Marketing’s not just dumbed down, it’s in need of some tough love

Great minds think alike. Mark Ritson’s article decrying the dumbing down of our discipline arrived in my inbox just as I was writing this piece.

He’s absolutely right. The basics of good marketing practice haven’t changed despite the industry’s current obsession with the Emperor’s New Clothes, or all-that-is-digital.

His recent piece on the ‘death’ of the sales funnel, is a prime example, and something I’ve been saying for a while now. It hasn’t become an infinite complex loop – it’s still a linear journey from awareness to loyalty. The number of steps may vary, the information sources and retail channels may change, but the basics haven’t. To me, this confusion (mistaking tactics for strategy, as Ritson aptly puts it) is symptomatic of many of the issues and mistakes within our industry.

Similarly, he warned that marketers who adopt mass marketing as the new holy grail do so at their peril. Indeed. It may be right for Mars Bars or other ubiquitous products, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. It’s a worry if young marketers need this pointing out to them. Hey, good news, team! We don’t need to do any targeting for our charity/fashion brand/sports car as it’s all about the mass market now! Let’s write some more tweets!

The other absolute fundamental of marketing practice – so often brushed under the carpet to suit a creative idea or to conveniently ignore a wider scandal – is understanding and delivering the brand truth (see the copious recent examples in banking, supermarkets, utility companies, diesel car manufacturers…).

I would, however, challenge Mark’s assertion that Marketing Week covers the ‘higher discipline’ of marketing every week. They are as guilty of occasional dumbed down content as the other publications. I pick out a couple of articles here not to pin the blame on Marketing Week (they are my trade mag of choice, so the one I read most thoroughly), but to illustrate a wider downward trend in the industry.

  • The UK’s Top Storytelling Brands: Two pages devoted to an utterly pointless survey without question. A survey that looks at digital content and comms, without the context of sales, customer satisfaction, brand reputation or any other useful measure. The piece is full of fabulous insights, such as “the rise of tech brands has come at the expense of FMCG” (i.e., people are more interested in Apple’s story than that of Walkers crisps). And charities have more emotional resonance with people than utility companies. You don’t say.
  • Attitude Replaces Age for Targeting Consumers: In my 25+ year career, I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a marketing department that based its targeting solely on crude demographics. The author suggests, “consumers might be better targeted by their attitudes…”. and, “traditional demographics serve a purpose in many situations…(but) focusing on attitudinal segments could uncover important actionable insights for brands…”. No shit, Sherlock.

If the trade publications are being largely written by people who have never even worked in a marketing department, let alone led one, it’s no wonder the next generation are struggling with the basics. This is not to lay all the blame on the trade press, there is a bigger issue of training within the client companies too, with many marketing departments led by managers from other disciplines, especially sales and commercial. Add to that a daily diet of social media promoting irresponsible marketing, and we can see why the golden age of British advertising is well and truly over.

Now I realise I am old (school), but I thank goodness that I am. I’m lucky to have been classically trained at J. Walter Thompson and to have worked for some very clever companies like Orange and Mercedes-Benz, who maintained and delivered the gold-standard in marketing and brand management.

Young marketers must realise the fortunate position they are in. Marketing strategy and the disciplines that support it are one of business’s most transferable skills. But if you spend your days focusing on FMCG tactics, how will you move to that bigger job at the automotive brand? Or up into senior management?

The trade press is perfectly placed to help young marketers acquire the skills they may have dismissed as irrelevant in today’s digital landscape, especially those without any classical training or those working in companies without a marketing culture. With the demise of Marketing Magazine (the rot set in when they went monthly IMHO), Marketing Week can claim the thought leader position. Ritson leading from the back (page) isn’t enough.

It’s time for our trade press to adopt some realism and start practicing some tough love.

  • Stop reporting mediocre marketing campaigns as ‘the latest, greatest thing’
  • Stop forgetting that successful marketing is about sales and customer satisfaction, not the highest number of tweets or creative awards
  • Stop lauding brands that are socially irresponsible (especially this)
  • Stop promoting dumbass surveys without challenge
  • Employ more writers who’ve actually had a successful career in the industry (*ahem*).

And start teaching the next generation that unless they go back to basics, marketing, which should be the growth engine of the business, will definitely lose its seat at the boardroom table.

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2 Comments

  1. Clare H May 13, 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Great blog Sam, I totally agree with all of this! Targeting based on attitudes does not translate into a marketing plan. Sounds very airy fairy to me.

    • Sam Bridger May 16, 2016 at 11:27 am - Reply

      Thank you Clare! I do hope your tongue is firmly in your cheek though, that’s exactly what we did at Smart! (And what I’ve done very successfully for many other brands since)

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