Understanding and resolving the clash between marketing and product teams

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

I’ve recently been delivering a series of workshops to product teams for a big local company.

The brief for the workshops had come from the company’s marketing team. They had enlisted the help of the product teams to write blogs for the company’s content marketing strategy. But the blogs they were getting back couldn’t be used until they’d gone through a lengthy and painful editing process to make them appropriate for the company’s target audience. The process was taking up far too much of everyone’s time and causing a great deal of friction. The marketing team needed me to train their product teams to write blog copy so less intervention would be needed before each blog could be published.

If you’ve ever worked in a marketing role, the experiences of the marketing team in this case will probably be familiar to you. No matter how many times you tell your product teams what you need, they never seem to be able to give it to you. They don’t give a straight answer to a straight question when you ask them for information to help you write copy. And don’t even talk about what comes back if you trust them with writing blogs or thought leadership articles!

Getting sign off on content you have created is another problem. You write powerful, customer-centric pieces only to have them destroyed by product teams wanting to add more information or unnecessary levels of detail.

You want to draw on the expertise your product teams have to offer, but it’s very, very hard. It’s like you’re talking to them in a foreign language.

Equally, you know that just as you’re baffled by your product teams, your product teams are baffled by you. This diagram discusses sales team members, but you know your product teams think very similar things about marketing as well.

The Brain of a Sales Rep — A Visual Guide

But despite all this, if you want to do the best job you can, a harmonious, respectful relationship with your product teams is vital. No one knows more about the product you’re selling than they do. You need their knowledge. And as SaaS growth consultant and product manager Jason Amunwa says: “A great end-to-end customer experience is becoming an expectation of today’s customers, and the only way to provide this is through tight alignment between Marketing and Product teams.”

So how do you go about building a good relationship with your product teams? A relationship where you value their input and they value yours? A relationship where you both understand each other and getting sign off on work isn’t tortuous and frustrating?

Let’s take a look.

Where does the conflict stem from?

Andre Theus, VP of Marketing at ProductPlan, thinks the conflict between marketing and product teams stems from a conflict in day-to-day goals. Of course, on the face of it, both marketing and product teams want a successful product, happy customers and a thriving company. But that all sounds very idealistic when you’re caught up in the everyday realities of office life.

People get busy. They get caught up putting out fires, hurriedly chipping away at their to-do lists, and responding to urgent requests from their senior managers. Keep in mind, too, that in many companies, product managers answer to different VPs than the people in marketing, so these urgent requests are often based on very different, department-specific agendas.

All of this is to say that in their good-faith efforts to accomplish all of their day-to-day responsibilities, product managers and the folks in marketing can often find themselves with very different priorities and goals.

This picture will be very familiar to lots of people. But for the authors of Redefining new product development teams: learning to actualize consumer contributions, there are deeper forces at play. They suggest that in many organisations the mantra that the customer is king (or queen) hasn’t filtered beyond the marketing department, something that inevitably leads to conflict. They say: “[E]ngineers, financial managers and production people do not necessarily view the customer as the center of the business’s activities, often taking an adversarial approach to customers rather than the cooperative approach implied by customer focus.”

From my own experiences, I recognise both situations. There are times when you need urgent sign off on copy so you can get it to print and hit deadline. But your product teams have their own deadlines and priorities to contend with. I also recognise the sense of mutual confusion when asking a product team to explain the benefit of a particular feature of a new product and not getting an answer you think will resonate particularly strongly with your customers.

The good news is that despite the mutual antipathy, no matter what the root cause, and no matter whether it sometimes feels otherwise, the overwhelming majority of people think marketing is essential to a business — in a survey conducted by Research Now and reported on in Marketing Week in the UK, 84% of respondents said marketing was essential and only 1% believed marketing had little or no effect on the business.

The same research also highlighted the recognition that more cooperation was required:

In departments other than marketing there is an average gap of 21 percentage points between the proportion who say their function should collaborate with marketing and those who say it actually does. The most significant differences were seen in customer service and R&D with 84% and 74% of respondents respectively saying they should collaborate effectively with the marketing team.

Reasons to work together and collaborate more closely

So if there is a recognition that a lack of cooperation causes problems, is it possible to pinpoint how working together more closely delivers benefits?

The answer, quite simply, is yes. The arguments for mutual cooperation are overwhelming.

Research by Chung-Jen Chen and published in IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management demonstrated that products developed by cross-functional teams perform better in the market than others.

Research by Abbie Griffin and John R. Hauserand published in The Journal of Product Innovation Management showed that the critical factor in a product’s ultimate success or failure was the marketing team’s involvement with research and development during the new product development process.

Then there’s the fact that, as we saw earlier, having a customer-centric business is the new normal. In this landscape, marketing plays a critical role. Jason Amunwa says:

Having both teams pulling in the same direction confers massive benefits to your product, including:

- Stronger retention (and the associated competitive advantage)

- A more seamless customer experience

- Greater focus on more impactful work, instead of chasing vanity metrics that don’t actually help the business

- Less redundant work — Marketing knows things that can make Product’s life much easier, and vice versa.

So what’s the way forward?

Of course, it’s easy to show there’s a problem. It’s equally easy to say it’s important to overcome it. The real question is: what can we do about it? Are there actionable, achievable steps the average person in the average marketing department in the average company can do to improve relations with their product team counterparts?


All the evidence — and my own experience — suggests there are four pillars that underpin a successful relationship between marketing and product teams. Two of these are around mindset shifts. Two are practical approaches that ease day-to-day interactions.

Mindset shift one: understanding transactional analysis or I’m OK; you’re OK

Eric Berne developed the theory of transactional analysis in the 1950s. Within this, he outlined the principle that we are all born ‘OK’ — in other words good and worthy. Frank Ernst developed these into the OK matrix.

Transactional Analysis

The I’m OK; You’re OK quadrant is the place for adults to aim for. Both parties treat each other as equals and with mutual respect. There is no sense of inferiority or superiority. This sounds obvious, but in my experience the sense of frustration and irritation marketing teams feel about their product counterparts frequently spill over into their interactions with them. A passive aggressive atmosphere builds up and deadlock is quickly reached. It takes practice, but it’s important to take a step back and ask: “If they spoke to me in the way I’ve just spoken to them, how would I react?” In other words, speak as you would like to be spoken to. The more you patronise, the less you’re likely to get the result you want.

Mindset shift two: don’t assume too much

It’s very easy to assume everyone knows everything you do. But marketing is a complex science and art. While many of the concepts may be familiar and obvious to you, they won’t be to your product teams.

I’ll give you an example. Think back to the training sessions I was asked to deliver to teach product teams to write blogs. When the marketing team outlined the problem to me, they framed it in the context of the product team not being able to write. But the product team were highly qualified, intelligent people and I found it hard to believe this would be true. And I could see this was the case too. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with the blogs they were writing they just didn’t speak to their target audience.

More likely, I figured, no one had taken the time to explain who they were blogging for or why. So in the workshop I spent some time exploring the concept of their target audience and what they would be looking for from the content they were reading. And the lightbulbs did indeed flash on. At one point, one of the product team held up a blog they’d written previously and said simply: “Our customers wouldn’t want to read this. It’s too long and it just isn’t relevant to them.”

Two months later, the marketing team reported back that the workshop had the desired effect — the product team was now writing blogs that could be published with minimal editing or input required from the marketing team. In fact, they wanted to book me for a further six workshops with their other product teams.

Take time to explain in detail what it is you need and why. When your product teams understand what you want they’re in a much better position to be able to deliver it.

Practical action one: formalise your processes

As we saw above, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective collaboration is conflicting schedules and priorities. You can overcome this with a set of clear processes.

If you’re working on material that will require sign off from the product team or any other departments, give them the heads up. Put together a schedule that shows when you’ll have first / second / third drafts, design concepts and so on with them. When they know in advance you’ll need their input they can set time aside. They can also let you know beforehand that they’ll be on holiday / at a conference / working to a nightmare deadline so you can adjust the schedule to work round this.

Copywriting superstar Joanna Wiebe strongly recommends using a DACI. The DACI model gives everyone a role:

D = Driver. The one person responsible for corralling stakeholders, collating all the necessary information and getting a decision made by the agreed date. This may or may not be the project’s full-time owner, depending on the decision.

A = Approver. The one person who makes the decision.

C = Contributors. They have knowledge or expertise that may influence the decision –i.e., they have a voice, but no vote.

I = Informed. They are informed of the final decision.

So, for instance, you might be the driver. The approver might be a member of your product team and/or your boss. What they say goes. A contributor might be someone in the legal department. They can flag up legal problems but you can ignore their comments on design, tone or anything else. An Informed might be other people in the marketing department. You don’t have to take any notice of anything they say — they need to be kept in the loop, but no more.

When you’re working on a project, put together a DACI and share it with the stakeholders. As well as setting expectations and boundaries, you’re also helping others manage their workload by outlining the role and responsibility in relation to the work.

When sending drafts of your work for approval, take time to set your work in context. Recap the objectives of the piece. Explain the research you’ve done, the data that has informed your work, the principles you have worked from. This helps establish marketing as a science not an art. It means it’s much harder to disagree with the conclusions you’ve reached because it’s based on sold facts not inspiration, creativity, your opinion or anything else that’s easily knocked down.

Be specific about the feedback you want too. You want people to highlight factual inaccuracies, discrepancies in tone, legal stumbling blocks. Not only does this set parameters that should help to minimise the feedback you get, it also makes the product team’s life easier because you’re asking them to look out for specifics, not give general feedback. And Ben Davis, editor of the Econsultancy blog says, don’t be afraid to push back on the feedback. If you don’t understand why someone has suggested something, ask them for clarification. By incorporating or ignoring something unthinkingly, you could be compromising the quality of your work.

Practical action two: agree on mutual outcomes

As a marketing team, you’ll have objectives and targets you want to meet: conversion rates, likes on Facebook, sales etc. But Andre Theus highlights the importance of having common goals with your product teams. This will stop you from falling into silo mode and help keep everyone focused on the big picture objectives.

For example, let’s say you set a common goal to reduce your product/service’s churn rate to 5% this quarter. You can work with your sales team to understand the characteristics of customers who tend to churn so you can tailor your messages towards them. And the product team could be prioritising bug fixes and new features that tackle the churn problem head-on — and gives you plenty of good news to take to the market.

Improving the day-to-day and the bigger picture

By taking the time to foster better relations with your product teams, you’re achieving two things. Firstly, you’re making your day-to-day working life much less stressful and irritating. Secondly, you’re working towards creating a company that’s more successful. And that’s a very exciting place to be.



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