How I Became a Marketing Change Agent in the Public Service

I thought it might be interesting to some of my readers who presently work in a public sector organization to learn how I defeated the dragon called bureaucracy and what I did to slay the dragon by becoming a change agent in my years as a Marketing Director in the Federal Government.

change agentBackground

Before joining the federal government I spent over ten years in the private sector and was recruited to work in Ottawa by a former colleague from the private sector, starting off at Canada Post when it was still part of the government and pre-privatisation and eventually moving on to work at a number of federal government departments .

Frankly I was a bit naive when I first joined the federal government. For example, my first day, as I was hanging pictures in my new office, I was told I needed a public works requisition to hang pictures on my wall. That was my first introduction to the bureaucracy and the red tape associated with it.

Later on I learned what was involved in hiring staff and contracting for outside services and wondered how anything gets done in the government system.

As someone who came from the private sector, I realized early on if I was ever going to be successful in the government bureaucracy I was going to have to break some rules (usually in the grey area and not serious breaches of regulations) and if caught ask for forgiveness as I was new and could say I was ignorant of the rules.

Also I learned in the public service, there are rules, and there are guidelines which are not rules and there are rules that people “make up” to demonstrate their power (e.g. admin staff).

I thought I would start off this blog with a few of my experiences in the quest to slay the dragon called bureaucracy.

Experience 1 _ Canada Post Corporation (formerly Canada Post)

OK so let’s start off with my first year in government. The Canada Post marketing team from across Canada are meeting with headquarter staff to be briefed on marketing activities for the coming year. This is my first presentation of a marketing plan at Canada Post where I was responsible for postal and retail products. I was co-presenting with my colleague who was responsible for business to business products and services. So we are on stage both presenting our marketing plans. My plan featured a few key deliverables developed by a painstaking strategic marketing process. My co- presenter on the other hand had a long list of deliverables. Note that both of us had about the same number of staff.

After the presentation, I confronted my colleague and asked him how he possibly could deliver on all the deliverables he presented.

His answer was my first lesson on how the bureaucracy works,  he stated that he presented the same deliverables every year but there was really no expectation that any of it will get implemented. Coming from the private sector I found it hard to believe that a marketing manager could present a laundry list of deliverables to all the Canada Post marketing people and not be accountable to implementing the plan? I then asked, what happens when you present your marketing plan to the same team the following year? His answer was that they forget what you said the previous year and you present the same stuff year after year and if it gets done fine, if not, you provide reasons in your year-end report why it was not done.

This was an opportunity to be a change agent. I realized that Canada Post marketing needed some changes on how it operates so all of our marketing plans were accompanied by a comprehensive work-plan with milestones so that everyone in the regions and headquarters knew what and when to expect the deliverables. Sounds pretty simplistic but there was lot of resistance to the idea as accountability was not on a firm foundation at Canada Post marketing at the time.

Also we set up a feedback system for the national marketing team to receive market intelligence on the products and services we were offering as this was not done previously. This became invaluable for marketing planning in future years.

Experience 2 _ Federal Government

When I left Canada Post and joined my first federal government department I realized that marketing was not really appreciated or understood. There were few people who were doing marketing in the federal government at the time and those who were, tended to be involved with selling products and services (and they did not call it marketing).

However, selling government policies and programs was virtually unheard of and social marketing for behaviour change was not on anyone’s radar screen. Some of my colleagues actually thought that marketing was “the enemy “.  I spent a great deal of time talking to colleagues and trying to convince them that by taking a marketing approach to some of their programs would lead to better results.

I also found that the only way you can convince people to adopt marketing is by doing a small project, which involved developing a marketing plan with your internal client and hopefully achieving success as nothing succeeds like success. In order to ensure success, I learned that quick wins are important so it was important to ensure that goals and objectives were realistic and attainable. However, once you achieve success and meet your goals and deliver for your internal client, your credibility is enhanced and you become a “go to person”.

A change agent is fueled by passion, and inspires passion in others, Change is hard work. It takes a lot of energy. Don’t underestimate this. Without passion, it is very difficult indeed to muster up enough energy to assault the fortress of status quo that seems to otherwise carry the day. A change agent must understand people. At the end of the day, change is about people. Change will really “stick” when people embrace it. Therefore, change is part sales, part counseling and part encouragement.

Building a team of passionate people was something I learned pretty quickly is needed in a public sector environment and also came to realize very quickly to slay the dragon I would have to recruit from outside the public sector. This is a very sad commentary when I think back but that was the way it was. I tended to recruit people who were from the private sector, new to government and not tainted by the bureaucracy. I also recruited young marketing /MBA students out of business school.

Experience 3 _ Health Canada Social Marketing

When I landed at Health Canada marketing was non-existent although they were running some ads. While I was in my previous government department , Energy Mines and Resources I had learn about something quite new in the marketing field… social marketing and thought it would be a perfect fit for what we were doing at Health Canada at the time.

Trying to implement social marketing was quite a challenge particularly when the word marketing had a negative connotation to staff working at Health Canada (probably as a result of tobacco, alcohol and food marketers who were universally disliked by health professionals). What we did was start off small and build. Nobody will buy into your program and/or give you human and financial resources unless you can demonstrate success. So when we started, we took on a few projects, and worked like heck to make sure they were successful. I knew if we failed with our initial social marketing initiatives we may not get a second chance. We also made sure to hire communication and marketing contractors who were innovative and produced creative material which was very different from the typical stuff you saw from government at the time.

Our first efforts had some success, but they were small.  But we kept on building and improving and continued to hire staff who had strong skills in marketing and more important were passionate about social marketing. We were very focused on measurement as we knew that if we were to grow we had to show results and were able to contract with very competent  “marketing researchers” (as opposed to experts in public opinion research which was the norm at the time).

What I found was when implementing a major culture change; you need to start planting seeds in various parts of the organization. You have to be on the constant lookout for 1) opportunities for small wins; 2) new allies; and 3) ways to change the language used to discuss our area of expertise. The key is to take advantage of small opportunities when they present themselves—and to persist. If you tend to these things, your initiative can more quickly blossom when you do achieve high-level support for it.

Experience 4 _ Health Canada Strategic Alliances and Partnerships

After a number of years at Health Canada it became very apparent that we needed to start looking at alternative ways to get our message out to our target audiences.

We realized that when developing tactical plans it is always a good idea to consider how you can expand the reach of your messages through strategic alliances and partnerships. Partnerships between governments, non-profits and private sector organizations are clearly an effective way of reaching and influencing individuals. We believed it could be an integral tool for delivering cost-effective messages to the audience(s) identified for our campaigns.

Our reasoning was that both the tangible (e.g. communications and distribution networks) and intangible (e.g. credibility, associative) value of partnerships could be substantial and would be leveraged to deliver targeted, positive and sustained messages to our audiences. In addition, while Health Canada may be a trusted source of information the target audience may likely respond more positively to information and endorsements from credible third parties as a means of providing balance to an initiative.

An expanded communications network composed of private sector, government, NGOs, would we thought, improve credibility tremendously over a single-source marketing campaign. i.e. saturate the media while spreading the cost across all sectors. At the time no one we knew in government was doing marketing partnerships with the private sector, perhaps because of the risk involved and bureaucrats tend to be risk-adverse.

So senior management suggested we hire a consultant to do a feasibility study on government partnering with private sector organizations for marketing campaigns. Then the kiss of death… we were forced to use a consultant who had zero knowledge on marketing, communications and partnerships. As expected the consultant’s report stated that government and private sector partnerships and strategic alliances for marketing campaigns was not a good idea and recommended we should not go forward. The rationale was very weak but here we were with a consultant report which stopped us from doing what we wanted to do.

Well we convinced our management after a number of discussions to go ahead with private sector partnerships in spite of the consultant report. One of the first things we did was develop guidelines for working with the private sector in conjunction with our Legal Services. We wanted to protect ourselves and more important give senior management a “comfort zone”. In the bureaucracy if you establish rules and regulations everyone breaths easier.

We went on to develop many strategic alliances and partnerships which turned out to be a major success in attracting millions of dollars of private sector in-kind support and really helped us with our marketing programs. I recently received a copy of a marketing presentation from Health Canada and noted that they are still using private sector alliances for many of their programs.

 Experience 5 _ Health Canada Internet

In the early 90’s there was a lot of talk about the internet/web. At the time the only web site in government was an experimental site at Industry Canada. One day one of our team members came over to me and said Jim we have to get Health Canada online. (Keep in mind that a very small percentage of the population were on line at the time). It was obvious that the internet would grow in the coming years and we needed to move into the area, although a few members of my management team thought that the internet was a fad and wasn’t going to be a factor in communications and marketing. (Hard to believe now but that was the view at the time)

Now came the challenge, how would we get management to buy into the development of a web site? How would we be able to get the resources to do this work? The solution, I knew my boss hated the amount of money we spent on printing. When I mentioned that we can send our print products online and eliminate printing over the short and long term she was sold and allocated lapsing funds to get the ball rolling. So we worked very hard to develop Health Promotion On-Line which I believe was one of the first “marketing websites” in the federal government and we were on our way and later on we moved on to develop the Canadian Health Network .

The lesson learned was that change agents need to be prepared to do a lot of the groundwork to actually implement changes. A lot of ideas go nowhere simply because the boss is already too busy with other things. If you take a great idea to your boss and show him/her that they won’t have to do much more than say, “Yes,” your chances of getting the idea approved will improve dramatically. And of course you need to make a strong business case.

Experience 6 _ Centre for Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM)

For many years I gave some thought to what I would do when I left the public service. I always felt that  marketing programs in  government were not executed very well. In an era when governments need to be more responsive and accountable to the needs of the public, I felt strongly that marketing can help government accomplish this goal.

With governments, crown corporations/agencies and other public institutions spending significant dollars delivering programs and services, I felt that there was a need for more marketing in the public sector.

So in 2005 I worked with Bernie Colterman to create the  Centre for Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM). We also had great support from Mike Kujawski who later became a partner in our organization and Claire Mills our Managing Director. It was a bold move as we had no idea if the public sector would want to buy specialized marketing consulting services which did not include creative or advertising services. However we have been in business for close to twelve years and have successfully served hundreds of clients with our consulting, training and speaking services.



So what does it take to become a change agent? As Don Jacobson points out in his excellent article Tips for Change Agents , what is it that you really want to accomplish? Do you have an end goal? Keeping the end goal in mind is critical to forward movement. You will experience many setbacks on the way as some of things you will try to do will fail. However you can’t dwell on the latest setback otherwise you will become frustrated. Move forward. Don’t dwell on your failures, yes learn from them but move on.

A change agent lives in the future, not the present. Regardless of what is going on today, a change agent has a vision of what could or should be and uses that as the governing sense of action. To a certain extent, a change agent is dissatisfied with what they see around them, in favor of a much better vision of the future. Without this future drive, the change agent can lose their way.

Here are a few tips on how to be a change agent in the public sector:


If you are looking to implement a major culture change like introducing some new digital marketing techniques or tactics, you will need to start planting seeds in various parts of the organization. Be on the lookout for:

  • opportunities for small wins
  • new allies
  • ways to change the language used to discuss your ideas.

Don’t get hung up on terminology, if I had an internal client who was dead set against marketing, I would still do marketing but call it something else like a public awareness, public education or that dreaded word used in government “outreach” instead of social marketing. Sometimes it just does not pay to hit your head against a brick wall.

The key is to take advantage of small opportunities when they present themselves—and to persist. If you have been working on the small opportunities eventually it will blossom and you will achieve high-level support for it. Quick wins are important so make your goals attainable.

Networks are key enablers for the change agent. The network can be members of your own team, employees from other parts of the organization, or even contacts from other agencies or contractors. Members of a network can provide each other encouragement, ideas, and other support. They can also provide leverage by building support for change in diverse parts of the organization, replicating changes throughout the organization, and continually expanding each others networks.


Cultivate Credibility: To be an effective change agent, you need to establish credibility in your organization. One of the key things we did was making sure that the marketing team “knew their stuff” accomplished by extensive training both internal and external.

New employees have a fresh pair of eyes and good ideas and managers need to listen carefully to their suggestions. Another critical part of establishing credibility is cultivating a constructive relationship with your boss that involves a healthy mix of support, tact, and candor.

Leaders have “character and credibility”; they are not just seen as good people but that they are also knowledgeable in what they are speaking about.

No matter what field you work in credibility is key to being successful so it is important as a marketer or communicator to be up to date on the latest marketing/communication strategies, tactics and techniques, you don’t ever want to be in a situation when your client knows more than you do. So continually update yourself, courses, training, marketing literature, books webinars etc. Don’t fall behind.


Strong relationships built on trust –If you do not have solid relationships with the people that you serve they will not want to buy in if they do not trust the person that is pushing the change.  Be open minded, approachable and reliable.

Trust is also built when you know someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable. Trust is built when you choose to do what is right for your organization and not yourself.

When you work in an organization you need to understand the environment you work in and more important what the culture is of the organization.


Change is hard work. It takes a lots and lots of energy. Don’t underestimate this. In my experience, without passion, it is very difficult to muster up enough energy to assault the fortress of status quo and bureaucracy that seems to otherwise carry the day.


There will be many days where everyone around does not understand and will not offer any support. The change agent needs to find it within themselves to get up every day and come to work and risk being misunderstood and misappreciated, knowing that the real validation may be far in the future and may be claimed by someone else. Yes I went home many evenings wondering why I am trying to change things and why not go with the flow but that was not in my DNA.


Playing organizational politics means taking advantage of the system of power and relationships in the organization. Taken to an extreme, you would be a manipulative deal-maker. On the other end of the spectrum, some change agents would prefer to ignore politics altogether. However, pretending the system doesn’t exist means you are blind to the way the organization works – the very organization you are trying to change. The effective approach to politics is somewhere between ignorance and exploitation. The challenge is choosing whose power to leverage (and how) without damaging relationships.


Leadership is a choice. If you see a problem, own it. And fix it. All too often, people see problems but wait for someone else (e.g. the boss) to fix them. It’s important to remember that the boss might not even be aware that the problems exist—and even if they do know about it they might not have the time or energy to do anything about it.


What would happen if your change initiative is implemented and then fails miserably? How would that impact your organization’s ability to perform its mission? How much money and energy will have been wasted? Will it cause public embarrassment? What are the chances of failure? These are some of the things that decision-makers will worry about. The answers to these questions can help you identify ways to strengthen your proposal and mitigate the potential downsides. That’s why it is important to do a business case that deals with potential downsides.


Remember that a “Yes” From the Top Means the Real Work is Just Beginning.

If you are fortunate enough to have the boss sign off on your major change initiative, remember that the decision point is only the beginning of the real work for implementing your initiative. Just because a change initiative is blessed by the leader(s) of the organization does not mean anything will actually happen. And even if the initiative is implemented, you cannot assume that the effort will continue or have the intended effect.

A change manager must have unshakeable determination and tenacity. Deciding what needs to be done is easy; getting it done is more difficult. Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented, they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required. Too often, important problems are recognized but no one is willing to sustain the effort needed to solve them.

“The devil is in the details.” But when the details are ignored, failure is not far away. One of the main things I looked for when hiring staff was their ability to pay attention to details.

For many organisations, the challenge is how to empower people who come up with ideas and nurture them in such a way that they are realized. Marketing is perhaps one of the most fertile grounds for innovative ideas that can drive change. It’s uniquely placed as a bridge between the organization and its clients. “Change agents” aren’t a new phenomenon, but when enabled by technology, people with ideas, conviction and passion are able to better drive important programs.

The role of marketers has evolved rapidly over the past decade as the range of digital services and technology grows… this is a big opening for marketers. Now marketers have to create new strategies and campaigns in order to reach and influence audiences who are more demanding, more vocal, wider spread and sometimes tougher to reach. Campaigns have to be fast-moving in order to keep organisations ahead of an ever changing landscape. Technology is becoming instrumental to deliver modern marketing campaigns, at speed, involving social media, digital, real-time monitoring, big data, and changes in target audiences.

Marketers are known to be skilled in generating revenue for non-profits and enhancing the image of public sector organizations. But they can and should have a role to play in high-level operations of organisations. They can do this by becoming synonymous with market intelligence and helping to guide the strategic direction of the organization.

Marketers have this once-in-a-generation opportunity to combine their thinking with the rapid deployment of technology to elevate their ideas and standing within the organization. The role of a real change agent in marketing requires persistence and passion.  It requires a belief in the value of the ultimate vision.  The inertia of public sector and non-profit organizations will be to maintain the status quo.

“Being a change agent is not always a fun job.  Marketing people today need to have a great deal of courage if they’re truly going to lead organizations to a different place.  “If things are just humming along great, you’ve got to ask yourself what I need to fix, because things are always going to have to be changing.  If you’re not changing, you’re stagnating and if you aren’t declining now, you will decline…so I think that people who are not satisfied with the status quo, no matter how good it is, are people who are going to be more likely to succeed.”

So, the ability to be an agent for change and to help lead an organization through the obstacles you encounter, whenever there’s change, including just the human resistance to change, I think is very, very important.”

Can you train a person to be a change agent? It would seem to be difficult.  How do you train someone to balance the brashness of a new idea with the sensitivity to get things done without breaking too much glass?  How do you learn to have such confidence in your vision that you can push through all the barriers that will inevitably be in the way?  And how do you know that in making the changes you are making that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water?

I hope this blog is helpful to those of you who hope to become or are a change agent in the marketing area. Please feel free to comment on my blog as I am looking for feedback.




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