So I was watching the 2013 NBA Eastern Conference Finals game 7 between Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. While making note of the dozens of different ways that the lackluster Pacers were taken to the cleaners by the dominant Miami team (read: LeBron James), I started churning a funky thought in my head. This beautiful, wonderful, exciting, adrenaline-pumping, superstar-studded, tattoo-galore of a game must be an analogy of something. Something equally thought-provoking, exhilarating and life-changing. Oh! I know! Digital marketing!

There has to be something in common between the helter-skelter world of marketing and the organized chaos that basketball – at times – seems to be. Now, I’m making this up as I go along, so just bear with me. I’m sure you’ll either know more about basketball or more about digital marketing once I’m through, and even if not, at least you’ll have suffered with me through another unbearably hot summer evening.

And just as a quick disclaimer: I apologize for the half-Freakonomics, half-Lewis-Carroll, sensationalist post title. It’s just how I roll today.


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The premise

To add some substance to my argument, my premise is simple: digital marketing is team work, where points are awarded for blasting through competition in an attempt to reach the goals we set for our clients. I know, I know, you could substitute “Digital marketing” with any other B2B or B2C business, but my motive here is as simple as my premise: Digital marketing is team work. It is team work. It is team work. Every single word in this sentence should be emphasized. There is no i in team (although this has been disproved, and there’s also ‘me’).

Basketball, as you may know, is all about team work as well. The five-man-unit must play together like a seamless group in order to blast through competition in an attempt to finish the game with a higher score than the other team. A good team is one that comprises of individuals with spectacular talent, all hell-bent on winning the championship trophy. A perfect team is one that transcends the concept of individuality, and becomes more of a unit where the only thing that stands out is the team itself.

How’s that for a premise? Flimsy, generic and completely unsurprising. Which is why I have to go deeper. Much deeper.

The coach vs. the account manager

I’m not going to the GM/CEO-level simply because that’s way too deep, and because that’s a world I (want to) know little about.

However, a coach in basketball is very much like the account manager in digital marketing. In a well-oiled organization, the coach/account manager calls the plays. They analyze the competition and choose the team that will work on any specific goal. Usually these goals are tailored against the competition in the field. In basketball, if the other team goes big then your team goes big. In marketing, if your competition is ad agencies, you want to bring out the visually talented nerds. If your competition is Google’s algorithms, you want to bring out the SEOs. If your competition is your client’s competition, you want to bring out the big guns from all departments to find out where and how your client can stand out.

Coaches and account managers are really important in the grand scheme of things, but in the end they should stay on the sidelines and delegate the brunt of the work to the specialists. Naturally, the world is full of coaches who meddle in the on-court action, and there are plenty of account managers who do all the work by themselves.

And this is OK. Well, actually, basketball coaches shouldn’t be the go-to guys in a choked up offense, but they should participate in the action. Maybe call the referee some dirty names after a poor foul call. Maybe inconspicuously trip the other team’s players. Similarly, account managers should take an interest in the on-going projects. After all, it is their role to keep the client updated and happy.

But seriously. With a team bursting with talent, it’s all about delegation. Let the specialists do their magic.

The back court vs. the creative department

The back court is the most important function of a basketball team. You can argue with me all you want, but I will not budge. Similarly, th__e creative department (especially the content managers) is the lifeline of a digital marketing organization.

The back court are the guards. The ball handlers. The play makers. The distributors. The sharpshooters. The fast breakers. A well-organized offense begins (the dribble, the pass or the shot) and ends (the transition to defense) with the back court. Just think of the following names and you’ll agree with me: Stockton & Hornacek, Isiah & Dumars, Magic & Scott, Curry & Thompson. Even Jordan & Pippen (if you stretch your imagination a little). And then the individuals like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, etc.

The content managers are the king-makers. The miracle factory. The fantastic N (where N = number of content managers). The visionaries. The illuminators. The fashionistas. They are tasked with coming up with the coolest campaigns in the world. With the viral videos. With the keywords that bring in the millions. With the content that wows, ooh-aahs, makes you cry and laugh at the same time, and makes you feel insignificant and god-like all at once. They are the gears that make the machine turn.

“Creative department?! Hah!” I hear you scoff. Well mark my words. Even if your digital marketing team doesn’t have a designated creative department with its Don-Draper-esque content creators, you probably have someone or some people who fit the description. They are the go-to guys who get the project rolling with a crazy idea that everyone kind of fears but kind of loves at the same time.

If you don’t have people like this, you’ll want to, because they make the difference between a poor campaign and a good one. Wait, just like a solid back court is the difference between a poor team (e.g. 2012 Bobcats) versus a good team (e.g. San Antonio Spurs). See how it’s all working out for my analogy?

The forwards vs. the SEOs, the SEMs and all other specialists

And then you have the forwards. These guys are the ones who, at least since the early 80s, have received most stars on the basketball walk of fame. Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan (when he felt like playing a forward), Kobe Bryant (same thing), Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and so on and so forth. They are the players who have the most potential to dazzle, as their roles require ridiculous amounts of athleticism (they have to juggle fluently between various roles in both ends of the court), some very specific skills (sharpshooting, post-up playing, hustling for loose balls, rebounding, defensive rotation), and chameleon-like adaption. They are often quite single-minded and thus poor as play makers, but they make up for it with pure, unadulterated skill in their preferred roles.

Their counterparts in the digital marketing world are the specialists of the marketing team. Do you need someone to hitch up the client’s website in organic results? Get the SEO. Do you need someone to inject the SERP with exact ad impressions? Call the SEM. Do you need someone to design some kick-ass campaigns? Go wake up the AD. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Similarly, in basketball, If you need someone to pick the team up and make the decisive play, you get Kobe or post-2011-LeBron or pre-2000-Jordan. If you need someone to grab the rebound and initiate a fast break, you get Rodman or Moses.

If you need someone for something because you are sure that that someone doing that something will take your project or your game to the next level, you choose that someone from this category.

The center vs. sales

This was a difficult category, as I had no idea what would be the ideal digital marketing counterpart for the big men in the basketball game. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought of the sales people I’ve had the fortune of working with.

A center dominates below the basket. In both ends of the court. They push away the other team, they make room for the driving forwards, they make all-essential screens for the back court, they tip the loose balls in, they grab the rebounds, and they swat away the pitiful shots the opposition makes.

The sales people dominate the end zones as well. In both ends of the project pipeline. They push away the competitors, they negotiate more work for the role-players, they make sure the content managers know what the opportunities are, they ensure continuation after the project is wrapping up, they turn whispers into leads and leads into new sales, and they do this by assuring the client that this digital marketing team is the only one that matters. There’s some overlap with account managers here, as you may notice, but sales people can be specialists as well.

If your sales department stands out in your company, there’s probably something wrong. You don’t want a super-efficient sales unit if your production isn’t up to par. You want equilibrium in both ends of the sales funnel.

And, of course, if your center stands out in your basketball team, you’re also looking at difficulties in the near future. First of all, they usually have a very limited zone of action. Due to their height and mass, they are hardly ever good for dribbling or shooting the ball (there are exceptions). Also, because of the physical nature of their position, they are very injury-prone and thus poor candidates for picking the team up and carrying them to the championship.

The rest

Well I know that there are so many more people involved in digital marketing, and I know I’ve insulted at least, well, no one, by not including them.

I’d love to say that programmers are the most important people in the team, but no. They’re not on the court, they work off-screen. They lay the foundation for the team to operate. They draft the plays, they maintain them, they create new versions of them, and they teach the others how to use them. They are specialists, with specialized functions in the organization, but they are hardly the movers and shakers of a marketing team.

I’d love to say that the analysts, the consultants, and the other managers are important, but I really don’t know what these job titles are so I won’t go there. There’s no such things as just “an analyst” or just “a consultant”, so I’m assuming that they are the same people as the ones I mentioned before. What’s funny is that the job market is overflowing with fancy but nonsensical titles like these.

So is digital marketing like basketball?

I’m happy with how things ended. Sure, I’m being awfully generic and the analogy is stretched at times, but you know what, a basketball team really is like a digital marketing team! They are both built around pure talent, they have very specific goals, for which equally specific tactics and strategies have been devised, and they both bleed and sweat to make sure these goals are achieved (and surpassed). Everybody has a function, and everyone has the potential to make or break every single game/project.

At the same time, everybody is part of a unit, a team, a whole. Remember Isiah Thomas and the secret of basketball? This is what teamwork is all about.

NBA players and marketing professionals, they’re all stars. When you drop your ego and work with your colleagues to surpass all expectations – that’s when you become superstars.