The economy is dragging — and it doesn’t look as if it’s going to improve any time soon . . . if ever. Though most of the businesses I know are still profitable, the margins have fallen and profits are low.

Back-end sales are still healthy. But all those sales and marketing tricks that worked so well for so many years to bring in new customers are barely working at all now.

To make matters worse for some folks, the people who invented the tricks that used to work for them have now been promoted to upper-management positions — leaving relative newcomers to execute their old (and now failing) marketing plans.

If this sounds like your business, brace yourself. You are not going to like what I’m about to tell you.

When your business gets tough, there is only one person that’s going to fix it — and that’s the person at the top.

The exec with bottom-line responsibility has to take a hands-on approach to marketing. That means digging deep into the details, talking to customers, reviewing marketing reports ad nauseum, and spending countless frustrating hours with the creative team.

The top honcho has to take charge of marketing, because selling is always the first and last thing in business — and though it can be delegated during good times, it must be given top priority during periods of crisis.

By taking charge of marketing, you send an important signal to the troops: Selling is vital; making profitable sales is necessary for survival.

By leading the sales effort, you can provide new energy and enthusiasm to a team that may be secretly demoralized. They’ve exhausted themselves trying to make the old tricks work and will welcome the thought that you may have some new ideas.

By putting yourself into the front-end action, you can see your business like you haven’t seen it in some time. You’ll be able to get really close to your customers — to their beliefs, desires, and feelings about the product/service you are selling them — and that may give you the breakthrough idea you need.

I’ve just tested this theory with a client whose business was losing money in chunks. Some projects were still working reasonably well. Others were gushing losses. After several months of trying this and that, I convinced him to fire one of his top marketers and do the marketing himself. Three months later, what was looking like a million-dollar loss had reversed itself and was making a healthy monthly bottom line.

Delegating marketing is always a mistake, according to Sam Hill, a business consultant whose best ideas are contained in his book “Radical  Marketing: From Harvard to Harley, Lessons From Ten That Broke the Rules and Made It Big”. The problem with letting professional marketers take over your business, Hill argues, is that — despite their useful skills and enthusiasm — they create a bureaucratic barrier between the CEO and his customers. Radical marketers are in direct touch with their customers and use that immediate contact — and not market research or the reports of professional marketers — to make the key marketing decisions.

I think that’s largely true. Unless you keep your hand in the marketing game, you’ll lose the essential skills you need to fix the business when it breaks down.

I’m not saying that you should fire your marketing managers. If they are good, keep them. But don’t expect them to solve all your problems for you — and that’s especially true if they are currently failing.