This week, I’ve been reviewing the transcripts of interviews with 16 leaders of the UK’s leading independent agencies – over 30 hours of conversation about how their marketing went from ‘pretty crap, actually’ to fantastic.

What was the spark, I wondered, that caused lasting change?

There wasn’t a single moment for any of them, but one thing the interviewees shared was that they identified as leaders of businesses that did their own marketing, and did it well.

Some had this identity from the start, seeing what hadn’t worked at previous ventures and resolving to prioritise marketing from the get-go. Others, fed-up with unpredictable growth, invested in outside help and training, and resolved to change the culture within the business; starting with themselves.

This question of identity came up again this week while I was listening to the audiobook Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones, by James Clear.

While describing how hard it is to establish new, ‘good’ habits, Mr Clear describes ‘the plateau of latent potential’ and the ‘valley of disappointment’ one must get through to turn a few weeks of good behaviour into a lifetime of virtue. Through a marketing lens, it’s that gap between expectation (‘we’ve been blogging and doing social media for 3 months now’) and reality (still no leads!).

The key to crossing the plateau, he says, is identity.

He gives the example of two smokers, trying to quit. Both are offered cigarettes. One says ‘no thanks, I’m trying to quit’, the other ‘no thanks, I’m not a smoker’. The former still identifies as a smoker, and will most likely smoke again, probably after a few pints. The latter is going to find it much tougher to slip into old habits after saying both to others and herself that she’s not a smoker.

Marketing is a process. It is long-term. It is a system that you create and stick with to achieve profitable growth. Getting started – or getting out of the ‘boom and bust’ marketing cycle – requires a commitment to good habits. That commitment will be severely tested when it’s costing time and money and providing little reward.  

Thanks to these founders and Atomic Habits, I now see that the key to getting our own marketing to the place it needs to be lies not in not the plans, the channels, or even the great team we have. The key is to link my identity to the process. No longer can I use the ‘cobbler’s shoes’ excuse. I have to identify as someone who prioritises the marketing of our agency and does it well.

If you’re a marketing director or manager, I would urge you to think about how you can get the business leader you work for to make great marketing – your marketing plan – a part of their identity.

And if you’re running a business, do you identify as a leader of a business that’s ‘crap at marketing’, or one who is building a high-performance marketing machine?

This isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy as such, the work will not be any less difficult. But if you identify as someone dedicated to marketing greatness, you’ll see the bigger picture: the eventual pay off to the hard yards.