Hi there. I'm Matt. Don't hate the player. Hate the game.1

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Aug 30, 2009 | Comments

Marketing is a land of pontificators, all advising the breakthrough strategy. Spend time on the Adage 150 and you’ll read about frameworks, tactics, relationship marketing, customer experience, unique selling propositions, positioning, targeting, branding, every flavor of media, word of mouth, and on and on…

I can’t recommend anything–I have little real-world experience, and it’s shortsighted to advocate a specific strategy (e.g., everyone use social media). Regardless, everything out there is still a clusterfuck of evangelism with little research-based evidence.

It’s similar to debates in sports. Basketball enthusiasts, for example, preach every facet of the game. Consider the phrase, “______ wins games. I’ve seen the blank replaced with every idea fathomable: coaching, strategy, talent, leadership, clutch, offense, defense, size, speed, etc. Everyone has an argument, and even after decades of evidence, there’s little agreement on how to score more points than the opponent.

So in marketing, like in basketball, there’s plenty of debate over what works and what doesn’t.

But I am not satisfied. If I am building a start-up, I want to know exactly what will convert customers and grow my business. Should I focus on design? Customer experience? Media? Long-term strategy? This is the holy grail of getting shit done, and it’s a far better use of time than on pointless marketing debate (this article withstanding).

For answers, I trust the all-stars–those that have done something of substance, not the social media expert that blogs daily (excluding the omniscient Seth Godin). It’s the cliche folks: Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, David Ogilvy, Tony Hsieh, Philip Knight, Jeff Bezos, etc.

Until I’m at that level, it’s universal skepticism for me. A few of dynamics that I have yet to resolve:

  • Strategy vs. Tactics: What is a greater predictor of success–tactics or strategy? I’d like to believe the academics and consultants–that businesses require a solid strategy. But even a great idea takes an absurd amount of luck and hard work, with cumulative advantage (i.e., randomness) playing a huge role. VCs invest in the entrepreneur, not the idea, for a reason.
  • Best Practices vs. Focus on you: As a consultant, we breathe best practices. What are the industry leaders doing? Your competitors? How about the market darlings, Apple and Google? Though I like critical research, what worked for Apple is an anomaly–you’d be crazy to benchmark yourself against one of the most successful companies this decade. And your competitors? They’re likely just as inept as you. Seth Godin has a great quote: “[Success] is not by following some expert’s rules or following the herd, but by doing it in the way that works. For you. Don’t worry about someone else’s invented standards for new media, invent your own. Avoid obvious mistakes, don’t follow obvious successes.”
  • Customers (i.e., market research) vs. the Creator: Is the source of innovation the customer or the creator? Refer to Henry Ford on market research, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Steve Jobs is in the same camp–hates market research. In short, people do not know what they want. Contrast this with the dogma from b-schools and market research conducted in every major corporation.
  • Promotion vs. Product: What sells, the product or the advertising? Is ROI higher on a dollar invested into promotion or the product? It’s a classic chicken/egg problem. 20 years ago, I’d bet there would be more agreement that promotion is necessary. But recently, so many Internet start-ups have bootstrapped without any advertising.
  • Design vs. Design: I doubt you could find a CEO that thinks design is horse-shit. But what type of “design” is it that everyone loves? Aesthetics (a la Jonathan Ive)? “How it works?” An absurd flash site? The user experience? And consider Zappos, Amazon, or Craiglist–how do they practice design?
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  1. Nice post Matt.

    If you’re not already reading The Ad Contrarian blog, you should definitely check it out. He covers a lot of stuff you do in this post, like why people who claim Social Media is the answer to everything are way off:

    http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/2009/08/more-social-media-baloney.html

    “If I am building a start-up, I want to know exactly what will convert customers and grow my business.” — so true. I eventually want to run my own business(es) one day, so I think about the same thing, especially when I’m reading business books.

    So what’s the answer? I think most of it is fundamentals:

    * Great customer service
    * A product that fills a need
    * Focus on your strengths instead of weaknesses
    * Healthy company culture, etc. etc.

    But most people don’t want to talk about the fundamentals because they’re boring, or routine, or “unsexy”. The basics don’t sell. On top of that, people are always looking for shortcuts (Ex: the weight loss industry over the past 30 yrs has exploded, but in the same time period, obesity has increased).

    One other thing: you mentioned the “all-stars.” Personally, I avoid reading most autobiographies because they’re so subjective by nature. Some of the best books I’ve read like “The Millionaire Next Door” and “First, Break All The Rules” are based on extensive research and I think they give a nice objective overview of what happened and why certain things worked.

    If you take a book by Jack Welch, for example, I think what he thinks worked (and what actually did work) can be two different things. I’m not saying that Welch wasn’t successful – far from it, but what worked for him may not work for us. Not only that, GE was its own little world, and what worked for that company may not work in another.

    Which brings me back to why fundamentals are important. I think if we stick to them, we’ll be OK. All the little things that make one successful company or leader who or what they are is specific to that situation. Jobs is known as a tyrant and a very difficult boss to work for – I don’t think either one of us would agree that this approach is healthy or something we would want in our own companies, but it has worked for him (so far).

    I think it’s up to us, as future entrepreneurs, to master the fundamentals and figure out what those little things are – and make them work for us.

  2. In terms of fundamentals, these all seem reasonable–but so do unique selling propositions, simple customer experiences, customer value, etc. What differentiates these fundamentals from the hundreds of others?

    You’re right about Jack Welch. To use him as a best practice is just as shortsighted as copying Apple–what worked for him might not necessarily work for you. But in this case, it’s more of a management style, not an isolated product or industry. Like in basketball, there’s something to be gained from studying the great coaches and players–their strategies and their decisions.

  3. I think the answer to these questions you ask is always “it depends”, and that's why we marketers are so comfortable pontificating (or perhaps bloviating) endlessly for free; you can't just take these ideas and whip up some magic potion. Marketers make actual valuable contributions when a client says, “we want to hire you to develop our digital strategy.” At that point it stops being an exercise in hypotheticals and we Get Shit Done as it pertains to a specific industry, a specific client, and a specific competitive set. At least, that's how I roll!

  4. Matthew F Daniels

    I wrote this article almost a year ago–so it's good to reflect on where my head was. I do agree that it probably “depends” and there's no holy grail. But when I arrive at the “Get Shit Done” phase, I'm looking for research-based answers or best-practices for making decisions, rather than relying on intuition or what feels right. That is, “what works.” At least that's what I was trying to communicate in the post.

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