These are perilous times for marketers.

The media constantly reports that advertising and traditional marketing are dead.

And the same media employs sales reps who’ll passionately tell you how effective advertising with them is.

We keep hearing that consumers are in total control of brands, that they alone decide your fate as judge and jury.

But the same consumers crave information and are starved for reasons to believe and buy.

And in the corporate executive suites, your brand is viewed as an asset able to return dividends on demand. Hence, the CMO gets the marching orders, “To make our quarterly numbers, we need a two-percent bump in sales and a five percent cut in your marketing budget.”

And go, CMO–– your marketing mojo is no match for CFO fiscal knowhow!

Yes, as much as you’d like to dodge the responsibility, ultimately you are responsible for the brand.

Not your marketing agency.

Not the public.

Not your bosses.

You, and you alone.

Gird your loins, and get to it.

Where to start?

In the beginning.

Why should someone buy your product or care for your cause?

WHY?!

Why does your brand exist?

Why does the company that makes it exist?

You get the drift–– until you know who and why you are, it’s hard for anyone to care.

This requires honesty, the brutal kind.

Marketer, know thyself.

Then, be authentic.

Find your voice, be empathetic and sincere, if your brand fills a need, you’ll cultivate your tribe.

And should you need help with your corporate psychoanalysis, I think we have an opening in our schedule next Tuesday.

Call, we’ll work you in.

Thank you.

Which brands are you loyal to? Not just like or prefer, but insist on?

A product that if it’s sold out, you won’t accept a substitute–– you’ll wait until you can get your loved brand.

So, how many loyalty brands do you have?

Damn few, I suspect.

Sadly, we live in an age of parity. Once something new and exciting is introduced and gains popularity, an army of imitators immediately clamors for its market share.

Enter marketers.

We’re hired to bring attention and interest to the brand and create desire. We’re spinmeisters putting our client’s product into the best possible light, even if that product is mediocre. Or worse.

And despite the high horse pontification many agency leaders give, we’ll work for clients whose wares are less than top-notch (as long as their checks cash).

Is that unethical? I don’t think so. Product preference is personal and subjective, like the ad work we create.

Then again, maybe I’m just a master rationalizer.

Which brings us to overselling.

Every product photo shoot is a lie. A stylist slavishly labors over the “hero” product, be it a sandwich, beer pour, cell phone, or pizza cheese pull. It must be perfect for the camera because that’s the image we want burned into the public’s consciousness.

The perfect-looking McDonald’s hamburger has only ever existed at a McDonald’s print or TV shoot. Your actual results may vary.

A lot.

Does that perfect image in our brain serve to enhance the taste experience of our imperfect burger reality?

I’m no shrink, but I suspect so.

I’ve worked on many challenger brands (that’s a nice way of saying they’re not the preferred or leading brand), and I’ve always given my best shot at making my client’s product as appealing as possible.

It may have been an execution portraying humorous overenthusiasm for the brand, or using an insight to demonstrate how the product satisfies a human need/desire, or, simply finding a dramatic and interesting way to make the product desirable. 

Were these ideas overselling? I don’t think so.

Creativity is a weapon. The FTC can’t bust you for that.

Yet.

The best deterrent to overselling is common sense. When people discover your product is much less than advertised, you will have pissed off someone who’ll never trust you or purchase your brand again, and, he’ll spread the word of your product’s crappy performance.

Since every one of us has 12,934 very close Facebook friends, plus many contacts in other social channels (including real life), well, that’s a lot of anger reverberating throughout the land

No wonder Hollywood hates Rotten Tomatoes.

That’s why the best ad people must be empathetic to their audience. It’s our job to be its advocate, even if that means pissing off our clients. We must save clients from themselves.

Otherwise, we’ll get blamed when the overselling ad backfires.

I’d rather get fired now for fighting than fired later for surrendering.

Of course, you could simply turn your brand over to the public and let it decide and control the conversation.

Good luck with that, brave brand–– let social media rule your fate!

Imagine how much easier a marketer’s job would be with a fantastic must-have product.

I dream more companies would subscribe to something Steve Jobs’ said: “The companies forget what it means to make great products. The product sensibility and the product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies who have no conception of a good product versus a bad product. They have no conceptions of the craftsmanship that’s required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. And they really have no feeling in their hearts usually about wanting to really help the consumers.”

Wouldn’t it be great to have such a product to market? Yes indeedy!

Then again, maybe I just want my job to be easier.

I recently read many Millennials don’t care about brands.

They play the field demanding the most for their buck, and they will cheat on your brand if something better comes along. They’re just not into commitments.

But if a company does some societal good, it gets bonus points–– maybe a smidge of their loyalty.

Companies like Warby Parker, Toms, and Casper are crushing it.

And now, there’s a smart new company called Brandless selling a variety of grocery, health and beauty products for $3 each. Three lousy bucks. And all the products are branded “Brandless”. Guess what? This hip “un-brand” is a very hot brand.

That’s brilliant marketing.

There are endless reports that traditional marketing doesn’t work anymore. It’s avoided, mistrusted, disliked, and considered a complete waste of time and money.

So, congratulations, marketing professional–– you’ve chosen an obsolete career!

Then again, maybe not.

For as long as I’ve been in the game, consumers have said marketing doesn’t affect them. Who could blame them?

Do you want to admit a paid message that interrupted you while you were doing something you wanted to do actually influenced your behavior?

Hells no!

We are all the rulers (and heroes) of our lives. That’s human nature.

But everyone in every generation hates ads that are obnoxious, irrelevant or insulting to his or her intelligence.

That’s human nature, too. Who wants to spend time at a party cornered by a blowhard bore?

The news about Millennials demonstrates we’ve reached a saturation point. There are so many media channels, so many technological ways to cyber-stalk and pester people, that if you’re going to make a positive impression, you’d better damn well have a message worth consuming.

And you better be aware that just because you say so doesn’t mean it will be believed. Bullshit detectors are set to 11. Maybe even 12.

Also, know that now more than ever, people rely on the opinions of friends, relatives, and strangers who’ve experienced brands.

Which means they’ll ferret out your bullshit in record time. If others have had bad experiences, you’re screwed.

As Bill Bernbach said long ago, “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it’s bad.”

So, why do we even bother marketing? Because when it’s done well, when it is empathetic, interesting and compelling to its audience, it can do something amazing–– it can intrigue, pique curiosity and interest, form an opinion, and warrant further investigation.

And who knows, perhaps your smart, engaging marketing can even help make a sale.

Yes, while your spin today will be greeted with healthy skepticism, it can still influence behavior–– if it’s authentic, honest, engaging, informative, helpful.

And if your product or service delivers the goods, well, you will build some loyalty, and by and by, build a brand.

It just takes work. Lots of work.

The only certainty in the marketing business is this: none of it gets any damn easier.

I’ll see you at the bar to talk more about the perils of modern marketing.

Another round, Lloyd.

Ours is often a pretty ridiculous business.

Ad agency people obsessively talk about creating “great work.”

Marketers delude themselves that their audiences are eager and hungry for their messages.

Hell, some marketers even think people want to be their “friends” and engage in “conversations.”

Boy howdy–– who doesn’t want to know what a corporate entity believes and thinks? It’s why we get out of bed in the morning.

We’re kooks to believe such thoughts, but sometimes our magical thinking works.

Sometimes people do care about what we say.

And they do think our work is “great.”

Some folks believe us, follow us, and we say what Sally Fields said: “You like me, right now, you like me!”

It’s rare, but it does happen. Not as rare as a unicorn sighting, but… sometimes.

Which brings me to the cliched concept of “great work”–– two words I hate married.

I cringe when I hear someone say, “we’re going to create some great work” or “we create great work.”

Says who?

The problem with “great work” is it’s completely subjective. Your idea of great may not be mine.

It’s like going to an art museum with someone, and you admire a canvas. You love the work; it speaks to you on a profound level… and your companion comes by, views the piece and says, “Ew, what a total turd!”

You’re in for a long day at the museum.

Yet, agencies throw around the term “great work” like it’s confetti.

I’ve never met a creative person who said, “My work is marginal, at best. In fact, I’ve been very lucky to cash paychecks for my mediocrity.”

Never happens.

All creatives have “great work,” and if we don’t, well, it’s because others didn’t want “great work” or sabotaged us in our Herculean efforts in producing “great work.”

Look, Michaelangelo, the work is the work is the work. Your audience will determine its worth.

If your yardstick for measuring “great work” is the awards it wins, fine. Say so, but realize that others still may not like the work as much as the award show judges.

You can say the effectiveness of your work is what makes it “great.” Okay. But again, others may think it’s shite.

I love some infomercials, but most seasoned creative pros couldn’t imagine a more heinous category of work.

Look, Ron Popeil is a god, believe it! But wait, there’s more…

Let your work stand on its own. Tell the story of why you did what you did. Context is everything. Discuss what happened after the work debuted. Give results, KPIs, whatever was your objective in producing the work.

Then let your audience decide if the work is bad, good, great, or, epic!

Your audience is always the judge and jury–– be it a client, a new business prospect, or a consumer.

Forget about creating “great work” and simply do your best keeping it empathetic to its audience, engaging, truthful, and interesting.

That’s plenty hard enough.

Although marketing is a grueling and often delusional business, sometimes unicorns do appear.

And when one does, saddle up and enjoy the ride.

As long as there has been marketing, there has been a philosophical debate raging.

Is marketing an art or a science?

Consider art to be one extreme, science the other, and the practice of marketing as a pendulum swinging back and forth.

Visionaries in the creative revolution of the 1960’s were in the art camp and created the legendary VW ads, the Avis “We Try Harder” campaign, and the Benson & Hedges “A Silly Millimeter Longer” work.

They divined their magic and forged human connections based on empathy, understanding and creative expression.

The science team believed in proven techniques–– developing a unique selling proposition, repetition-repetition-repetition, asking for the order, sweetening the deal (“but wait, there’s more!”), and so on.

The art side loved humor. The science team was all about rationality and reason. Marketing’s pendulum has swung back and forth between the two poles over the last 50-years.

We’ve had times when it was all about entertainment. Executions where one wasn’t sure what the message was about, but it was funny and entertaining. When the advertiser’s logo popped up, it was as if to say, “This fun time brought to you by _________.”

We thought if people liked our work, they’d like our products and buy them.

And there have been times when there was an over-reliance on putting the entire focus on the product. Corporate chest-thumping with little room for humanity, only hyperbole, and bluster. Rationality would beat our audience into submission.

Great shops have managed to serve both masters, finding engaging ways to persuade using a balance of emotional titillation with rational grounding.

So, where are we today as an industry? Has the pendulum swung toward art or science?

Is that your final answer?

We’re in the science realm. Deep into science.

Today, most companies are focused on making their quarterly numbers. We’ve become slaves to the balance sheet, so naturally, numbers rule.

Thus, digital and social gobble marketing’s attention and dollars because those media have metrics and analytics to show. The CMO can produce charts (CYA) when the CEO or CFO asks for the ROI on marketing spending.

There’s security in that alphabet soup.

Big data and artificial intelligence give marketers scientific tools they’ve never had before, and the marketing industry is all-in on science and technological wonders.

But is that good?

What do you think about the overall quality of marketing today? Do any campaigns or messages stand out to you?

Yes, we have untold channels to consumers, but we’re usually flooding these channels with tactical crap.

No wonder ad blockers are growing in popularity, and avoiding commercials is a popular sport. We all hate to be cyber-stalked because we showed interest in a product or subject, and as a result, we’ll be served pop-ups and banner ads for the next six years.

But brands are not built on incremental gains. Great brands result from bold ideas that engage humans and compel interest.

Science has enabled us to pester people like never before, but let’s never forget that at the receiving end of our messages is a human being, not a bot.

Although, a bot may be the one clicking on our messages.

Please, don’t allow the pendulum swing toward technology do so to the exclusion of humanity.

I’ll be brief here (for obvious reasons).

A 2015 Microsoft study found human attention spans are now almost a second shorter than that of goldfish.

Our attention spans have shrunk from 12-seconds in 2000, to 8.25-seconds in 2015.

Why? Smartphones, information overload, a constant barrage of 360-degree messaging, the ever-increasing pace of modern life, obsessive behaviors–– the average office worker checked his email 30-times an hour, and so on.

Goldfish don’t have smartphones, deadlines, or Gmail. A big event for them is food or a new diver toy in the bowl.

No wonder their attention spans kick humanity’s ass.

Our attention spans are going to continue shrinking, which means one thing for marketers–– if you’re vying for attention, you’d better have something special to say.

Messages that are empathetic, interesting, and enriching.

Otherwise, you’re just creating noise. And you’re not nearly as riveting as goldfish food.

The United States is no longer Prozac nation; now we’re Xanax Nation. Anxiety is the new depression, baby!

Sad, but true.

Today, 40 million Americans are afflicted with anxiety disorders. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 38% of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26% of boys, have an anxiety disorder.

The numbers are alarming, and, unfortunately, growing.

Many studies have linked online culture and anxiety. The more time spent online, the more likely one is to be anxious.

Studies have also shown that the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely he or she is to feel lonely and disappointed. Our lives seem inferior compared to our Facebook friends who curate posts of their idyllic, joy-filled lives––
“Jeff got a fabulous promotion, but we’re going to be paying so much more in taxes now that his salary was tripled.”
“Amanda is torn between majoring in nuclear physics or neurosurgery. So much pressure for an eight-year-old. She’s has begun studying for her SATs! We’re so proud.”
“My eternal love for my wonderfully terrific family has won a humanitarian award from the Mother Theresa Society. Sure, it’s a great honor, but it’s also one more darn trophy to dust. Jeesh!”
(INSERT HUMBLE BRAG HERE.)

The bottom line: they’re winning!

And you? You’re a mess. A lonely, anxious, hot mess.

People cannot live fulfilled lives connected virtually. As the great philosopher, Barbara Streisand said, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” And we all do much better with human interaction.

In fact, studies have shown rich personal relationships enhance our happiness, our health, and increase our longevity.

Not social media. Social-social.

So, what’s this have to do with marketing in the Twenty-First Century? Everything.

If people are stressed and anxious and crave human interaction, what are you as a marketer doing to help them? Are you empathetic to the people you’re trying to talk with?

Are your messages adding to their anxiety, or are they offering relief from the pressures of life?

Are you giving people an emotional reward, or trying to pack their bags for a guilt trip, or, insulting their intelligence?

You may say society’s ills are not your responsibility. Maybe so, but by working to improve their health, you may find many more customers and loyal fans, improving your brand’s health.

You also may find yourself feeling better about your work.

And much less anxious.

The Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time. You can debate that, but you’d be wrong.

Check their stats:
1.6 billion singles sold in U.S.
600 million albums sold worldwide
1,278 weeks Beatles music was on Billboard charts
19 #1 albums in U.S…

I could go on, but I’d sound like an actuary, which I do 26.76421% of the time.

Now, you could make the case popularity does not equate to greatness, and you would have a valid point, but in this case, unfortunately, you’d be wrong again. Sorry.

The Beatles are the greatest of all time, and they achieved their success before the age of 30. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like a loser.

Here are some thoughts about what attributed to their phenomenal success.

1. They were passionate. Loving what you do is critical to making it in any field. People can tell when you’re faking it, and as a wise one once said, “All you need is love, love is all you need.” True, that.

2. They immersed themselves in the subject. The Beatles, like Bob Dylan, were artistic sponges. They were open to many musical styles, analyzed them, digested and allowed their insatiable grazing to influence their creative process. No great work happens in a vacuum.

3. They worked their asses off. First and foremost, The Beatles were a great band because they were great musicians. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his bestseller Outliers, the magic number for greatness appears to be 10,000 hours. If The Beatles had never gigged incessantly in Hamburg and Liverpool, they never would have become The Beatles.

4. They got help. What you know is important, but knowing what you don’t know may be more important. At some point, you should check your ego and seek assistance from others. A different viewpoint from an expert is essential. When the band signed with manager Brian Epstein, he had worked his ass off making NEMS music stores a success in Northern England. He had a feel for the industry, and when he discovered The Beatles, Epstein sensed there was something there. He watched the band play live, talked with them and signed them. They were impressed with his professionalism and knowledge he was impressed with their talent, humor, and charm. A respectful relationship began, and the band was open to his suggestions.

5. They built a brand. Over time, Epstein would persuade the boys to wear suits instead of jeans and leather jackets, and not smoke, eat, or drink booze while they performed. Their suits matched, the haircuts were similar, and the band even bowed after performing. It was quite a transformation from the rowdy teddy boys style of their early days. They had a specific font for their name, it became their logo. Their logo appeared on Ringo’s bass drum head. Branding, babe. Branding.

6. They changed to get better. The band’s original drummer was Pete Best. When legendary producer George Martin heard the band, he thought Best was the weak link. He suggested a session player, but the band preferred a drummer they knew and admired––Ringo Starr. They made a switch to improve.

7. They persevered. Being a visionary is never easy. Epstein had a difficult time securing The Beatles a recording contract. The band was rejected time and time again; industry leaders didn’t hear greatness, they heard a flop in the making. However, Epstein persisted.

8. They formed partnerships. George Martin was responsible for making the band sound great on vinyl, and he was critical to their success. He patiently worked with Lennon and McCartney and experimented to find the sound they were after, always striving for something new. In 1966, Geoff Emerick joined the team as recording engineer, and The Beatles changed the sound of rock ‘n roll forever.

9. They were never satisfied. The Beatles evolved because they wanted to. While many bands find a sound and stick to it, this one didn’t. Their songs were empathetic to being human and the fragilities of emotion. Musically they took chances and challenged themselves, and their fans went along for the ride. The band’s album releases were always an event because they were real artists, always exploring and evolving.

10. They enjoyed the ride. When The Beatles finally disbanded, their fans felt like they’d lived through a testy divorce. They were that invested in the relationship. But while it lasted, the band were friends who looked out for each another and enjoyed the success and fame mortals rarely achieve. The Beatles were young men who matured and learned hard life lessons in the harsh glare of the limelight, but they left behind the soundtrack for millions of lives worldwide, and a legacy of artistic achievement for the ages.

The lesson here–– when art meets marketing, the world changes.

Maybe you’ve heard consumers are in control these days.

Now there’s a new study published by some brainiacs at the University of Central Florida that proclaims consumers dislike assertive ads.

It’s not too surprising, no one likes being told what to do.

The interesting part of the study is consumers especially dislike assertive selling from brands they like and are loyal to.

Guess it’s like finding out your friend is a creep.

I have always despised the “So…” wrap up in ads, where the writer presents a logical, lawyerly case of why a product or service is terrific. (Copywriter’s secret: the case is usually all the bullet points from the creative brief, gussied up in full sentences and then strung together like pearls on a necklace.)

Then, the lazy writer rests his/her case–– the last paragraph has the “So…” close.

“So, hurry down to Zeke’s CarsZensation, and grab a great deal on your dream car!”
“So, next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up some nutritiously delicious Smelbar’s Melba Toast! The toast that’s toasty-tasty.”
“So, drink Bedster Bourbon. A really good drink!”

It’s as if the writer is tired of writing, now it’s up to readers to do their jobs–– BUY!

Assumptive/assertive selling is obnoxious. And surprise, people don’t like it.

One of the study’s leaders, Dr. Zemack-Ruger, reports assertive ads affect spending decisions, too. The pushier the ad, the less likely people are to purchase the product.

The best ads in the study were those that were “informative and hint at action.”

There’s an inverse relationship between pushiness and effectiveness. It appears people like freedom of choice.

Dr. Zemack-Ruger writes that little tweaks can make a big difference. “Buy now”–– not good. “Now is a good time to buy”– much better.

Howard Luck Gossage, my advertising hero (I have his ’63 trading card), used to say, “When baiting the trap, don’t forget to leave room for the mouse.”

In other words, let the audience be a part of the process, and make up its own damn mind.

So, there!

You’re working on a strategy or creative execution, and you’re crushing it!

You’ve clearly created a brilliant battle plan that will succeed in achieving your business objectives. You know exactly what you want people to do after they’ve been exposed to your genius.

On paper, you’ve solved the problem. In discussions, you’ve won the war.

It’s all over but planting a flag and leading an army of dedicated loyalists and new customers.

Bam! Victory–– glorious victory!

Not so fast.

I used to work with a client who at these planning moments would sound a bullhorn of reality with one simple statement: “I think we’re smelling our own breath here.”

That was his way of saying we were too close to it. We were talking to ourselves, getting ‘too insider’ and blowing smoke.

Why do so many marketers spend so much time, energy and money talking to themselves?

Because it’s easy.

Marketers have a clear vision of the results we want, but we don’t have an honest assessment of what people are really thinking, feeling, believing, doing.

We know what we want, but do we have any idea of what they want?

Are we giving them a compelling and believable enticement for believing us?

If we don’t gut check ourselves, we’ll talk to ourselves and waste marketing dollars.

Wah-wah.

Don’t be afraid to call “bullshit” when you’re discussing strategies, creative briefs, and action plans. Embrace vigorous and honest debates.

Ask for substantiation and research that illuminates consumer beliefs and behaviors. If you don’t have it, why not?

Isn’t what your audience thinks kind of important?

Also, know that people are unpredictable and that the stimulus we create may or may not entice the behavior we want.

That, my friend, is why marketing is more art than science.

Be brave, be empathetic, be human.

And always remember it’s not about us, it’s about them–– and if we leave them out of the process, we’ll only be talking to ourselves.

When that happens, we don’t usually have minty fresh breath.

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