Slow Clap for the Harvard Business Review; Finally Catches up to Social Media Marketing Circa 2004

I’m not one enamored of the Harvard Business Review.  The ivory tower often isn’t the best vantage point.

That’s why I’m unimpressed with the recent piece by Bill Lee, “Marketing is Dead,” published in the HBR.   The article does little to live up to the provocative title, rehashing conclusions most savvy marketers and advertisers came to nearly a decade ago (even the slowest among us arrived at them at least five years ago).

Why is marketing dead?  CEOs are frustrated and customers are ignoring traditional media – just look!:

“In a devastating 2011 study of 600 CEOs and decision makers by the London-based Fournaise Marketing Group, 73% of them said that CMOs lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient business growth, 72% are tired of being asked for money without explaining how it will generate increased business, and 77% have had it with all the talk about brand equity that can’t be linked to actual firm equity or any other recognized financial metric.”

So what?  The percentage of Americans that say CEOs lack credibility is at 79 percent.  Moreover, the turnover rate for CEOs is at a six-year high.  Audiences have been tuning out from the traditional mass media for over a decade.

I’d love to hear a CEO explain why they’re worth their ridiculous salary and golden parachute; no matter how much businesspeak they vomit up it basically amounts to them being magic talismans that a bunch of people superstitiously think grants them good juju.  In case Lee and the HBR haven’t been paying attention, the corporations in the Fortune 500 are turning over faster and faster with every passing decade.

The gist is that Lee says marketing, advertising and public relations are dead – all replaced by “peer influence-based, community-oriented marketing.”

*slow clap*

Yeah – we call that “Word of Mouth Marketing.”  We also call it Engagement.  There’s even a group you can join that was formed back in 2004: the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

I don’t know what Lee’s experience is with actually working in advertising, marketing or public relations – but the actual practitioners of the aforementioned disciplines are virtually NEVER given free reign to do what they want with their marketing budget.  In fact, most of us have our best ideas quashed by organizational leadership in favor of alternatives that favor old ways of thinking.

If someone’s throwing away money on outmoded means of communication, it usually means that the advertising/marketing/PR person is grinding their teeth in exasperation while it happens.

On to the anecdotal evidence.

Lee cites the example of the State of Florida reduced teen smoking levels between 1998-2007 by engaging teens to come up with the strategies, tactics and messaging to reach their peers – establishing the “Students Working Against Tobacco” (SWAT).    Problem is, it’s 2012 now.  Teen smoking rates in Florida are now creeping back up despite the the “peer influence-based, community-oriented marketing.”  Whoops.  Time to find a new anecdotal case study.

Lee’s belated insights might explain why he’s a cypher on social media (I’ll buy you a latte if you can find either a Facebook page or Twitter account for the Lee Consulting Group).  His company’s website is a nightmare to type into a mobile browser: (gads, hyphens!).

Here’s the thing: business types are focused on the business side of business.  Supply chain, logistics, the profit margin of widgets, etc.  That’s important – but it’s not the entirety of commercial success.  You still have to interact with the customers who will buy those widgets.  You still have to be, on some level, human.

It used to be that this could be accomplish(publics, stakeholders, whatever) ed with a modicum of effort: sponsoring a TV show or placement in the end cap of a grocery store aisle.  But over the years, widget-makers got greedier and greedier and took more and more of the audience’s time and attention and delivered less and less of a product.  Flash-forward to now when consumers have an infinite array of options, far more control, and less disposable income.

I agree that “peer influence-based, community-oriented marketing” is paramount – and the marketing/advertising (and particularly the public relations) pros in your organization have been trying to get you to do more of that.  I guarantee you.  We’re in the trenches.  We see the tweets and checkins and uploads.  We’re the only part of the organization trying to humanize it in an era where humanity is increasingly the only currency.

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