This piece first appeared in Campaign.
So, that was 2016. Not exactly a great year for fans of the status quo. Chances are you saw a few things you regarded as unimpeachable fact burned to the ground, with no sacred cow spared the abattoir, and no emperor left fully clothed.
Perhaps, at the very peak of our hubris, the lessons of 2016 were timely. A wise observer of the year’s events will be left looking to the future with a renewed sense of humility, less sure of the veracity of their opinions and the permanence of the institutions that surround them.
If you shrugged off the unexpected success of Protein World in 2015, perhaps you’ll find it a little harder to ignore that of Trump in 2016. So, with that in mind, let’s take an axe to the things we think we know.
Taking a fresh look at our industry, what are the things we take for granted that, on closer inspection, might not be as indestructible as we once thought?
The death of insight
First up for the chop is insight. By this I mean that magic dust that planners and creatives use to unlock a brief. The eureka moment that finally shows us a way to flog this product we’ve been scratching our heads over.
Re-examining this process, something troubling emerges… why should we need clever thinking to sell something at all? Often we find that that the better the advertising insight, chances are the worse the product. Brilliant insights make themselves the star, and the product tries to sneak in under their wing.
Look to the brands you really admire, the ones we all wish we had as clients and what do you see? Not an insight to rub between them – at least, not in their advertising.
Often we find that that the better the advertising insight, chances are the worse the product.
Brands like Apple, Red Bull, Lego, and so on have a very matter of fact approach to their advertising because their insights lie where they really belong – within the products themselves. We want them as our clients because, frankly, selling them is easy, the hard work’s been done for us.
Others even bolder players like Monster and Tesla don’t even bother with advertising at all.
If you find yourself trying to “unlock a brief” with insight, then chances are the brand has already lost. At that very moment consumers will already be making their own minds up, circumnavigating your work to make their decisions based on the raw source material, which they can learn about quite happily without your involvement.
It’s in the facts where the insights belong, all else is spin.
The death of ROI
Many brands expect to be able to measure a direct payback from their marketing spend. This seems pretty reasonable, and is something we’re all used to. But there’s a problem with this. You see, in the real world, it’s very difficult to draw a line of cause and effect between an action and its reward.
For instance, if you see an old lady standing by the side of the road what course of action has a better ROI, helping her across the street, or mugging her?
If we were making all of our decisions based on some Excel-based ROMI model then the answer would be clear. Watch out grandma. And yet somehow, as people, we instinctively “get” that the person who helps her across the street is much more likely to be successful in life than the mugger.
This is because, ultimately, the more value you provide in life the more value you’re likely to receive in return. You might not be able to put it on a spreadsheet, but the model works – and it works for businesses too.
When Yves Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, learned about the environmental cost of cotton in 1994, he immediately decided to switch his entire product line to organic cotton instead. He didn’t make this decision based on ROI – far from it, given the immense cost and complexity of the change – he did it because he simply reasoned that in the big picture it would make his company better, having faith in the simple logic that the better the business is, the more rewards it shall receive.
The more value you provide in life the more value you’re likely to receive in return. You might not be able to put it on a spreadsheet, but the model works – and it works for businesses too.
The rest is history, as the brand exploded into the outdoor giant we know today.
Steve Jobs, a man famously hostile to the concept of ROI, managed to created the world’s most profitable company by ignoring such “sound business logic”. He too only wanted to make his business better, and had faith that somehow, indirectly, better ends up winning.
If you make decisions based on direct-payback ROI, you will never take an action that makes your business better, or that provides more value to an increasingly fickle public. Your rewards, sadly, will reflect this.
The death of marketing
Finally, what does this mean for marketers themselves? We are now starting to see a slow but growing trickle of brands that don’t have a marketing department at all – at least, not in the traditional sense.
This is because the very idea of a “marketing department” is, in and of itself, somewhat flawed. What it implies is that “marketing” and “brand” and “customer outreach” and all these kinds of things are the responsibility of a kind of satellite team who make campaigns and comms which are external to the “real business”, which carries on regardless, as if this kind of fluffy stuff isn’t their problem.
The problem with this is that it’s the “real business” which does all the “real stuff”, which provides the value, which creates the products, the customer experiences, the big picture strategic agenda. Today it is in these facts that the “brand” lies – and nobody is looking after it.
Marketing, therefore, should no longer be a separate department that sits alongside HR, distribution, manufacturing, finance, and so on. Instead if anything it should be an umbrella department, that ensures that every one of these things is operating in a unified and distinctive manner.
Or it should be an internal role within each and every other department – so there should be a “finance brand person”, a “distribution brand person”, and so on, who are responsible for the way these areas operate. Only then will authentic brands be able to truly flourish.
But maybe this is all wrong
Even in an end of year trends list, hopefully we can now all agree that we can’t predict the future. The only safe bet? That nothing is safe any longer. Good luck for 2017.