.com podcast (updated link).

As I prepped for the conversation, I thought of how the marketing value chain has shifted, and how the ability to lead by letting go becomes more important as a result. Lighter formal connections will lead to deeper understandings of the work to be done. I’m admitting that you don’t actually let go of everything, but rather, you create thoughtful opportunities for flexibility where there have been rigid controls.

Some examples -- and please, let me know if you’d like a focused discussion of any one of these -- Marketing lets go of advertising (Google AdSense) and customers become consultants, product design lets go of design (3D printing), R&D lets go of innovation (prizes), and organizations let go of employees providing opportunities to market to millions of news small businesses as the employees work independently .

Think about how our world is changing: We now make our own airplane reservations, we shop when we feel like it, we often can bring our own technologies to work. We have become designers of our own work and interactions. Organizations that used to mediate those relationships have moved into the background. Yes, there are travel agents, but we use them for their expertise and relationships, not their access to the airline systems.

We, and our customers and clients, have access to sensors, big data, and transparency into how things are.

We are symphony conductors rather than cogs in a machine.

If you can figure out how to lead in a light handed way, you win. You lead by letting go of the structures that were valuable when the 800 lb gorilla was king given the huge value of standardization and the huge cost of customization. Now that the cost of customization is down, the nimble gazelle (to draw from Nilofer Merchant’s work ) has a chance.

This is both being in the lead, and leading others.

Ben Schneider and David Bowen’s 1995 book, Winning the Service Game , foreshadowed the importance of leadership:

Of course customers can be making demands the firm does not want employees responding to either positively or negatively. So, how can customers be useful substitutes for leadership? They can be trained in ways that make them useful both for the company and themselves.

Customers should be used as consultants to the organization. p. 44

I might not say, “trained,” but I do think marketing has great opportunity in thinking of their role as one of leadership. Marketing can helps customers with need assessment, product/service development, pricing, and certainly, advertising. In the podcast I used Shapeways as an example, so stay tuned....

Photo credit: Rob Swystun