The Renegade Renegade

One thing you have to get used to very early on in a marketing career is that seemingly everyone can do your job better than you can. The sales force, customers, shop floor workers and all your friends can tell within 10 seconds that your painstakingly crafted ad, promotion or new product is complete rat shit. And they are not slow in letting you know, as demonstrated by my co-columnists one page to the left.

One thing you have to get used to very early on in a marketing career is that seemingly everyone can do your job better than you can. The sales force, customers, shop floor workers and all your friends can tell within 10 seconds that your painstakingly crafted ad, promotion or new product is complete rat shit. And they are not slow in letting you know, as demonstrated by my co-columnists one page to the left.

While I have enjoyed reading the contribution of two people for whom I have the greatest admiration, I must confess to a growing sense of unease with the whole concept of a ‘Renegade CMO.’ It’s easier to be a back-seat CMO than it is to deal with the day-to-day brand management issues of an increasingly competitive category, and deliver results in the short term.

This is because the beleaguered shareholders of Loblaw, for example, do actually want a return on their investment. Not some vague promise of growth years down the line, but quite soon, please, because they’ve been taking a bath for quite some time now.

Shareholder expectations, translated into tough targets for the short, medium and long term, can be onerous to deal with from the client side, but they’re an unfortunate fact of life in large companies. That’s why you get paid the big bucks.

I’m not sure a survey of ad campaigns is a fair means of gauging whether or not marketing has the CEO’s ear in a business. Telecoms, banking and retail have always been difficult to advertise effectively, especially in turbulent times.

If I were at Bell, I’d be a lot more worried about my wires-in-the-ground legacy than about a couple of beavers. If I were at Loblaws, I’d be more worried about guaranteeing that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes would actually be on the shelf than about whether Weston fils is the right spokesman. And of course we all know what RBC is worried about right now.

Advertising is not a universal panacea that can cure all ills. If the fundamentals of your business are shaky, either through technological change, botched logistics initiatives or global credit meltdowns, then your brand is going to suffer, and sometimes there is not a lot you can do about it in the short term.

These are also extremely difficult categories in which to build any meaningful and sustainable differentiation.

I have long pondered the wisdom of those categories rushing headlong into their use of the tools and techniques that were honed over decades to help sell unique, differentiated, tangible products to the masses. Perhaps they would have been better off bypassing mass and going straight to ‘my.’

Which is where I agree, in theory, with Tony’s assertion on the shift from ‘mass to my.’ But I am, again, not sure that it is a universal panacea.

I have ‘me’ relationships with my bank, my telecom provider and my grocery store because I have to, so they might as well leverage all that information they have on me. But if ‘my’ went ‘mass’ across the entire packaged goods spectrum, it would be stunningly less effective than mass is today. I would blank it out completely.

‘My’ works now precisely because of its contrast to ‘mass.’ I can handle a few one-on-one brand relationships, but I buy hundreds of brands in a year, 98% of which communicate to me through ‘mass’ in ways I can process in my busy life. The last thing I want is hundreds of wannabe relationships with the good residents of Bangalore about gum, shoe polish and the like.

Mass is not dead, but it needs to up its game. It is our job as marketers to map the route to that better future for our employers through better insights, and provide the transport to get there through stronger, more relevant brands and breakthrough innovation.

I have a lot of sympathy for the view that the long term is the sum of a series of short terms. But milestones along the way need to be hit – or else.

John Bradley is a career marketer turned consultant/author whose recently published tome Cadbury’s Purple Reign is now in reputable bookshops.

Queries/comments/fan mail are welcomed at johnbradley@yknotsolutions.com.