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The need for derring-do: Why a marketing chap must prize original thinking over safety in numbers

Mark Etingchap is a self-proclaimed expert in marketing, PR, and social media. He also enjoys cricket on a decent wicket, a good smoke, and anyone who is a good egg. You can find him on Twitter @Marketing_Chap and LinkedIn.

A new career for Topsy Montecute?

As many of you know, I have a genial but woolly-headed chum named Topsy Montecute.

Virtually unemployable, Topsy never manages to stick to any career path for more than a few weeks at a time. He’s dabbled in everything from law to holy orders, but his appetite for the 9-5 is easily blunted. Invariably this happens once any actual work or complex thinking is required. My eyebrows assumed a raised position, therefore, when I heard about his latest quixotic wheeze: Topsy wants to become a television weatherman.

“Are you quite mad?” I asked him over a single malt at our club bar recently. “Have you any idea how complex a subject meteorology is? There are enormous amounts of data, equations and the like. Not the sort of thing for a chap who struggles to put one foot in front of the other on a good day.”

But Topsy would not be rebuffed. He had, he insisted, a foolproof plan.

“I shall simply wake up bright and early each morning,” he explained, “take note of what is said by all the other weathermen on the telly, and say exactly the same thing when it’s my turn.

“Frankly, chap,” he concluded, “I don’t see how I can go wrong.”

Weak-minded though my chum may be, I could not help but be impressed by his logic. If Topsy stuck to the majority opinion on whether there would be rain or no rain, gale or no gale, etc, his status as a complete nincompoop might go undiscovered!

Crikey!

But beguiling as I found Topsy’s naive stratagem, I didn’t give it any more thought for several days. At least I didn’t until I was preparing a pitch for a potential new client and I found myself thinking, “Nothing too bold here that could scare the horses, chap. Let’s play it safe. Best have a gander at what other marketers have done in this category…..”

And then I stopped short. Although I had scoffed at Topsy’s plan, I realised that I frequently and enthusiastically employ a very similar method. And, what’s more, any honest assessment of the marketing profession would conclude that the Topsy-method is rather rife throughout. Not because we lack the capacity for original thinking, of course, but because this is what the market demands. Do you get my meaning? Let me explain:

Bold, original thinking is all well and good, but even the best original thinkers get things wrong on a regular basis. Any marketer worth his salt backs up his theories with mountains of data, but no amount of data can guarantee the million pounds being spent on a given campaign will deliver the desired results. Marketers are asked to make enormous decisions in an uncertain world, and that’s rather terrifying. Do we not all, to one extent or another, rely on careful analysis of what other marketers are saying?

Of course we do. And with good reason. Like most herd animals, marketers find safety in numbers. Failure is painful, but much less painful if we all fail together (I’m looking at you, QR codes).Taking a punt on an original but untested idea pays off handsomely if one is proven correct, but could scupper a career if not. To survive we must read every marketing publication we can lay hand to (paying careful attention to The Drum, of course), and be prepared to parrot back the contents upon demand.

Clients, of course, are as culpable in this phenomenon as anyone else. Brand managers will gladly pay top dollar for a marketing expert who can ‘think outside the box’ as long as he or she thinks outside the box in more or less the same way as every other marketing expert does. Brands want to appear fresh and new, but they are far too valuable to be risked on any idea that is not tried and tested (ie fresh and new). The result is that rather than add value to our clients’ marketing strategies, we often do nothing more than confirm the conventional wisdom to which they were previously inclined.

We may not like it, but there it is. One must play the ball as it lies and all that.

But does this really matter? As long as clients are happy and invoices are paid, I mean. One could argue it’s neither here nor there whether one’s work contains a magic spark of genuine originality. Should we honestly give two hoots?

I daresay we should give two hoots, chaps. Perhaps even three. And here’s why.

Consider, the current plight now vexing an industry surprisingly similar to ours: investment fund management.

Like marketers, fund managers advise clients on future trends in exchange for substantial fees. Like marketers, fund managers crunch enormous amounts of data gleaned by evermore expensive bits of software. Like marketers, a fund manager’s career can come rather unstuck if he gets his predictions wrong. Like marketers, successful fund managers often do little more than replicate what other fund managers are doing, thereby reproducing overall market trends for their clients.

Unfortunately for fund managers, however, they’ve been caught out. Investors have finally wised up to the fact that if a fund manager is only tracking a market index, an automated tracker fund can produce the same result at a fraction of the cost. Even aggressive investment strategies, once the sole preserve of chaps in pointy shoes and garish cufflinks, are now replicated by computers running so-called ‘smart beta tracker funds’.

The sad fact for fund managers is that after decades of charging huge sums for old rope, their so-called expertise has been commoditised. According to a recent issue of the Economist, between 2008-2013 automated tracker funds expanded twice as fast as their human-managed counterparts.

Blimey!

Could the same thing happen to marketing expertise?

At first glance, the idea seems laughable, doesn’t it? But not so long ago newspaper editors scoffed at bloggers. Could ever-advancing technology someday learn to aggregate worldwide marketing trend forecasts into cheap, off-the-shelf, automated advice?

Silly as this may sound, chaps, the danger may be very real before too long if we don’t take steps now. Algorithms can’t replicate creative genius, of course, so perhaps should we be giving greater prominence to boldness and originality? This would entail greater risk, but can we afford not to take this risk?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. I’ll let you know my thoughts once I’ve found a consensus on the issue among the marketing establishment.

Pip pip!

Mark Etingchap is the CCO (chief chap officer) of MarketingChap.com

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