Rowing is a great metaphor for the work of marketing – so what can we learn from rowers?
Anyone who knows me will tell you I like cycling, but as of about three years ago I’ve found I LOVE rowing.
Cycling is brilliant for headspace and strategic thinking – I quite often stop halfway home to record ideas I have en route – but despite my husband talking lyrically about his cycling mates, it’s essentially a solo exercise.
Rowing in an eight however, is a great metaphor for the work of marketing. It takes skill and practice to get the boat going even half decently. For example ‘setting’ the boat - getting it to sit flat - is amazingly hard and on some outings it never happens (keeping in mind that I’ve only been rowing for three years). It’s affected by the tiniest things, from the height your hands are at when you finish a stroke to sitting up straight. As with marketing, sometimes you have to get certain parts of the machine set up just right or it’ll never work well.
An eight is made up of people with different strengths – the power tends to be in the centre, the finesse and technique is at either end, and most rowers don’t shift between ‘bow’ and ‘stroke’ side (why it isn’t called right and left, or port and starboard I don’t know!). The technique – including the 20 or so things you do in every stroke – is exactly the same for everyone but tiny variations among the crew make a big difference…you can’t focus just on yourself because you have to feel how the boat overall is progressing and what the net output is. This may make rowers seem like robots but in fact when it’s working well, there’s a fantastic sense not only of teamwork but of ‘flow’. It’s the most exacting and precise exercise I’ve ever done, but it can feel fluid and seamless, and the collective output is of course bigger and better than rowing alone. So like marketing, the team inspires us to try harder, and it’s part science, part ‘gut feel’ and art.
The cox’s job is leadership: obviously to have a plan, to make sure everyone gets what they are doing, when and why. A cox needs a flexible strategy to manage and inspire the team to their best row yet, defining roles and dealing with issues as they arise. It might seem like just a load of shouting but some of the cox’s impact is extremely subtle as they manage a lot of potential issues invisibly, without distracting the crew from the main task. It’s their job to see the wood for the trees and watch ahead to navigate often busy and choppy waters.
Some of my best rowing experiences have been with mixed crews. The best marketing teams I’ve worked with (as a client and now managing KISS) are always a mix of ages, genders, skillsets and backgrounds, agency and client-side. Over the years I’ve learned that, just like rowing, the best results come when we respect a time-honoured process and have the discipline to stick to it regardless of the pressures or other external factors (most of the Henley Boat Race rules haven’t changed in 164 years!). We still have a lot of fun in the process and the results often surprise everyone, which is why it’s still exciting for me.
An effective marketing team needs the right people but it doesn’t need to be massive or take months to produce good output. And of course, some people vital to a marketing team are like the rowing bank crews, boat repairers and coaches – they come in just briefly and do their job, but they play a key supporting role.
And yes, just like marketing, not all rowing outings are great. Sometimes you try stuff and it just doesn’t work, which affects us all (I did lose four races in four days last year) but you try not to prolong the agony and you keep learning and adapting to new ways of working.
A bad day on the river is still better than a good day off it.