His methods still matter – a response to ‘David Ogilvy must die’

In a recent opinion piece, David Baldwin argued that David Ogilvy, or rather his supposed way of thinking, had to die. His world, Baldwin argued, no longer existed “sociologically or physically”. While that may be true, the suggestion that Ogilvy’s approach to marketing needs to shuffle off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and join the choir invisible is demonstrably false.

No normal person, or even marketer, would argue that the world of today isn’t vastly different from the world of yesterday. Big data allows brands and agencies to target potential customers with greater precision than ever. The internet is, by and large, a perfect channel for delivering information on products and prices, and combined with mobile it can drastically hasten the customer journey. With purchases only a click away and a smartphone practically in every pocket, activation has never been more efficient. The list goes on.

Yet the fundamentals of marketing remain relevant to this day, and the reason for the practice the same. You do marketing to sell stuff.

David Baldwin disagrees.

In the world according to Baldwin, marketing is no longer about selling, but selling “more relevantly”. The distinction between the two at first glance identical objectives, he argues, is made up by the ever-popular platitude of “connecting” people with “core beliefs” and “values”.

Allow me a riposte.

The purpose of marketing is, has always been and will always be to increase sales.

The timescale may vary, from short-term activated uplifts to long-term brand-built sales growth, but the end-goal identical. It applies to customer acquisition and customer retention alike.

If you fail to make a sale somewhere down the line, your marketing efforts have been in vain. And no consumer will make a purchase if the product is irrelevant to them.

Modern marketers in general, and digital marketers in particular, love to bring up beliefs and values. Unfortunately, the reason for it appears rooted in marketers’ adamant refusal to admit that “getting people to buy things” is, really, what they do for a living. When said aloud at social events, it perhaps sounds less evil to “connect communities with purpose”. But the fact of the matter is that consumers don’t actually consider the brand values as they make their bi-weekly purchase of toilet paper, nor do they feel emotionally connected to it at the moment of usage. Which is probably a good thing.

Yet Baldwin goes on to claim that we live in something called a “Belief Economy”, driven by “Millennials and iGen”.

This is quite demonstrably not the case.

For a number of reasons, ranging from youth to a lag in career progression due to the 2008 financial crisis, Millennials and iGen have relatively low disposable incomes. The economy is driven by Baby Boomers.

Nor have, contrary to popular belief, consumers suddenly started prioritizing “authentic belief systems” over price, product and place.

Not only do purchase patterns prove the claim untrue, the statement also casts the claimant in a rather unfavorable light. Partly because the act of turning generations into segments automatically proves one does not understand segmentation, but also because by doing so one falsely presumes a heterogenic group to be homogenic in nature.

In the case of millennials, this means that adolescents barely out of school in rural China would have identical attitudes and behaviors to fully grown adults with careers, children and mortgages in downtown New York.

Baldwin goes on to bring up Patagonia’s success with tactical execution and that the brand supposedly has a “devoted” customer base. While congratulations are in order, Patagonia’s success is not indicative of a paradigm-shifting trend. Brands still grow by penetration, not loyalty. People still buy what everyone else buys.

The remaining parts of his argument are equally troublesome. Not only does he gravely misrepresent what Ogilvy meant by saying that the “customer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife”, he insinuates that brands “standing for something” is equal to them having a so-called brand purpose.

Yes, brands stand for something. They have meaning. That’s what separate them from their unbranded commodity counterparts. Marketers have known that since the days of Achenbaum. But what brands stand for isn’t, nor should it be, a want to change the world (as they inevitably fail to pay their taxes). Rather, it’s the result of their positioning.

David Ogilvy would know that.

In fact, he could probably teach modern marketers a thing or two about it.

So stop this nonsense about him having to die and go get the number to a necromancer. Quite clearly a resurrection is in order.

JP Hanson is the chief executive of international brand development consultancy firm Rouser and a branding keynote speaker

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