Sunday, 29 July 2012

Marketing, professionalism and some advice from an "anti-guru"

Markets - go watch some, you'll learn a lot & it's fun

A former advertising colleague of mine was once, for reasons of politeness, introduced as a “marketing professional”. Howard, my colleague, politely and gently put us right:

“I’m a businessman. I happen to be in the business of advising other businesses about marketing and advertising. Doctors and lawyers are professionals. Like the people I work with, I’m a businessman, doing business.”

This may seem a quirky response in these days when ever job role aspires to being ‘professional’. The concept of doing a job and doing it well or of being ‘in business’ appears to have faded. We have instead the triumph of ‘book learning’ and the dominance of the ‘profession’. And because we have taken the bait of “I’m a professional not some nasty rapacious businessman”, there has arisen a vast industry stroking our professional sensibilities.

From out of no-where springs the idea of ‘professional ethics’; as if no-one besides the professional knows how to behave properly. Maybe we’re still worried about being ‘trade’ and having to use the back door? And given the behaviour of all those banking ‘professionals’ perhaps being an honest tradesman (paid in cash, of course) is rather more appealing these days. I note, however, that the bankers we blame are mostly either foreigners or barrow boy traders. The professional bankers, quiet, calm and understated, slip by unnoticed in our blame game.

This brings me, in a round-a-bout kind of way, to my ‘profession’, that profession denied by Howard – marketing. In a free market (or the over-regulated sort of free market we actually have) marketing should be the thing shouldn’t it? After all it has the magic word – ‘market’ – stuck right in the middle of it telling that we’re the ones who get that mystic (and invisible) hand like nobody else. Except we haven’t got a clue and choose instead to clutter round the knees of erudite – often self-appointed gurus – listening to the latest re-hash of old truths.

I’d thought about unpicking one or two of these gurus. Maybe Seth Godin with his repackaging of age-old sales principles as “permission marketing”, and letting others misuse these principles to justify – yet again – the pyramid scheme or the mathematically deranged ‘multi-level marketing’ idea.

Or perhaps I could describe seven principles, five watchwords or 375 “things every marketer should know” – a process involving the collecting of, mostly trite, observations and bundling them into some form of schema. But the thought of this results in the guilt buzzer sounding as I know that none of this actually helps make your business more successful.

Back in my direct marketing agency days, we coined the term “magic wand” to describe what us account planners were to do in the bowels of a mill conversion in Bradford. Businesses would arrive – often businesses doing OK, making money, growing slowly, giving their owners a living – and ask us to reveal the deep occult truth about marketing. To wave the magic wand that would change them from a business turning over £750,000 and making a decent enough profit into the world beating mega-business on the front of the newspaper business section.

And we would have the sorry task of explaining that, despite all the books written, all the gurus, all the conference speech with splendid presentations – despite all this, there is no magic wand. Just as the bearded maharishi doesn’t really offer spiritual enlightenment in exchange for cash, the marketing guru won’t provide (in exchange for cash) the way for your little business to become a big business. Those gurus will tell you this - it’s how they sell their books – remember that Seth Godin didn’t become your friend or even ask your permission before flogging you his book explaining how that’s the way to sell stuff. Mind you we can pretend we’re his friend by following him on twitter and subscribing to his newsletters.

But enough of this – so Seth’s made a load of money from guru-ness, from our desire to find “The Answer”, to locate that magic wand, to reveal the occult truth. And sometimes – gurus are very convincing – we feel we’ve found that truth. Except that it doesn’t seem to make us richer or our marketing more effective. Maybe we’re not following the guru’s strictures correctly? Or, more likely, there simply isn’t a magic wand.

So, in the spirit of the ‘Anti-guru’ here are some things I’ve learned about marketing:

  1. Marketing isn’t about “free markets”. In truth, marketers hate free markets as they make our job harder and our results less good. Us marketers love monopolies.
  2. Strategy is mostly a word used by consultants so they can charge more money. Marketing is almost entirely about tactics. Strategy is the easy bit – what market are we in, what route to market. It’s getting what we actually ‘do’ right that makes the difference.
  3. Marketing is 1% clever brainy stuff and 99% boring routine – indeed this explains most people’s struggles with the stuff and the search for that ‘magic wand’. That dull repetitive routine – capturing and storing information, managing communications channels, monitoring and analysing results, checking timings and all the other tasks that your junior marketing executive is doing – is the meat and drink of effective marketing. Your high level strategy and visioning conference isn’t.

And that’s it really. I could add stuff about product development, about pricing or about the behaviour of that tricksy thing, the human being – all of these things matter to marketing. But in the end the whole point is to look for market advantage (ideally monopoly), decide what & where we’re selling and get on with the daily grind of actually doing that job.

I guess this is why I’m not a marketing guru!


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