As more people get vaccinated and start to “return to normal” following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic (impact of the Delta and other variants not withstanding), the expectation is that as retail sales rise, marketing budgets will bounce back accordingly. But according to Gartner’s CMO Spend Survey, spending plans have fallen to their lowest point since the survey began.

According to Gartner, marketing budgets have fallen to 6.4% of company revenue, down from 11% in 2020. This despite the fact that nine out of 10 CMOs say they are expected to grow revenue this year.

In reporting on the survey, the CMO Council, however, notes that these findings are in contrast to its own research findings. In “Getting It Done in 2021,” the CMO Council found that nearly two-thirds of marketers are planning to increase their marketing spend this year. Increases are notable particularly in MarTech, it says, where marketers are looking to boost spending on analytics, insights, and intelligence.

How can one survey find that marketing budgets are increasing while the other says they are decreasing? I have not looked at the underlying data, but theoretically, here are some possibilities for accounting for the difference.

  1. How is “marketing spend” defined? If one includes capital spending (such as on martech), while the other does not, that could account for the difference.
  2. Dollars vs. percentage of revenues. One survey also looks at overall dollars spent (CMO Council), while the other looks the percentage of revenues. This is kind of like the difference between lift and actual percentages. If a marketer increases its conversion rate from 20% to 25%, for example, that’s an increase of 5 percentage points but a 25% lift. If, on the other hand, a company boosts its conversion rate from 10% to 14%, that’s only 4 percentage points, but a 40% lift. How impressive an improvement is depends on how you present it. Marketing budgets are no exception.
  3. How much is an “increase”? Two-thirds of marketers in the CMO Council survey said they planned to “increase” their marketing budgets, but by how much? Technically, a penny would be an increase. Just sayin’. Also, “planning to increase” isn’t the same as actually doing it.

Another notable point from the Gartner survey is that, as part of these changing budget numbers, nearly 30% of work done by outside agencies has been brought in-house, and CMOs are increasingly “reimagining” the capabilities that can be supported by their internal teams. This means that printers already challenged in trying to win development and digital channel work have to be that much more creative in justifying any aspects of their business relationship that don’t involve print.

What’s the takeaway? The level of difference between the two surveys suggests that the underlying micro-trends we don’t see are perhaps more important than the top-line numbers that we do. I say this because other marketing show the same dichotomies. One survey shows increases in some categories, but not others; another shows increases in the use of some marketing channels, but not all. The numbers show little consistency, which suggests that the real, actionable trends are under the surface.

What we do know is this: The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered consumers’ shopping habits, both in terms of what they are buying and how and why they are buying it, so the results of any survey will be highly dependent on how terms are defined, how the surveys was produced, and quite possibly, the direction of the wind that day. Top-line numbers may not tell us much, so if you’re looking to base business projections on the numbers, you’ll want to dig deep.

The other really important takeaway is that when we look at these vastly divergent results, we may need to accept that, while the U.S. economy is improving, a rising tide may not lift all boats. Printers who are thriving are recognizing specific (and often emerging) windows of opportunity and capitalizing on them. They are nimble, highly responsive, and willing to pivot. As a result, their business may not look like someone else’s… and you aren’t necessarily going to be successful by climbing into someone else’s boat.