The Most Conservative Guys in the Room

Starbucks Lido Beijing
Trying the Dark Cherry Mocha
1617 hrs.

In November I was invited to join a panel with CIC‘s Sam Flemming and Cohn & Wolfe‘s Jake Drake to talk about social media and marketing at a combined European Union Chamber of Commerce/American Chamber of Commerce event in Beijing. With Sam giving his (frequently funny) insights on the online life of Chinese consumers, and Jake providing some convincing cases on how to utilize the Internet in a marketing program, I was cast in the role of the Friendly Skeptic. (“Hey, I’m no Luddite, but…”)

Given that the hype factor in social media marketing is huge, I had plenty to talk about, and even Sam and Jake spent much of their talks providing reality checks. But of all of the barriers to success in digital marketing (of any flavor), the biggest remains marketers ourselves.

We Have Met the Suits, and They Are Us

Sir Martin Sorrell, speaking at ad:tech New York last month, told the audience that agencies don’t get digital because they are basically led by Old Guys. He’s partly right. To be more accurate, marketers remain innately conservative.

Oh, we’re creative all right, and some of us even get away with dress codes that border on the eccentric. Have a little crawl around our insecure psyches, on the other hand, and you will find that we are so risk-averse that we make accountants look like cowboys.

Part of this is ingrained habit. Fifty years of mixing our marketing plans out of the same media ingredients have not helped. (Gender issues and outdated fashion aside, the world of Mad Men still looks eerily familiar, doesn’t it?)

But the problem goes deeper than that. Or, maybe I should say higher than that. Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and their bosses, especially here in China, remain more afraid of losing money than losing a marketing opportunity. That mindset percolates downward very quickly. This makes for conservative young corporate marketers who then grow up to become conservative CMOs.

Things on the agency side are not much better. Terrified of losing that key client and laboring under the iron financial discipline of the agency conglomerates, account teams become reluctant to experiment, hewing closer and closer to the “sure bets” from tools to strategy and yes, to creative.

Innovate or Die

This would be worrying enough if the marketing crafts were operating in a relatively stable environment. In the face of financial crisis, the growing challenges of globalization, and the accelerated continental drift taking place in the media industry, failure to experiment constantly – and thus to innovate consistently – is foolhardy.

When I ask any marketer if they think we need to innovate more, to a person they all agree that it is essential. But when I ask whether they, their organizations, or their clients are prepared to put up with the occasional spectacular failure in the quest for innovation, they all shake their heads vigorously.

And there’s the rub. In order to have the kind of ongoing innovation our industry needs, you must have a high tolerance for failure both generally and financially. Industries that depend on innovation do not expect all of those innovations to materialize out of day-to-day business operations, and so they allocate funds and resources to research and development.

When was the last time your company or agency allocated 20%, or 10%, or even 5% of its marketing budget to activities for which there was no obligation to show ROI beyond discovering new tools and tactics? And even if you wanted to, would the nice folks in procurement stand for it?

Don’t Shoot the Old Horses Yet

If ever there was a time for us to purge some of the stuffy conservatism from our industry, this is it. If we are to believe Sir Martin, the matter is as simple as sacking every marketer over a certain age and replacing them with a legion of young (and presumably more digital) turks.

But even if you accepted that as a solution, to shackle the new blood with business practices and financial targets designed to smother any but the most serendipitous innovations would serve only to transform the upstarts into alter kackers overnight.

For us to slip the bonds of the conservatism that has restrained our response to a digital world, we marketers must first attack the very conceptual framework that has grown around our industry over the last fifty years. That is not going to happen quickly – it will only be the result of a long and concerted effort across all of the crafts.

But it is without question the direction we must take. In the face of almost constant innovation in media, constant change in audiences we want to reach, and the growing need to link our work ever more closely with business results, Madison Avenue needs to be as driven by innovation as Silicon Valley.

Now, where to begin?


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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