How did the marketing industry get here?
The Drum’s Promotion Fix columnist, Samuel Scott, gave the opening address at the Amsterdam release of “Eat Your Greens: Fact-based thinking to improve your brand’s health” on Friday. The book is a collection of 42 essays by marketing experts and was edited by Wiemer Snijders, a partner at the advisory firm The Commercial Works.
The talk began with this brief video excerpt of a recent speech by Gary Vaynerchuk on the supposed death of television. A lightly edited text of Scott’s following address is below.
A short introduction. In my prior career, I was first a journalist and newspaper editor who later moved into marketing. Most recently, I was director of marketing at a tech company. Today, I write a biweekly column on marketing and media for The Drum and travel around the world to speak about what I report. I use my dual experiences to discuss the marketing industry with the mindset of a neutral journalist. I have no assumptions. I take nothing at face value. I have nothing to sell except my ideas. And I do not accept any fad without evidence.
So, I do like the trend of evidence-based marketing because that is exactly what journalists do. Whenever a politician or Gary Vee – as you just saw – makes some grand, declarative statement, the best thing to do is to ask for the evidence.
Whenever we hear chief executives, gurus, or – God forbid – influencers making a grandiose claim, we should ask ourselves: how much money will this person or company make by popularising this idea? In this video, Gary Vee says that he invests in Facebook and Twitter. So can we be surprised that he advocates that everyone move all media spend there?
Whenever marketers claim that “everything has changed” or that something is “dead” or that some new buzzword “is the future of marketing,” ask for the evidence. Make them cite their sources and explain their reasoning.
In my column, I do exactly that. After journalists, marketers should be the most skeptical people in the world, but too many have been bamboozled by bullshit from marketing software companies that are just selling something. And where this all began was in the decade of the 2000s.
One thing we need to remember is that the internet gained mainstream popularity at the same time as the major recession that followed the collapse of the first tech bubble.
Despite the stock market’s slow rebound starting in 2003, the economy as a whole did not really recover – the stock market’s bull run was largely a result of low interest rates, increasing debt, and a housing bubble that had started to inflate. Most everyday citizens and smaller companies were still in tough shape. Then, the financial and housing crash in 2008 made things worse.
From the ashes during this time, we saw the rise of web 2.0. We saw the birth of digital marketing and its association with quick, cheap hacks during a time when a lot of people did not have a lot of money. Naturally, it was appealing. And online marketing has since been forever tainted and branded as useful for quick, cheap hacks. Just like a permanent birth defect.
Instead of 10,000 pieces of direct mail, you can send 10 million free emails. You can just stuff keywords onto a webpage to rank highly in Google. You can market for free with company social media pages.
Rather than build strong brands that will stand the test of time, online marketing consisted of “bags of tricks” to increase search engine rankings, email opens and social media engagement quickly and cheaply.
Now, the thing to remember is that tech people believe in progress. They think that they are creating the future – and anything that comes later must be better. Widget 2.0 is always better than widget 1.0. But I have one question: I use my smartphone to make calls over WhatsApp or Skype, but why have I never had a crystal clear connection since the last time I used a landline? These new communications technologies are not better – they are merely cheaper.
The same is true in marketing when people assume that newer channels must be better. Here is an experiment that I will propose. Target a small city with online display ads. Measure the brand lift. Do the same with local TV, local radio, cinema, and outdoor. What results would you see?
I bet that you would find that online display ads are absolutely useless. Advertising over digital channels is efficient but often not effective. Advertising over traditional channels is effective but often not efficient.
But the biggest problem in the tech and digital marketing worlds is white, educated, upper-middle class people thinking that everyone else is completely like them. They buy the same products, have the same motivations, and consume the same media. But I’m sure that everyone here knows that this is completely false. Who buys most consumer products? Everyone else but white, educated, upper-middle class people. Gary Vee is the Tony Robbins of the marketing industry and is selling something to people just like him.
Radio is supposed to be dead, but every single day I see numerous blue-collar taxi and bus drivers listening to radio all day long. But again, the subconscious bias is that if you are not white, educated, and upper-middle class, you do not matter.
I know we are here to eat our greens, but the best example of marketing junk food dates back to 2005 – the year that HubSpot was founded.
HubSpot, as you may know, declared advertising to be “dead” and instead invented the terms “inbound marketing” and “content marketing.” And of course, it sells marketing software that just happens to do exactly that.
How does the process work? Publish cheap clickbait blog spam and spread it around the internet to get clicks. Get the website visitors to give you their email address. Spam them until they buy.
And that is absolutely terrible. But today, we have a new generation of marketers who know only that and have never even taken a real course in actual marketing and communications.
They think only in terms of direct response and junk mail over the internet. They limit themselves to digital channels because they assume that newer channels must be better. They think TV killed radio and the internet killed TV. They have no knowledge of brand management or media planning. They know which media is cheap but not which is effective.
They know the cost of everything but not the value. They confuse measurement with effectiveness. They do not realise that many of the results and benefits of marcom activity appear not in metric dashboards but inside people's heads. They use direct response and junk mail because only those can scale and creativity cannot. They are software engineers who run marketing departments.
And they think everyone is just like them and refuse to believe real, neutral data that uses representative samples.
Look at the alleged gurus today. Last week, I heard a real person say that he aims to make "10 pieces of content every day". What does that even mean? To quote Bob Hoffman, “content is anything you can upload to the web”. Mark Ritson has written that it’s just another general term for marcom. I think “content” is the worst word that the marketing industry has ever invented. The word means nothing precise and is useless from strategic and tactical standpoints.
Besides, most “content marketing” is just direct response over the newer channel of a company’s website.
Marketing has always been this: Do the customer-facing research. Create something that either fulfills a need or is something new that people will want. Decide whether and how much you will segment the market. Do the positioning and messaging. Choose a value, mid-market, or premium price. Determine how you will prioritize promotional tactics and media channels. Create and transmit the marcom collateral. But the gurus of today never discuss most of that.
In a recent column on influencer marketing, I discussed the difference between fame and influence. Gary Vee has fame, but I hope he has not had any real influence in marketing departments. Neither anyone in this room nor Eat Your Green’s contributors are famous, but all of you here and in the book are very influential. And I would take that any day.
But the argument goes, HubSpot had a $125m IPO – doesn’t that prove that filling the internet with crap is successful?
Absolutely not. To this day, HubSpot loses $40m every year using the same practices that the company preaches. Many startup tech companies are gigantic houses of cards that are designed to lose money and make rich VCs even more rich. The game is rigged through investors getting preferred shares. Often even founders don’t make that much money from the rare exits. These companies are not real businesses that earn profits.
And for the workers, many of these tech companies are sweatshops who aim to hire 22-year-olds, work them 22 hours a day, and pay them $22,000. (That was how one person described the media company Vice.) Dan Lyons, a former journalist turned HubSpot employee, exposed the company in a 2016 memoir. He has a new book out that details the labor practices in the tech world and how the ideas are spreading to other types of businesses. Which is terrible.
I hope we in the marketing industry learn from that as well because we have our own sweatshop issues – especially on the agency side. To quote a cliche from Facebook’s PR team but in actual earnestness, “we can and should do better”.
So, we should not learn marketing or anything else from the empty gurus and VC-run tech world. If you want to lose $40m a year, take HubSpot’s inbound marketing course. If you want to make money, read Eat Your Greens. It is a wonderful start to healing the damage done to the marketing industry since the 2000s.
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing speaker and workshop facilitator Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.