Marketing is hard. Great marketing harder still.
This has always been—and has never been more—true. Still, it was difficult to watch Sunday’s ad game and not conclude that too many marketers wasted the moment (and, with it, millions of dollars spent), because they’d mistaken tactics for strategy, celebrity for creativity. They’d lost sight of the fundamentals.
Too many marketers have lost the thread that ties the capturing of attention to the influencing of attitudes and behaviors. Nostalgia is not a strategy. Puppies are not a strategy. Celebrity is not a strategy (well, maybe it’s a media one but it’s not a Creative one). But this isn’t just true of Sunday and it’s not just true of advertising. It’s on full display across all parts of the marketing mix.
The proof is everywhere and it should be terrifying to all of us. Marketing is in trouble. Brands are in trouble.
· Three out of every four brands could disappear in this instant with no one noticing or caring.
· Almost eight of every 10 searches on Amazon are by category, not brand.
For decades, the CMO has been the most disposable C-suite executive and has had the shortest tenure in it.
Having contributed to the last data point myself, I’ve got informed opinions on the myriad reasons why this has been the case as long as it has, we’ll save those for another day. But among them is that too many marketers, some CMOs included, have lost the thread.
Creative that solves no problems, answers no questions (looking at you, Crypto category and applauding you Google Pixel 6), and makes no enduring connection is not worth the :30-:90 seconds it takes to watch, let alone the millions of dollars and thousands of hours it takes to create.
Too many of us are confusing tactics with strategies and strategies with objectives. In the scramble to be and stay relevant, marketing is hastening its own irrelevance by losing sight of the “who” and “why” that precede the “what” and “how.”
Simon Sinek must be furious.
In the past 2 weeks, I’ve read and listened as marketers have done interviews these not-exactly-confidence-inspiring statements:
The CMO of one global brand proudly shared that over the recent past they’ve “learned to put the customer back at the center of what [they] do.” This left me wondering what in the world they’d been doing when the customer (current or prospective) wasn’t there.
Another CMO, when asked what advice they’d offer to other marketers, said “don’t forget to tie your marketing objectives to the goals of the business.” What exactly would marketing be tied to if not these? Another thread lost.
· A brilliant comms planner talked about needing to work behind the scenes to get their creative team to think as much about the brand audience they’re creating for as their own portfolio. Evidence again that we’ve lost the thread—the why—that drives what we do.
There’s a meaningful difference between missing the mark, inevitable as it can be, and missing the point. It’s clear the point is being missed, too often by too many, and to ill effect.
How’d we get here? Well, marketing is hard, and great marketing is harder still. And the thousands of seismic and fundamental shifts — cultural shifts, behavioral shifts, new platforms, crumbling cookies, collapsing funnels, media fraud, measurement myopia, pick your poison — haven’t helped.
But amidst the explosion of data, platforms, means, methods and measurements (etc.) and the fragmentation and decentralization of audiences, we’ve also lost sight and the thread of what endures. We need it back. Quickly.
As much as things have changed—two things haven’t.
One, how our brains are wired and work. Two, why people buy. Because as subjective and often subconscious as the reasons are they remain largely as they’ve always been.
So, maybe it’s time we, this community of marketers, reconsider the fundamentals of marketing. One example? Consider JWT’s 1974 Planning Guide. The truths and premises that gird this document transcend the almost 50 years that have passed and all the changes that have transpired. Read it again, or for the first time.
What other basics might we rediscover and grab hold of? Among those that were most obvious in their absence on Sunday:
· Standing for something true, real, sustainable
Being meaningfully different. Different is better than better in a world of good-enough alternatives (as the Amazon data reminds us.)
Creating clear distinction
· Solving problems; practical ones or emotional ones
Leaning into—or away from—human biases and predispositions
Obviously, there are more. Many. The brilliant basics of what we do—or at least used to do—before we lost the thread.
Because at the end of the day, whether we’re selling soap or enterprise solutions, we’re marketing and selling to people. People whose attention guarantees us nothing unless we do something when we have it. Work that gets talk-value but adds neither brand nor business value isn’t very valuable at all, is it?
But this is hard. As every parent knows (and for that matter anyone who’s been a child, too), it’s hard to influence attitudes and behaviors even if you do manage to capture attention. (Kid Cudi is looking at you, Kanye). But it’s impossible if we don’t tie the threads together.
I don’t mean to throw stones. Which is why I’ve named no names (besides Kanye’s). Because while I’ve only been at Forbes for two weeks, I’ve been in and advising the C-suite for a career. I’m acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in moving from objectives to insight to idea to execution to ROI.
On a good day and on smaller stages, the challenge and struggle are real, and it can be exhausting and debilitating (we’ll be discussing the mental health of this community in subsequent pieces) especially for CMOs.
CMOs whose CEO may sometimes not have the marketing experience and understanding that’s equal to their opinions. Or a CFO, who is neither penalized for spending less nor, always, plugged in to the myriad of shifts, changes and choices the CMO—and the community of marketers that surrounds and supports them—is confronted with.
Again, marketing is hard. Great marketing harder still. But that’s the job, and no small part of why on our best days, we love the job and the intellectual and creative challenges surrounding it.
I’ve no illusion that my call for a reconsideration of the basics is offering breakthrough insight or bold advice. To the contrary. But nor is it a luddite’s lament. It’s a plea to keep things simple in a landscape of great and growing complexity.
Unlike a lot of Sunday’s ads, I’m not hopelessly nostalgic. But I do wonder if the best way to prepare for marketing’s uncertain future is to reach back and grab hold of some of the enduring truths and fundamentals on which the industry has been built.
While the status quo is an albatross around the neck of progress, there are things from the past, being too often ignored in the present, that might just help more marketing be great. Because in marketing as in football as in life, success, is best thought of as a consequence rather than an objective.
It’s a consequence of what we do and the choices and sacrifices we make—or don’t. It’s a conversation about these marketing challenges, choices and sacrifices that we hope the Forbes CMO Network can help foster and facilitate. We hope to add more value to what you all do, from CMO to AAE, by amplifying, convening, and bringing some scale to the marketing conversations, ideas, humans, work, creativity, innovations and news that need them.
This will require we make choices and sacrifices, and no doubt we will get some of them wrong. We’ll count on you to let us know when we do.
It’s unlikely we can make marketing less hard but maybe, together, we can make great marketing more common. Maybe, together, we can make it so only 70% of brands could disappear with no one noticing.
So, for the love of great brands, great marketing and the people that remain at their core, we hope you’ll choose to be an even bigger part of this conversation—and the Forbes CMO community—moving forward.
But, this is your choice. Our job is to make your decision an easier one. It’s never easy, but it is fundamental.