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The secret replies of the marketing generalists

marketing generalists
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This post is by Nathan HodgesTrinityP3‘s General Manager. Nathan applies his knowledge and creativity to the specific challenges of marketing management, with a particular focus on team dynamics and behavioural change.

There’s been some interesting reaction to my recent blog post on the secret death of the marketing generalist.

Naturally, some senior marketers have been getting really quite cross about it. They’ve been claiming that the view I took undermines their positions and cedes ground to those in marketing who would base more and more on data and technology and less and less on insight and ideas.

It feels like an oddly willful interpretation of what I wrote, I have to say. And to assume that nothing about the way marketers go about their jobs needs to change seems very strange.

It also, to my mind, misses the real opportunity here – to do things better than we have ever done them before.

The whole premise of the post was that there has never been a more exciting time to be in marketing. The chance to align and empower a wide group of deep specialists (rather than simply aspiring to know everyone’s job better than they know it themselves, then tell them how to do it) seems to me like a terrific career goal for anyone in marketing today.

Never mind. It was only an argument in a blog post, after all. I don’t expect or demand that everyone agrees with it. I’m not even sure I agree with it all – that’s kind of why I wrote it. ‘Strong views, lightly held’, as I heard someone say recently. Or, even more to the point, to quote the great Danny Baker – ‘Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. But always certain.’

The medium, not the message

But the really interesting thing about the feedback we got was this: none of these opposing views ever got expressed through comments on the post or through public contributions to the blog.

Instead, they have all been expressed privately – and verbally – to Darren Woolley or to me.

And when we have urged those expressing those views to make their opinions publicly known through blog comments or offer them guest posts, they have almost always refused.

This worries me, because I suspect it is part of a much wider problem. 

The wider problem

Too many marketers at the moment seem genuinely scared about sticking their heads above the parapet.

It’s as if there is a fear abroad of getting stuck on the wrong side of a debate but also the wrong side of marketing history – being called out as ‘old-school’, seen as ‘not getting digital’, depicted as being ‘obsessed with big ideas’, looking like a dinosaur or – the worst one of all – not being ‘a digital native’. (This last one I always think is the laziest and most offensive charge for anyone to make.)

This can’t be good for the industry here in Australia.

Bringing back the fun

Whenever I’ve been exposed to it, I’ve always been a fan of the formal rules of the classic debating society. Within those rules, you could argue on either side of any issue in a debate.

The purpose of doing so was not to tie your personal beliefs to the mast, or indeed to let anything be known about your personal beliefs at all. It was instead to explore and test the arguments through an objective, dispassionate, rigorous, adversarial process.

It was also great fun. And nobody got hurt either. We need a lot more of this in the Australian marketing community.

Marketing is a messy business

In marketing – let’s face it – any one of us can be spectacularly wrong or famously right at any point, on any subject. And we shouldn’t be strung up for being wrong, any more than we should be lauded for being right.  

Marketing is like that because by definition it involves humans and their messy, unpredictable, illogical, irritating, inconsistent behaviour. If you ever need a quick reminder of that, look up Robert Cialdini, Dan Ariely, Rory Sutherland, Oren Klaff or  – and this is the ultimate test for anyone claiming expertise in data – Dave Snowden and the Cynefin Framework.

Groupthink in marketing is dangerous. It exalts the transient and makes a belief system out of a lucky mistake. It stifles debate, punishes questions, tags dissenters and prevents progress. It does nothing to help the profession extend its influence across the businesses it serves and aspires to lead.

What should we be asking ourselves?

What if, for instance, social media is already eating itself? What if our consumers are starting to behave just like the smartphones and tablets that enable them – just sharing information to be seen to share – but increasingly not actually reading it and certainly not acting on it any more?

What if our current obsession with retargeting is just an expensive trip down a cul-de-sac, based on imperfect predictions of human behaviour elevated into gospel simply by being turned into an implementable algorithm?

What if we’re all spending millions of dollars missing the simple point – as so clearly argued by Byron Sharp back in 2010 – that brands actually grow through light users, not core consumers?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions of course – I just raise them. That’s surely the kind of thing we should all be doing, and it should be easier than ever with the gift of social media.

But how will we talk about these things as an industry and call our biggest mistakes early if most of our biggest hitters are not even prepared to offer a comment on a blog post?

Or if – even worse to my mind – when marketers do comment, they feel we need to do it under the coward’s cloak of anonymity?

Opening the conversation in 2016

The arguments around the future of marketing just feel too important to be left to spruikers, anonymous snipers, vested interests in the status quo and painfully self-serving case studies at conferences.  

So come on – disagree, agree, offer a different perspective – whatever you want to do. But not in a one-to-one please.

Let’s instead try to have more open, honest, inclusive conversations in 2016 as an industry and profession, and see where that takes us by the end of the year.

TrinityP3’s Marketing Business Alignment service strikes at the heart of our reason for being: driving enhanced marketing performance via alignment of process and commercial purpose. Details here

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As TrinityP3′s General Manager, Nathan applies his knowledge and creativity to the specific challenges of marketing management, with a particular focus on team dynamics and behavioural change. He is an HBDI Practitioner and an experienced facilitator and coach. Read Nathan's bio here or email nathan@trinityp3.com

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