Wanted: A few mad scientists

Did you hear about the car company that stopped making cars? Its latest quarterly results went through the roof.

Did you hear about the car company that stopped making cars? Its latest quarterly results went through the roof.

It was all thanks to the CFO really: It was he who first noticed that there were enough cars in the system to last through the quarter, so why not lay off the entire workforce and close down the factories? Hell, why not sell the factories? With no overhead, no manufacturing costs and no employees, every penny of revenue would be profit. Pure genius.

Of course, once the quarter was over, the company went out of business – it’s pretty hard to build an automotive manufacturer from scratch every quarter. But the profits from that one magical quarter will go down in history.

This is the sort of thinking that’s going on behind the slashing of marketing budgets across the country, and to me, it’s as insane as my imaginary CFO. Because as you might expect (and as PHD Canada co-founder Rob Young notes in Lisa D’Innocenzo’s cover story ‘What would happen if you stopped advertising?’), when a company does just that, ‘things start moving south, so awareness starts declining and sales start declining.’

So why do marketers do it? Partly because some don’t have the influence within their organizations that they once had, partly because of the intense pressure on quarterly results, and partly because they take leave of their common sense.

Now common sense is not something one should ignore, and if you want to see how successful a company can become by following its instincts, you should read the fascinating Q&A with Bad Boy Worldwide’s CMO Jameel Spencer on page 16. In that piece, Spencer is amazingly frank in his description of how he helped to build a $300-million New York-based purveyor of cool (i.e. branded music, restaurants and a successful fashion line) on the back of P. Diddy and his ilk.

For one thing, he actually comes out and admits that the company does market research ‘only because those are the metrics you need to survive in corporate America’ while in truth, Spencer gets all the information he needs just by ‘walking down the street and looking at what people are wearing.’

It helps, says Spencer, that Bad Boy employees ‘are the pulse’ – they themselves represent the target that they market to. Now I’d like to see him try to explain that to his CFO, but I get the feeling that’s not where he’s getting his orders from anyway.

Then, just to your right, John Bradley, who’s relishing in a newfound freedom to tell it like it is since leaving Cadbury to start up his own marketing consultancy, nostalgically waxes about the time when marketers were it – at least compared to the bean counters and IT guys. Now, he notes, marketers seem to have faded from corporate magicians to the sort of ‘self-obsessed, jargon-spouting, can’t-see-the-woods-for-the-trees losers’ most recently seen in movies like Big (and not really seen in movies at all since then).

Is it just me, or when you look at all of this together, does a bigger, scarier picture emerge? I see a field that’s lost its lustre, that’s been devoured by the beast. I think what’s missing are the sorts of revolutionary ideas that catapulted marketers to the top back in the ’50s and ’60s, but I don’t see where they’re going to come from.

This gets me thinking that perhaps the marketing field could borrow from science, which has made most of its advances thanks to labs that employ really smart people to invent away without the pressure of meeting quarterly targets.

Maybe now I’m losing it, but would it be that crazy to set up some kind of industry-funded marketing lab at a major Canadian university with the sole purpose of coming up with fresh new ideas?

Such a lab could research how brands are built, it could produce papers on the psychology of persuasion, it could analyze the effectiveness of different media mixes. And unlike Unilever, when the mad marketing scientists make an amazing discovery, they could publish it for all to see.

Without the constraints imposed by competitive issues, they could put the field back on track to making quantum leaps again, and in the process, produce a new generation of marketing geniuses.

Most importantly, they could produce studies that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that cutting your marketing budget is bad for the bottom line. And studies like that are good to have around – because you never know when your CFO will drop by to show you how much money he can save by selling the factory.

Duncan Hood, editor, dhood@brunico.com