The "Useless Marketing" Trap

Author Mark Stevens explains some basic strategies to help the smart business owner avoid blowing his or her promotional budget

Spend a little time eavesdropping on ad-agency types and, as with members of any trade or profession, it won't be long before you hear the men and women of Madison Avenue talking shop -- and doing so in two very different ways. In public, their comments tend to be the sort of collegial, glad-handing blandishments that fill the air when the industry gathers every year to hand out its Clio awards, the ad game's Oscars.

In private, however, the tone is rather different. Yes, the ads and marketing campaigns that the pros regard as the cream of the latest crop are apt get a measure of grudging respect from those who didn't make them. But more often, around the water cooler and in the conference room, the put-downs of other ad outfits' efforts are cutting and caustic. That's what makes ad man and author Mark Stevens' candor so refreshing. On the record, and without any hint of apology, he asserts that the ad industry has been leading its clients on a very expensive safari down the garden path.

"If you have an advertising agency that applies for any kind of award -- Clios, whatever -- fire them immediately," urges Stevens, president of Westchester (N.Y.)-based MSCO, a full-service marketing firm. "If they talk about building 'mind share', fire them immediately as well. That's just another way of saying they'll camouflage their failure to generate sales behind an intellectual smoke screen."


  They are points he makes over and over again in his new book, Your Marketing Sucks (Crown Business, $24), which taps a wealth of anecdotal evidence to argue that a Clio on the mantelpiece is no measure of a marketing campaign's success. The only indication of ad money having been well spent, says Stevens, is a boost for the bottom line (see BW Online, 7/11/03, Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit).

Stevens spoke recently with BusinessWeek Online's Roger Franklin about his book, the marketing mystique, and why he believes so many businesses are paying top dollar for ineffective -- and sometimes, counterproductive -- promotional campaigns. One of his surprising observations: When it comes to getting the maximum bang for the marketing buck, small businesses are the undisputed champs. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Was that your goal when you decided to write the book?


I believe in doing things in business with a philosophy, and I realized, almost subliminally, that I had developed, and my company had developed, a philosophy that we use in helping to build companies. You see, I purposely avoid the word "marketing" because I think marketing is useless unless it builds companies. As it's understood, marketing, is often an expensive, useless toy.

So this philosophy of mine was in the back of my mind and it came out in the book, even though I didn't know that it was going to come out. But I guess the concept was driven by an incident I write about, when I told this guy that his marketing sucks. That was just a natural reaction on my part, telling a prospective client, "I don't want to talk to you because your marketing sucks." I'm sure every sales book in the world would tell you, don't ever say anything like that.

Q: Define marketing. Is it making a customer love your business?


Well, no. Smart marketing to me is growing your business, let's start there. Is good marketing making you customer love you? Is it cross-selling? Is it finding new customers? Is it data-mining? Is it coming up with brand awareness? No. It's building your business.

Look, here's an example of what marketing isn't, or shouldn't be: those Miller Lite ads with the girls fighting and tearing each other's clothes off, the ones that were canned after they caused all sorts of fuss. To me, what some people found offensive wasn't the real issue -- it was that they were driving men to the bedroom, not to the supermarket, where the beer is sold. The creative guys who created that campaign weren't thinking about the point of sale, but they hardly ever do.... Their minds are filled with winning a Clio [ad-industry award]. These guys don't go into supermarkets and walk around, observing and thinking about what goes into buying beer, and specifically, how they can help their clients sell more of it....

That ad was just dumb. Yes, it alienated some people, but I don't think that the politically correct crowd was what they wanted, so if the brawling babes strategy had actually sold beer to the guys, if it had been driving guys to the supermarket and not the bedroom, then I'd say, "Hey, they did a smart marketing thing. Yeah, it was politically incorrect, but it worked, so the hell with people who didn't like it."

The thing is, though, it was politically correct and marketing-and-sales incorrect, too. That's the worst one-two punch you can possibly have. You make enemies and you make no sales. That's what they did. They spent a huge amount of money to make enemies and not sell beer. All the men in America should write Miller a thank-you card for the entertainment -- while we're drinking Buds!

Here's another example of useless marketing: General Motors every year probably spends millions of dollars on brochures and then crop-dusts them across the country and in its dealerships. Now there's not a single car salesman in the history of Detroit -- I'm exaggerating to a certain extent -- who has ever used a brochure to sell a car. And yet GM keeps churning them out, spending that money without building the business.

Q: What are your thoughts on those multimillion-dollar Super Bowl spots that the dot-coms were spending so much on a few years ago?


This is the win-a-Clio approach, and it's so preposterous because, the day after the game, the media rates and lists the 10 best ads. My question is: How do they know which are the best ads? Those ads haven't sold anything yet. Those ads are judged for their aesthetics and entertainment value, not their selling power.... Imagine going to the managements of the companies buying those ads and saying, "Excuse me, are you willing to spend $2 million to entertain people for 30 seconds?" They'd say absolutely not and tell you to get lost. But the jokes is on them because that's exactly what they're doing -- entertaining not selling. Or here's another example: McDonald's had this big powwow when it realized that sales were slumping and that it had a tired brand. So they brought together their 10 ad agencies at some place in Illinois. That was the first mistake. First of all, 10 agencies around a table can't get anything done. They're just going to be putting each other down.

Second, instead of bringing the agencies together, why not bring the guys who make the burgers and the fries? Why don't they have somebody who realizes those McDonald's stores look like relics? The Golden Arches don't work anymore. It looks like a '50s anachronism. The magic is gone, it just isn't there anymore. What McDonald's needs is a bottom-up fix, not a new ad.

But instead of asking themselves the right question -- What are we going to offer people in a country that's changed its eating habits? -- they keep throwing good money after bad, supporting ad-agency people who just want to win more Clios, not sell burgers or whatever. Corporate management, and not just at McDonald's, hasn't realized that, yes, you can throw many millions of dollars at broadcast ads and, yes, some of it is going to stick, but there are better ways of building a brand.

Q: So who is getting the marketing game right?


I think that the people who work on Madison Avenue need to go and look at infomercials once a month.

Q: Infomercials! You're joking, right?


I couldn't be more serious. Everybody who has ever been up at night watching those things knows how well they work: Fifteen minutes into the infomercial you want to buy whatever they're selling.... You want to buy those sunglasses that are unbelievable or the tummy cruncher that you know won't work. But the infomercial people are just so great at selling -- they can sell anything because selling is what they're about, not entertaining. They show you before/after, before/after, before/after. They show you testimonial, testimonial, testimonial, testimonial -- and you know, despite yourself, you start to believe it. All the infomercial people care about is sales. Infomercials aren't entertaining, but you can bet they're selling the stuff they're pitching.

Q: What can businesses with smaller budgets do? How can a relatively small outfit get the maximum punch for its commercial dollar?


I often think that the difference between big business and small businesses is that big businesses can afford to lose money. Corporate America can drop $100 million and it's no problem at all. Small businesses have to safeguard the dollars, so they're much more prudent and effective in the way they use their marketing budgets.

There's a chain of workout facilities called Crunch, and they're a great example of the points I'm making. Not long ago, I flew on JetBlue, an airline that doesn't have an inflight magazine. So I look in the pouch to see if there's anything to read and there was this simple card waiting to be picked up, something you could print for a nickel, and it had yoga exercises you could do on the plane to ease the discomfort of being jammed in a tight little space. So Crunch gives you these little yoga things to relieve your discomfort on the plane, and because of the way they describe these yoga exercises and the cool, funny, tongue-in-cheek way the exercises are described, you remember the Crunch brand.... This is just a guerilla, smart, intelligent way to get the Crunch name out there, and do so for relatively little expense.

Q: Any other small-budget strategies?


We have a client, a 12-store, off-price women's clothing retailer called Foxes, and we got them as a client nine months ago or so. One of the things we looked at was how much money they were spending on advertising, and the answer was about $250,000 a year. When we looked at where it was going, we saw the way they spent it wasn't being thought out. Basically, they just said, "Let's spend a quarter of a million dollars in advertising." So we told them -- and this is very counter to what so-called marketing firms will do when they get a retail client -- we told them to stop their advertising completely while we rethought the entire strategy. And they did, they stopped it completely.

Q: And what happened to sales?


This is an anomaly, but the fact is that they went up. Now don't get me wrong, they won't stay up. But it just goes to show what they were getting for that $250,000 they were spending: nothing!

Now, we're working on a cable-TV campaign for them that is smart and creative and plays to what Foxes is all about, which is this: When a woman goes in there and sees that she can get a suit that usually sells for, say, $400 and its going for $200, she's going to get on her phone, call her girlfriends immediately, and say "Get the hell over here!" That's how that particular business works. With any business, if you want to build it and not waste your money on entertainment, you have to crack the code of what the business is all about.

With new clients, one of the first things I ask them is, "What kind of return are you getting?" And the answer is very often, "You know what? We don't have a clue." Well, if you don't know what you're getting, that usually means you ain't getting anything.... With good marketing, effective marketing, you know the results you're buying because you can see them reflected in the bottom line.

There are wonderful, smart entrepreneurial people running companies all over America who will fight the landlord tooth and nail if he raises their office rents a few bucks. But, if a so-called expert tells them to spend $20,000, $2 million, or even $20 million on marketing whose results can't be quantified, they go right along without a question and write those big checks. That's where I hope Your Marketing Sucks can help to make the people spending that cash realize that there are better ways to build a business.

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