Helen Edwards: The marketing discourse is sorely lacking in respect – let’s change that in 2019

Covert insults in research groups, demeaning consumer descriptors and polarisation in the workplace are creating an out-dated and churlish impression of the industry, which if not addressed will be to its detriment.

A news story towards the back end of last year is all the impetus we need to tell us what to prioritise as we start 2019. It comes down to a single word: respect.

In late October, William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food magazine, responded to a business email about a proposed feature on plant-based eating to jest that vegans should be killed one by one. As a marketing communicator – which is what anyone editing an in-house magazine really is – he took to an extreme a trait that is unhealthily prevalent in our discipline: a casual disrespect for customers.

You see it in focus group viewing facilities, where the combined forces of agency, marketer and research company teams look down on respondents both literally and figuratively through the one-way mirror. A snide comment about someone’s dress sense here, an eyebrows-raised gesture at a supposedly inane verbatim there. Normal back-of-house banter.

Earlier last year, attending groups for a charity brand, my business partner overheard one of the viewing researchers declare that she could happily “throttle” a vociferous respondent who had aired political opinions somewhat divergent from her own. Sitwell, whose editor’s chair was swiftly replaced with a P45, could tell her where that might lead.

This is still an exciting, creative discipline that can bring heart and humanity to business. We did some wonderful things in 2018. But with the greatest respect, we can do better.

The very terms we use to describe the people we seek to sell to can embody a low-level disregard. I still see references to ‘greys’ or ‘passives’ floating around on internal targeting documents. Even the common epithet ‘busy mums’ is a bit crass and demeaning, as though rounded human beings exist only in the parenting dimension.

Worse is the word that would so incense Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV) founder Peter Mead that its casual deployment was practically a firing offence: ‘punters’. He recognised that its use betrayed in the speaker a lack of empathy with ordinary people, not merely a sin in its own right but one that could perilously infiltrate the work.

Mead recognised something else: that the way people behaved towards each other internally, within the everyday patterns of their professional interaction, would set the tone for their conduct towards, and articulation about, people and constituencies outside. From AMV’s earliest days, an ethos of mutual respect permeated the agency (see box below).

Perhaps Mead’s book ‘When In Doubt Be Nice’ should be required reading for today’s marketing and communications communities, because our professional discourse is getting noticeably nastier.

Accepting criticism

The evidence-based school, especially, takes a combative tone towards any who dare challenge its tenets. Last year, data specialists at Dunnhumby questioned the ubiquitous applicability of some of Byron Sharp’s principles in purchase frequency distribution. They had drawn on a multi-year, large-sample study and were careful to couch their contentions in respectful, professional terms.

Sharp responded with a numbers-based rebuttal of their points, and should have left it there. Instead he opted for the insertion of a gratuitous insult: “Old myths die hard, especially when there is a consulting industry that has made a living from them.”

The implication is that Dunnhumby had a vested interest in ensuring the data should point one way. I can’t see why it would and nor will I assume that it would have suppressed the data if it had told the opposite story. Can’t that collegiate respect be our first instinct?

Even when the industry is trying to do something positive it can default to an ugly polarity. Last May, JWT London creative director Jo Wallace vowed to “put a rocket up the arse” of the agency’s diversity plans. She had previously written that other agencies were “literally sleeping on the job when it comes to diversifying their creative department beyond white, pale, stale males”.

The acceleration of a diversity programme is a noble enough initiative; why need it be accompanied by the heartless rejection of long-serving male colleagues and the clichéd, “pale, stale” invective?

A discrimination claim on behalf of a group of white males allegedly sacked by the agency was picked up by the mainstream press. It doesn’t make JWT look like a business in the vanguard of enlightened social change; it makes a revered, 154-year-old brand appear suddenly shallow and shabby. And the wider industry – fused together under the ‘Mad Men’ headlines – comes off badly by association.

This is still an exciting, creative discipline that can bring heart and humanity to business. We did some wonderful things in 2018. But with the greatest respect, we can do better. Marketing is underrepresented in boardrooms and, as Marketing Week frequently reports, is not top-of-mind as a career for graduates.

Those are multifaceted problems but our current modes of behaviour don’t help. Covert insults in research groups, demeaning consumer descriptors, sweary spats on Twitter and polarisation in the workplace paint a picture of a discipline out of step with society and ill at ease with itself.

These demons of disrespect have no place in modern marketing. Let’s kill them one by one.

Respectful practices, techniques and methodologies

No more ‘quick and dirty’ focus groups. No more demeaning consumer target descriptors. Here are some ways to foster a more respectful discourse with the people who buy our brands – and with each other.

Steve Henry’s targeting advice

A founder of 1990s hot-shop agency HHCL, Steve Henry’s counsel to planners and others writing creative briefs was to “describe the target consumer as though you like them”. The point wasn’t just about respect but also a way to inspire more meaningful creative work. Since HHCL was one of the UK’s most original agencies ever, it looks like he had a point.

The idealised self

This is a way to achieve more nuanced, fluid consumer descriptors, based on the work of US psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius. They showed that we are all on a “journey of self” where we are “powerfully cognitively motivated” to move from our actual everyday self to a more idealised version – avoiding our “worry-state self” and visiting our “fantasy self” only in daydreams.

Marketers and communicators can respect that human vulnerability, describe the journey to the idealised self that our consumers are on, and aim both practically and symbolically to help them get there.

Co-operative inquiry

Too rarely used in consumer research, this academic methodology takes a completely different perspective on the power dynamics between the researcher and the researched. Rejecting the ‘superior’ role of the researcher – a specialist who analyses and interprets human behaviour – co-operative inquiry advocates making ‘active respondents’ part of the team. It means being open with them about what you are trying to learn, asking them to help design the research process, and interpreting the findings together. It is founded on the academic work of John Heron and Peter Reason.

Peter Mead’s tips for a civilised workplace

1. Have a firm set of principles and beliefs – nothing freaky, but something understandable and worthwhile.
2. Make profit a consequence and not a principle.
3. Don’t make staff anxious about their jobs but healthily concerned, as a group, for the company’s success.
4. Never allow complacency. Every business – not only retail – is detail.
5. Hire well and take responsibility for your people. If you fire someone it’s your failure as well as theirs.
6. Don’t act the role of manager and, when in doubt, be nice.

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