Marketing Never Has All The Answers

I had one of “those” meetings with one of our clients today. If you’re in marketing, you know what I mean. We were called out for non-performance: lots of money spent, very little result. The client wasn’t wrong – the lack of performance is difficult to see, and nigh impossible to justify.

One thing the client kept raising was that “this is not an R&D project,[we] are the experts, [we] are supposed to know”. I had trouble with that statement, but it wasn’t my place (or the time) to object to it. And I object to it because it assumes that all the questions have been asked and answered and marketing is, therefore, formulaic: we already know how something will work.

I’ve been in marketing since the mid-90s (professionally since 2000) and not once in that time have we ever been able to say: “We know exactly how this will perform”.

That’s not to say that we’re utterly ignorant. Even in the earliest days of Web 2.0 (before the bubble burst, when the web was as wild as it could get, long before “user research” was done to any reasonable level), we had a decent idea of what to do. What we didn’t have was a handly checklist that we’d go down, and when you were done the checklist, everything worked perfectly.

Because it didn’t. And it still very much doesn’t. Are we experts in the field? I mean, I’d shake my head on that one, personally. I can think of a dozen people I’d defer to on specific topics, much in the way scientists tend to defer to other scientists who specialize in certain topics. But do I know what I’m doing? Yes, yes I do.

That doesn’t mean I have all the answers. If I did, I’d be out on my own, making a mint. What I do have, however, is the understanding of how to guide user behaviour to a specific action or goal. And, more importantly, the knowledge that it might not be right the first time, the second time, or even the tenth time, but it will progressively and incrementally get better.

But that takes time and iteration. And not everyong is willing to deal with that kind of a timeline, especially if they’re losing money on it. So I sympathize with the client who isn’t seeing the performance they want, I do … but I cannot agree with the position that we should have known right from the start how exactly this should play out.

Marketing is in many ways like science: we start with a hypothesis, do some research, run experiments, obtain the results, adjust our approach, repeat. Most of the time, we have pre-existing knowledge and research before the hypothesis is even formed, so we start from a strong, knowledgeable position. It is not, however, complete. There are always gaps, always unknowns.

Ever wonder why companies hang onto those really irritating jingles for so long? It’s not just because you remember them (even if they’re irritating, they’re memorable), it’s because iterating on them – getting feedback and making changes – is really difficult. But they start with something that works.

Same thing applies with branding (like logo changes) or slogans. Everything a company puts out for marketing is tested and adapted. Slogans that don’t work are dropped in favour of other ones, brand logos change, heck even primary product flavours are recalled and returned to original.

We start projects based on knowledge, experience, and research. We put up materials that we believe will work based on that information. Is it exact? Nope. But it’s a lot better than just guessing. It is, however, incomplete and does require constant testing and improvement.

I will admit that we should iterate faster on this client than with others; there is a need to hone this one – we did not see that requirement early enough – and that might have adapted things on a more timely basis. But that is not my call, just my observation.

There are days that I truly hate working in marketing. While I generally love the constant change, the challenges, and the people, I struggle with the flip side, where our expectations are not aligned with others’, which leads to these kinds of scenarios.

Now if you’ll excuse me, we have a website to adjust…