4 Strategies Marketing Leaders Can Steal From Hip-Hop Producers

Traditional top-down organizational models have become less effective in the Digital Age. It’s time for marketing leaders to become collaborators instead of conductors.

Written by David McCarthy
Published on Nov. 20, 2020
4 Strategies Marketing Leaders Can Steal From Hip-Hop Producers
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As campaigns transitioned into digital content experiences, marketing leaders lost something: a contemporary, inspiring metaphor for how to engage their teams.

For years, many leaders have adopted the standard corporate top-down management, comparable to a conductor in an orchestra. The leader sets the goals, dictates the instruments and the tactics and oversees every detail of the execution.

But the days of that autocratic approach are numbered. They have to be. Prescriptive management can’t sustain the velocity of digital or the information appetite of today’s buyers — nor can it fulfill the needs of technically advanced, autonomy-hungry individual contributors inside an organization.

In its place, marketing leaders can look to another figure in music for an inspiration: hip-hop producers.


What Do Hip-Hop Producers Actually Do?

In short, anything and everything. Hip-hop producers’ roles are amorphous and contextual. As Complex notes in “The Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive,” the hip-hop producer may be the one who purchases recording time and equipment, writes or arranges the music, coaches and collaborates with the artist in the studio, or provides the sound to the song.

What’s missing from this job description? Dictating when and how to play.


What Can Marketing Leaders Borrow From Hip-Hop Producers?

On the surface, producers like RZA and WondaGurl may clash with the mainstream perception of leaders. But below it, the genius behind the soundboard offers numerous leadership examples that the leaders behind Pardot or HubSpot may want to consider stealing, especially these four:


1. Offer a Platform, Not a Prescription, for Production

Unlike the conductor model, where the authority is the nucleus of the team and dictates production, the producer leads from behind. It’s the talent that has the space to create. The producer coaches and calibrates their talent’s capabilities to unlock the musical moments that eventually play over and over in an audience’s mind.


2. Synthesize Past and Present Influences to Shape Future Trends

In many ways, a conductor’s excellence hinges on their adherence to tradition. But in hip-hop, like marketing, obedience to past best practices will lead not to applause but to irrelevance. Instead, the hip-hop producers who set trends know exactly what to learn — and steal — from the past, synthesizing those customs into something new.


3. Use Their Own Voice Strategically

When working with an artist on a song that has radio potential, some producers may share their own voice on the record. It’s a move intended to garner more attention to the track, the album and the artist. That’s a play marketing leaders can adopt too. When a direct report’s project is a breakthrough, a brief spotlight from the marketing leader can provide the project more momentum or resources — without drowning out or excluding the actual owner of the work: the individual contributor.


4. Encourage Rapid, Ongoing Experimentation

Since Kanye West released The Life of Pablo, he has updated it repeatedly, calling the album “living breathing changing creative expression.” Few marketing leads likely view a topic cluster of blog posts, for example, as sharing the attributes of a complete organism, but the vision is noteworthy and can be built upon in new and interesting ways. Such a commitment to ongoing improvement and experimentation has been a mainstay in hip-hop for years, and in many cases, it can produce a new version that trounces the original.


As Talent Evolves, so Must Leadership 

Hip-hop production isn’t the perfect metaphor for every single leader. But the outcomes of traditional top-down leadership models are more questionable than ever. Lindred Greer, an organizational behavior professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has found top-down leaders “do 80 percent of the talking in a group setting,” and teams spend “20 percent of the conversation ... agreeing with the leader in the room” — neither of which seem like prudent investments.

That suspicion should apply to the outdated metaphors of the past too — when managers borrowed the postures and language of military leaders (“war room”), conductors (“orchestrate the team’s activities”) and even teachers (“here’s your assignment”). Marketing talent has changed. As brands like Adobe and Apple remind us, we’re all creators now, after all. It’s time for our leadership inspiration to change with it.

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