Mark Ritson: Rule No 1 – No medium rules over another

I am never sure whether to be angry or depressed when I read about marketing communications at the moment. So much of the discourse on planning and executing communications strategy just seems to be wrong to me.

I read an article in Wired last weekend claiming that Oreo had “won” the marketing Super Bowl with its real-time Twitter response to the blackout at the game. I’m pretty sure that a brand that has only 75,000 followers on Twitter is going to struggle to “win” against TV ads watched by more than 60 million people but that wasn’t the reason for my depression. It was the suggestion that one tool, Twitter, was clearly superior to another tool, TV, in a general sense.

I had the same uneasy feeling when I read that James Watt, one of the founders of beer brand BrewDog, would never even consider using advertising to build his brand. “I would rather take my money and set fire to it,” he told a trade magazine. “It’s a medium that is shallow, it’s fake and we want nothing to do with it”. Watt went on to claim that editorial coverage was “1000 times more worthwhile”.

And I felt a similar twinge when I encountered Marketing Week’s most-read article last week. Its headline, ‘Only 16 per cent of marketers have mobile strategy’, implied alarm about the number of marketers not engaging this new medium. But my reaction was more sanguine: “16 per cent? Sounds about right”. Rather than being laggards, maybe the 84 per cent of marketers not using mobile had looked at it and deemed it unworthy for 2013.

The twinge came back when I learned that a senior marketer from Lego makes every senior executive attend a day-long social marketing course and take an examination to ensure they all understand the importance of social media. I thought to myself: as long as he’s making them do day-long courses on advertising, PR, direct mail, digital and visual merchandising, I suppose this makes some sense.

To understand my current depression you have to appreciate where I originally came from: the Eighties. Some 25 years ago I broke my English teacher’s heart and opted not for Oxbridge but for a degree in marketing at Lancaster University. Lancaster’s marketing degree had been founded in 1965 and by the time I got there it was a mass of specialist academics and applied lectures the like of which you would otherwise only have encountered in the US.

And while my future marketing colleagues were studying the works of Hegel, Brontë or Taylor, I went to bed each night with Kotler, Drucker and Levitt. And over three years of study (and a little bit of beer) I learned the theory of marketing.

I learned about media neutrality: the idea that a good marketer does not look down on any potential communications tool, any more than they would favour any other. I studied budgeting and learned, to my undergraduate horror, that most firms set marketing budgets by estimating their sales for the coming year and then allocating an arbitrary amount of those sales – usually between 1 and 5 per cent – for marketing. But then I was taught the superior approach of zero-based budgeting – the idea that each year you re-set your total spend and allocations to zero and review which tools will best deliver the year’s strategic objectives.

And I learned about integrated marketing. The idea that multiple tools, when combined together into a campaign and united around clear communication objectives and a strong brand positioning, would usually provide a better return than spending all your money on any one tool.

Of course it’s entirely appropriate for the sellers of these different tools to promote their tool as superior to the competition. That sort of thing has always happened. My problem lies with clients, the marketers who spend their organisation’s money on marketing communication. If they start dismissing tools without looking into them properly or spending money on tools where they can see no ROI for, then we are entering a very dangerous space indeed.

Either the original theory of marketing is wrong or the current cadre of social media-obsessed brand managers is well off the pace. I know which explanation I subscribe to.

As I keep beating on at my MBA students: first look at the brand’s positioning; then at the brand’s communication objectives; then at the relative fit of different tools to get the job done. Only then is it time to appraise the execution.

There is no superior communication tool or medium. There are different brands. Different consumer segments. Different years. Different objectives. Different budgets.

And then there are brand managers capable of taking these factors into account in their strategic planning before they plan their communications, or those who ignore all this and plonk all their money down on one tool because that’s the way they like it and so that’s how things are done.

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