Modern marketers can learn something about effectiveness from Stone Age hunter-gatherers, says Warwick Cairns.
You can say what you want about the cavemen of the past, but at least they understood the concept – and the practice – of effectiveness. And that’s something we could all do with getting better at.
Imagine. You’re sitting there on the savannah sometime in the Palaeolithic era. You’re by your fire. Because you’ve got fire (and flint, and dogs: all that new technology – you may be prehistoric but you’re not behind the times). You’re sitting there, picking a tough scrap of mammoth-meat out of your teeth, thinking to yourself. There might be any number of things you might be thinking. But one thing you’re not likely to be thinking is, how do I know whether I’m actually any good at this caveman thing? Because you already know the answer to that. You have a big goal – your business objective, if you like. Essentially, you want to not die. And you have your market performance targets – to keep body and soul together you need to hunt down a certain number of mammoths per month, and gather a certain amount of nuts and berries, and if you don’t meet those targets your stomach will start shrinking and your ribs will start sticking out. You also have behavioural aims. You know you need to keep up the spear-throwing practice, keep on top of the fire-lighting. And so on.
As a species we’ve been around for some 200,000 years. Over the course of those years much has changed. And yet for 99.9% of that time the fundamentals have remained the same. Whether it’s hunting woolly rhinoceroses, herding reindeer or growing barley, most people, for most of history, have known exactly what it is they need to achieve in order to make a success of life, and how to measure it. And when they’ve failed to hit their targets, the consequences have been tangible, and they’ve been serious.
Even today there are many professions that still work this way. If you’re a Premier League footballer, you know you need to make sure your team scores one more goal than the opposing side. Keep on doing that and you succeed. Start falling short and you’re out on your ear.
But for many of us today – perhaps most of us – that kind of immediacy is no longer the case.
Division of labour
It all started in 1776. That was the year Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. In that book, Smith came up with the concept he called the division of labour. He worked out that if one man is responsible for all the different tasks involved in making a pin, say, it will take him a very long time just to make one. But if that one man specialises in just one aspect of making that pin – it may be drawing out the wire, or it may be sharpening the point – and if he leaves all the other jobs to others to take care of, then between them they will make many more pins, and faster, than was ever possible before. That principle has shaped the world we live in, and the industries we all work in.
In ad agencies we don’t appreciate account managers who try to write the ads, and we don’t appreciate creatives who try to take control of the media plan. We all do the thing we do best.
The benefits are enormous. But so are the downsides. In particular, the more we all focus on just doing the thing we specialise in, the more we lose sight of the bigger picture. This is especially true for marketing.
Marketing works like this: a business has a goal – usually to make more money, or to stop losing money, and it thinks marketing can help. So it frees up a budget and gives it to an agency. The agency is charged with using communications to deliver increased revenue. That revenue needs to be significantly greater than the agency’s fee, or else it will all have been pointless. For this to happen the agency needs to bring about a change in the marketplace. It will do this in one of two ways: by getting more people to buy the client’s products, or else by getting existing customers to buy more. And for this to happen the behaviour of many individual consumers needs to change; and to make it change the agency needs to change the way they think or feel. It’s an interconnected chain of cause and effect. It ladders all the way up to financial return in the boardroom, and it ladders all the way down to the way you and I feel when we walk into the supermarket, or the car dealership, or when we open an app on our phones.
But because we all of us focus on our own little part of the process, most of us find it surprisingly difficult to understand whether, or how, our efforts have contributed to the overall success or failure of our joint endeavour.
I’ve recently been involved in creating the LIONS, WARC and TEP white paper The State of Creative Effectiveness based on a global study of marketing professionals. The findings are shocking. But nor are they surprising.
To give you a few facts and figures: 89% of all professional marketers say they find the commercial aspect of marketing sometimes or always hard to understand. And two thirds of marketers say they struggle to understand the contribution of marketing – their work – to the bottom line. Which, ultimately, is the one thing their jobs depend on.
If we can’t say whether we’ve actually made any money for our clients, or how we’d know it even if we had, then even at the best of times it can be a tricky conversation to have, asking those clients to keep on paying us. But in a tough economic climate, and with the shadow of recession looming, not understanding the basics of effectiveness can be little short of suicidal.
So if there’s one lesson to learn from all of this, and one thing that can stop us going the way of the cave bear and the sabre-tooth tiger, it’s that we should make an effort to step out of the cave of our specialism when we can, and see, as our ancestors did, the broader world of cause and effect and our place within it.