Marketing vs. Engineering: 5 Rules For Peaceful Coexistence

It may seem like a cliché, but in many companies around the world, Marketing and Engineering often don’t see eye to eye. Whether it’s a marketer taking offense because Engineering says a potentially world-changing new product idea can’t be produced and sold for less than a small fortune, or Engineering accusing Marketing of exaggerating the technical capabilities of a new design, we’ve all been on one side of the divide at some point.

Can the relationship between Marketing and Engineering be constructive? As an independent design consultant I’ve had the good fortune to work with design/engineering/marketing teams at companies big and small; famous and infamous; harmonious and rancorous; successful and…otherwise. Based on years of observation, I believe the answer is yes. It may not be easy, but I have some suggestions sure to facilitate peace, love and understanding—not only between Marketing and Engineering, but across your organization as a whole.

But first, a disclaimer: Unsupervised interaction between engineers and marketers may lead to passive-aggressive inter-departmental email flame wars, ugly rumors, backbiting, program delays, injury, or death. Before attempting this in your place of work, take care to establish plausible deniability for yourself and any other persons involved.

Stereotypes: they’re fun because they’re true!

At Industrial Design school they teach you to speak Marketeerish (the secret: it’s mostly made up) along with rudimentary Engineerian (tip: an engineer with free beer is a happy engineer). A fledgling industrial designer quickly learns that marketers are usually considered too manipulative and/or willfully obfuscatory to sustain real relationships, while engineers are typically assumed to be born without empathy, and therefore incapable of expressing emotions beyond mild, sardonic annoyance. And when one department says something, the other often hears something different, as in these examples:

Marketeerish -> Engineerian Translation

Marketer: “It needs more sex appeal…”
What Engineering hears: “I have no idea what I want. Now go do it!”

Marketer: “We need something disruptive*…” (*insert marketing buzzword of the month)
What Engineering hears: “I read the dust cover on a Malcolm Gladwell book this morning. The words sounded smart, which made me feel empowered.”

Marketer: “The market study we purchased says…”
What Engineering hears: “We spent your annual salary on some charts illustrating common sense! Carry on.”

Engineerian -> Marketeerish Translation

Engineer: “It’s a program risk.”
What Marketing hears: “That sounds like work.”

Engineer: “It’s technically infeasible.”
What Marketing hears: “That sounds like a lot of work.”

Engineer: “How are you going to pull that out of the mold tool?”
What Marketing hears: “When will you openly worship my innate superiority?”

5 Rules for Inter-Departmental Peace and Prosperity

Engineers vs marketing 2

The worst office in which I’ve ever worked was utterly dysfunctional. Yes, it was disorganized, chaotic, and constantly rancorous, but the root cause of its dysfunction was political—not organizational. The power struggles between groups were so cancerous that they infected virtually every project the moment a bid was won. Junior staff worked long, stressful hours. Senior members were often indecisive, self-contradictory, and perpetually supplied with the favorite scapegoat of “excessive workload.” (Workload was not the problem.) Despite the long hours worked, the firm brought only a tiny percentage of its projects through to completion. In an atmosphere this toxic, no two departments—least of all Engineering and Marketing—can work together effectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, the best office in which I’ve ever worked (it’s a real place, I promise!) was one in which designers, engineers, marketers, and management all respected one another, spoke well of one another behind closed doors and trusted one another’s judgment. When conflicts arose, the interested parties took it upon themselves to understand one another and come to a solution.

Play nice and get along? If it sounds like Kindergarten logic, that’s because it is! And it works. This company, despite being a fun and easy-going place to work, was also one of the most productive I’ve ever encountered. They released an (unusually) large number of products to market, had a large pool of repeat customers, and were able to build capacity to accommodate new ones. When Marketing, Engineering and Design work together humbly, honestly and efficiently, great products happen almost effortlessly.

In considering these two extremes, I’ve come up with at least five ways that every office can foster the kind of relationships that make for an efficient team environment. They’re simple, universal and…well…frankly, pretty obvious.

1: Use plain English (or your language of choice)

One plain-English sentence is worth a thousand industry buzzwords. All too often, we try to hide a lack of real insight by using important-sounding lingo. Throwing around technical-sounding catch phrases might make me feel smart and empowered in the moment, but I know that if I can’t explain myself in simple, straightforward English, I really have no business saying anything at all. If I find a lot of sloppy lingo in my day-to-day lexicon, I try translating it for a twelve-year-old. If I can’t do that, I need to do some soul searching.

2: Cede all authority outside your areas of expertise

I’ve worked in offices where Marketing ruled by diktat, while engineers and designers scrambled to make their impossible “ideas” into workable realities. I’ve also worked in offices where Engineering held sway, forcing technically-smart but unmarketable products to market, naively believing that a product that “works well” is one that will succeed on technical merit alone. Both of these approaches are deeply problematic.

When Marketing is charged with making decisions about engineering (or vice versa) volatility inevitably ensues. If I hire someone to do a job, it’s because I believe him or her to be more competent than I am in that particular area, and it’s critical that I empower the people I manage to make any and all decisions in their particular realm of expertise. This doesn’t mean shoving responsibility off on others, but rather allowing competent professionals to do what they do best. Marketing serves a crucial role in a successful business, as does Engineering. For these to mesh well together, strong, mutual respect is vital.

3: Assume every request is difficult

Nothing makes an engineer angrier than when someone in management asks if he or she might “just” do something with a design. When making requests, I find it’s best to always assume that it will require a herculean effort on the part of the person being asked, and to show appropriate gratitude for the work involved.

For example, I know that when a client comes to me and asks “Hey, can you just render fifteen more views of xyz for me?” I want to reply “sure, and can you just add a couple of zeros to the end of that quote I gave you?” Conversely, if a client says “Hey, I know this is a lot to ask, but so-and-so really needs this. I’m trying to fight him off, but is there any way we could accommodate at least part of what he needs?” I’ll bend over backwards to get that person what he or she needs—and then some. A little respect goes a long way!

4: Be forthright

This may sound obvious, but it’s surprisingly rare in office culture. I’ve seen team members try to affect change through petty manipulation, back-stabbing, withholding information, spreading rumors, and/or generally doing anything possible to avoid looking someone in the eye and confronting a problem directly. I’ve seen both engineers and marketers do this, and while it may work out on occasion, it generally leads to an atmosphere of mistrust. When one group feels they can’t trust the other—as is all too often the case—it’s impossible to collaborate effectively.

5: Humility wins the day

I’ve worked in dozens of offices, and I’ve witnessed thousands of day-to-day interactions between (and among) designers, marketers, engineers, bean-counters, project managers and executives. If there’s one thing common to all productive exchanges, it’s humility. When smart people sit down together believing that their collective intelligence is greater than that of any one individual, good things happen. That doesn’t mean bending over backward to let others have their way, but it does mean listening with the energy and attention that real respect deserves.

Engineers vs marketing 3Can marketers and engineers get along? Yes they can. Does it happen often? Well, let’s just say that it could happen a lot more often than it does. But I’m an optimist, and the nice thing about “survival of the fittest” is that it tends to weed out the bad actors. Firms that allow engineers and marketers to live on the brink of fisticuffs at all times are not ones that will succeed in the long run. Conversely, assuming that you may not always be right only makes the workplace a more pleasant place for all involved, and makes teams more productive.

ID Dave

ID Dave

Dave is a graduate of a top Industrial Design school, and has worked at companies large and small across the United States. He is currently in the Industrial Designer Protection Program.
ID Dave

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  • http://www.fromtechnicaltocommercial.com Yaser

    I love it, thank you so much for this piece! The language barrier is definitely a big wall! I have actually started a book and a blog about the career shift I did from technical to commercial http://www.fromtechnicaltocommercial.com while being at Dassault Systemes , I would love to have your input on the topic!

  • Ben Merrill

    Your examples made this an enjoyable read (as well as informative) – thanks!