marketing and sales executives from Silicon Valley

Monday, May 31, 2010

Your bag of tricks is worthless

I had a thoughtful conversation with Dave Aune about business expectations when people hire marketers. Dave made an interesting comment that stuck in my mind, "what's in your marketing bag of tricks?". MY bag of tricks? I knew he was joking and goading me onto my soapbox, so I told him he was funny.

Long ago, while running my first marketing department, the company president wanted to understand what my marketing department did. The knowledge sought was simple - What did we do that was growing the company? How did my staff fit into the big picture, and what would happen if staff were cut? Little did I know at the time, but we were about to be acquired, and cutting head count would make us look more attractive.

What I presented was a marketing operations spreadsheets. A 240 row spreadsheet showing all the tasks that my team was doing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The list of operational tasks was impressive, and the company president was initially overwhelmed. Later that week, in a discussion with the engineering team, the company president mentioned that I was "working on my bag of tricks". It was the first time someone referred to my marketing as a 'bag of tricks', and it would not be the last.

The notion of a marketing 'bag of tricks' is now one of fastest filters that tells me that someone doesn't understand marketing or suffers from marketing naivete. When someone really believes in a marketing bag of tricks, they almost always hold the unhealthy belief that a marketer has a tactic will always work. That 'it worked once, it will work again' mentality is the bane of sales executives, presidents, and board members over and over again, as a persuasive marketer can use 20/20 hindsight to explain how some marketing tactic worked last year or in their last job, and it will work again. It CAN work, but rarely does as a straight drop in. A bag of tricks suggests that the customers are either being tricked or that the marketer has magic, neither of which seems like a dependable, let alone repeatable business strategy. Instead of hoping for magic, wouldn't it be better if your marketing was based around strategies, systems, and processes that, when applied properly, lead to awareness, action, and conversion? Good marketing applies those strategies, systems, and processes to identify one hit wonders as well as longer term repeatable phenomenons and allows for the application of the right money at the right time.

Markets, and the people that make them, are dynamic, and what's more important than any trick or tactic are the fundamentals behind why that tactic may have worked earlier. The dancing baby worked once, the dancing hamster worked once, tattoos on the forehead worked once, even cavemen worked for a little while. Some campaigns or marketing memes work once, a few times, or can last, but there's no way to guarantee that you can bring a caveman variant to the next marketing campaign at the next company.

It may seem like magic when good marketers are successful repeatedly, but it's not. In fact, good marketers apply processes and a toolkit by which they temper with experience, past lessons, and an understanding of human motivations and behaviors toward a given business goal. Those tools may be applied with expectations for success, but focus on applying tools that generate results which can lead to greater and greater successes. The end result may seem like magic from a bag of tricks, but there is no magic, just insight derived from the proper selection and application of marketing tools, and the willingness to test, cull poor performers, and expand in winning directions.

Dave has heard this rant dozens of times, but I thank him for suggesting it as a blog topic that needed to be covered.

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