02 June 2011

Marketing Silos

In the fields of marketing communications and organizational behavior, there is nothing more sinister than the silo.

Silos prevent cooperation and coordination. Silos signify self-interest and turf battles. Silos are a comfortable place to hide while we practice our specialties, oblivious to opportunities for working with others.

The Truth About Silos

The silo metaphor borrows equally from the Agricultural Revolution and the Information Age. The agricultural reference is a structure for storing bulk materials, usually grain harvested on a farm. An information silo, according to Wikipedia, “is a management system incapable of reciprocal operation with other, related management systems.”

Silos can be dangerous. “It may be fun,” advises an OSU fact sheet, “to jump in the grain or even bury yourself, but this kind of play is very dangerous. Flowing grain acts like quicksand. Once you start to sink it is impossible for you to dig your way to the top. As you dig, the grain keeps shifting under your feet, pushing you deeper towards the bottom.” Shudder.

Marketing Silos are Surrounded by a Barnyard Full of Manure

One of our clients recently ran a program in a medium we do not handle. Our creative director, always passionate about the client’s business, called me this morning to say “it’s not consistent with the brand voice,” and “it’s not relevant to our consumer.” He was right, because this work was done in a silo.

Silos are surrounded by a barnyard full of manure. That barnyard actually reinforces the silo mentality. We can stay in our silos instead of venturing out of comfort zones into something messy and complicated like interpersonal communication. Or a big pile of…. manure.

Connecting the Silos

Last year Evan Rosen wrote a column with good, practical advice for encouraging collaboration. My only quibble was with the title, “Smashing Silos”. The revolutionary tone is appropriate, but the prescription to me is more like “Connecting Silos”. We’ll always need specialists, and they’ll always need a place to put their grain.

Silos aren’t inherently bad unless we stay inside them. As modern marketers, we not only need to know our specialties, but get out of them and see the bigger picture.

(If you liked this post you may also like this one or that one.)


  1. You make some great points about the client-side. I would argue that the same could be said about the agency-side.

    The bureaucratic nature of existing departmental structures, your silos, fails to keep up with modern marketing - see Creative Age

    Departments are built as power bases where the primary concern is the importance of the discipline instead of the importance of the clients’ success. As the industry becomes more segmented and specialized, full service more traditional agencies face increased competition from smaller, more nimble boutiques, from more efficient in-house client capabilities, and from other agencies operating in effective silo-less environments.

    Something to think about!

    Bob Sanders
    Sanders Consulting Group
    Blog: http://sandersconsulting.com/newbusinesshawk/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/newbusinesshawk

  2. Bob, thanks for commenting, and I agree. Silos are insidious no matter where they exist. There are two kinds of agency silos. (1) Silos within an agency: a Digital Dept., a Promo Dept., etc. Worse, many are held only to departmental P&Ls. (2) Silos across agencies: a Digital agency, a Promo agency, etc.

    My own agency has no such silos because we don;t have departments, we have experts, or specialists, whose job it is to form teams of generalists. Everyone working on a particular client's business is on that account P&L. If we don't need a direct mail program on one client, the direct mail experts serve other clients.

    I liked the post you linked to in your comment, and recommend it to my readers. Thanks again!