To survive 2023, you must go against the lemmings

Since the pandemic elevated the role of marketing in many organisations, marketers are facing perhaps the highest levels of scrutiny on spend, so as the new year gets into full swing, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on the importance of creative impact and brand building.

Secret MarketerThe hubris and back slapping started in London about the time of the final lockdown last year and isn’t over yet. I hear it the moment I get off the tube at Farringdon, a reverberating back pat, like a gauche marketer flicking through a photographer’s portfolio looking for that shot; more a flippant lament for confidence than confidence itself.

Occasionally faint voices in the trade press can be heard beseeching: “Times may be tough but you need to keep spending. Be different. Prioritise effectiveness and impact over short-term efficiency.” You can tell most marketers know they won’t.

Later on, as they get a few drinks down, our back-slapping executives and their agencies become their more boorish selves. A mix of self confidence, righteousness and yearning for the next quick win to model their virtue.

But now with the yelps and fist bumps of a hundred pitch wins and the pointless publication of a million purpose-led organic social media posts, they are a generation digitised into celebrating and commenting on anything that moves near their brand. Are these the young celebrating having made it through the pandemic and keeping their job? Too soon, in my view, like the preemptive feeling of elation just before Kane missed that penalty. I consider, like so many other experts, jumping on a podcast to warn them, but I know they won’t be listening to another old grey hair like me. I feel self conscious having weathered three economic downturns in my career.

I’ve had it with would-be purpose-led marketers and their advertising wank. Would the world really be a poorer place without social media?

I never thought I’d miss beer advertising.

A colleague I’ve been competing with since the last century has changed sector to gaming and almost persuades me it isn’t morally questionable. This is a favourite sector for those who want to make a tonne, move to Gib, stop paying taxes and thrive on the misery of the hopeless. “I suppose this is you exercising your personal agency to enjoy a big budget to spend in the bad times” I joke with him on Teams in his open plan office. Smiling he gives me the finger. A passing marketer hears us talk and slaps him on his back.

Where is the famous beer advertising, do you think?

I’m less surprised to be missing great tobacco ads, that were banned back in the late 90s. I still remember them now – the Marlborough Man, Hamlet cigars. I worked on the last posters for B&H. I remember them even now on billboards all along Newman Street by the old Royal Mail depot in Rathbone Place. Campaigns like that made such an impact. You remember them now 30 years on. It’s not impossible this was the last creative hurrah, before the industry jumped on the digital bandwagon. But it’s because the campaigns had aspiration, humour and a lightness of touch, not taking themselves too seriously that I miss them. It was a time when marketers knew that building brands en masse was critical to building strong growing businesses. Next time I’m selecting an agency, I’m only going for one that wants to make money for brilliant, culture changing work.

Unilever praises purpose amid fresh criticism from major investor

Against the lemmings

It’s a deep irony that our feckless politicians both appreciate and deplore the power of great advertising, banning it in many sectors, while the industry practitioners abandon what made their industry great in favour of feeling good about themselves and being ‘digital or social first’.

The pandemic has made us more intolerant and short-sighted as well. Some people have reached their limit with train drivers, post men and striking nurses. I’ve had it with would-be purpose-led marketers and their advertising wank. Would the world really be a poorer place without social media?

Don’t mistake me for a puritan. Haven’t I said I worked on tobacco advertising and booze? I even promoted dodgy slimming devices and traded endowments early in my career. But we didn’t feel we had to wave our hands in the air and solemnly wail at every tragedy to befall the nation with a self righteous post from our brand on the topic.

Yes, I know getting distracted by the latest shining thing has a long tradition in marketing circles. In the 60s it was door step selling, then direct mail, catalogues, telesales. In the 80s you could even advertise holidays and investments on Ceefax. But let’s call lemming-like delirium by its proper name. Not commercial effectiveness, not long-term brand building or indeed ROI and efficiency, just a frenzied fear of not missing out. CEOs and their financiers are said to be working on a cure for it. It’s called a recession.



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