Maximize Impact by Eliminating Marginal Programs

June 5, 2020

Contributor: Rama Ramaswami

Mediocre programs can be the biggest drain on marketing resources. Here are four ways to spot and remove underperformers.

Well before the COVID-19 outbreak, marketing organizations faced major challenges: More cross-functional responsibilities, mounting pressure to innovate and an urgent need to establish customer loyalty. As the crisis evolves, those challenges are even more overwhelming.

CMOs now need to make every resource and investment count. That means scrutinizing each program in their portfolios and asking whether they can justify the time and money spent on it or whether those resources are better spent elsewhere. 

Identifying the obvious underperformers is usually relatively easy. It’s the mediocre programs that can end up having a more insidious effect on budgets and resources. “Marginal programs may provide some positive return, which keeps them off the chopping block,” says Chris Ross, VP Analyst, Gartner. “But those marginal programs, especially multiple marginal programs, may have large opportunity costs or consume disproportionate resources. Marketers should look for certain characteristics to identify what’s marginal.”

Four key attributes of marginal programs

As a CMO, you focus on prioritizing programs with proven or potential high impact. Ask whether the programs you’re evaluating meet that standard. Gartner research points to four features that marginal programs have in common:

  • Misalignment. A long-running program may have performed well at one point but over time morphed into a peripheral activity that doesn’t align with current strategies. Review all programs to ensure they are consistent with new business objectives.

  • Failure to launch. Some programs show early promise but never take off. New initiatives need the proper time and resources to flourish in their early stages. Later on, marketers should watch them closely to see if they live up to their potential.

  • Constant mediocrity. Although a holistic portfolio approach can help balance high- and lower-impact programs, it can also mask indifferent programs that somehow never fall below the line where they get cut. In such cases, it’s essential to examine whether the resource and opportunity costs still make sense.

  • Vanity project. You may be stuck with ill-advised pet projects sponsored by others — usually high-level executives — in the organization. These initiatives may even live on long after a sponsoring executive has left the company. Addressing vanity programs requires finesse, but try to eliminate them wherever possible.

Managing Budget Cuts

Optimize budgets and investments across marketing programs.

Target idle technology and disruptive partner relationships

Scrutinize marketing technology and partners just as you would programs, with an eye to eliminating all but the most productive. Technology accounts for a big chunk of marketing budgets, but marketers use only about two-thirds of the tools in which they invest. As you pare down programs, look out for apps and platforms that have only a limited number of users, underutilized features, duplicate functions or misalignment with marketing strategies.

“Cast an extremely critical eye on future technology investments,” says Ross. “Confirm that there is a clear path to fully use the new capabilities and build a technology roadmap that includes the necessary human capital requirements.”

Like technology, partner relationships can become defunct. There’s no question that external agencies and other service providers can add value to a marketing organization, but now is the time to divest yourself of contentious or difficult partners. When reviewing your agency roster, consider opportunities for easy consolidation, such as integrating the work of one provider into similar work that another partner is performing. Be vigilant about ending short-term engagements when they are no longer needed and eliminate agencies that work disproportionately on low-impact programs.

Lack of management discipline often leads organizations to tolerate marginal activities. By regularly subjecting all programs, technology and partnerships to a thorough review, you can reserve precious resources for those that have a meaningful, positive impact.


Gartner clients can learn more in The CMO’s Guide to Eliminating Marginal Programs, Platforms and Partners. Gartner clients can also visit the Gartner COVID-19 Resource Center to learn more about how to lead through the disruption of coronavirus.

You may also be interested in

3 Key Gartner Marketing Predictions for 2021

December 03, 2020

Digital marketing leaders will place real-time, real-place experiences, brand reputation and responsiveness to customer needs at the top of their priority list.

Gartner Keynote: Marketing Will Rely on Four Core Competencies for Recovery and Renewal

December 01, 2020

Coming off an incredibly challenging year, marketing leaders must prioritize agility and adaptability to position their businesses for growth.

Brand Strategies Focused on Dependability Score Highest on Customer Trust

December 01, 2020

Marketers use several brand trust-building strategies to win over customers. Showcasing a brand’s dependability works best.

“I use Gartner to bolster my confidence in decision making.”

Stay smarter.