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Where have all the good marketers gone?

By The Saint

"The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind."- John Stuart Mill

Earlier this year at Advertising Week Europe the legendary Dave Trott sat on a stage opposite four senior client-side marketers in an awkward conversation. He spoke of obsequious agencies pandering to client wishes and of bad briefing from clients leading to poor collaboration and sub-standard creative output. He brought this idea to life with the following (paraphrased) story:

“… The sole job of the agency is keeping clients happy. If clients were a patient going in to see a doctor (the agency) to ask for a diagnosis, it would go something like this:

… Hello Doctor. I don’t seem to be able to walk. Can you tell me what’s wrong?

After looking over the patient, the doctor identifies the ailment – it’s not good: “I’m afraid you’ve got a broken leg…

What do you mean I’ve got a broken leg…? I don’t want a broken leg; I want a headache!

I’m sorry, but you don’t have a headache you’ve clearly got a broken leg, so I suggest you get yourself to hospital quickly

Listen, I want a headache and if you won’t write me a prescription for a headache, then I’ll go and find another doctor who will…

… Paracetamol or Ibuprofen?”

Mark Ritson who, hot off his Battle Royale with Byron Sharp at The Festival of Marketing 2017 (#FoM17), often talks about the ‘tactification’ of marketing – the result of dumbing down marketing to its lowest common denominator. On Marketing Week’s Mini MBA course (a must for anyone looking to up their marketing game), Mark quotes Sun Tzu to highlight the challenge with this all-too-common, mediocre (and that’s putting it kindly) approach to marketing in our modern world:

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.”

Mark’s solution to the problem is simple. Not easy, but simple.

1. Be market oriented. If you work in marketing for a Brand, don’t let your agency tell you what your strategy is. To channel Mark for a moment; ‘that’s fucking idiotic’. Recognise that as soon as you step through the door of your business, you lose the right to ‘know’ what the customer/consumer thinks, feels or wants from you, your products or services. The humility of marketing is central to the idea of market orientation. Don’t assume you know it all. You don’t.

2. Take the time and make the effort to put yourself in the minds, shoes, jeans, houses or businesses of your customers. Do some research – use a combination of qual and quant to better understand your audiences and give you fresh insight into your brand/product in their minds as well as your place in the market.

3. Focus your efforts. Map and segment your market, let this speak to you about where the biggest, most interesting (and achievable) opportunities are. As Mark says; “strategy is about choosing where you won’t play, as much as where you will”. Based upon your resources and capabilities, make smart decisions about where you will choose to play, and where you won’t. *

4. Develop your positioning. Make sure that you are speaking to the people you want to engage in a way that will resonate with them and make you distinct in their minds. Position your product or service in a way that understands what the customer needs, what your company can offer, in a way that is distinct from the competition.

5. Set your strategy. Develop simple and clear SMART objectives that identify what you intend to do, in what area of the market, by what point.

6. Then spend time to brief your agency/agencies properly. Don’t try and come up with the answers in the brief. Just be clear about the business and market context, communication challenges and what success looks like. Be clear about the people you want to engage and be as inspiring as you can with the briefing process itself. Then get out of the way and let your agencies do the thing they do best; developing exciting, authentic, relevant, inspiring, measurable (integrated) campaigns.

While a non-exhaustive list, above is the essence of Mark’s approach to tackle crappy, ill-informed, tactic-only marketing. Something so important because, as Mark puts it in a recent blog:

“most modern marketing departments are too busy workshopping the values inside their new rhomboid of brand trust, or working out how to get a 3D ad on the new Wankometer 8000 VR machine…”

Whether you’re a brand-side marketer or working in an agency, it’s up to us to put an end to the agency obsequiousness and the sea of marketing mediocrity we find ourselves swimming through. We must move away from tactification, and as Mark commented last night in the intellectual fisticuffs with Sharp – to make strategy ‘the sexy bit it once was’.

When Dave Trott (along with his client-side co-speakers) at #AWE17 was asked which campaign he liked the most from the last year, he listened to the client responses; Samsung, Apple etc. etc. and then, when it was his turn, said (paraphrased):

‘We’re professionals. There is no room for subjectivity. I might like red, you might like blue. It’s irrelevant. We should ask ourselves ‘what works?’. We should judge ourselves on the impact of our work. Whether I like it or not doesn’t matter.’

Dave then recounted the brilliant, inspired story of the Audi Marketing Director’s decision to first use the phrase “vorsprung durch technik” in their advertising. After research it became apparent that consumers were not clear on where the brand was from – was it Belgian? Dutch? Czech? They realised that if consumers understood the cars were in fact German, they would associate this with quality and would pay a premium as a result. The advertising agency developed an ad using the phrase “vorsprung durch technik”, but the focus groups tested really poorly – they hated it. The agency went back to the Marketing Director with the bad news. To which his comments were:

“OK, so they hate it. But do they know we are German?’

Yes, they know you’re German.

Then run the ads. They don’t have to like it, they just need to know we’re German”

The rest as they say, is history.


*Read Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow for an alternative perspective on targeting and sophisticated mass marketing, and then read Mark’s blog on the book.

Register for Marketing Week’s 2018 Mini-MBA in Marketing here. As an alumnus of the course, I can highly recommend the experience.

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