Seeking Truths in Marketing

Silicon Hutong Table, Peters Tex-Mex Grill

Experiencing Tryptophan Withdrawal

12:22 hrs.

Despite valiant efforts to convince ourselves otherwise, it is a truism that the marketing and communications crafts have lost their way after a decade-long deluge of online media. We put on a brave face in public, but in truth we have been attempting to deal with an entirely new phenomenon with old tools.

I am on the verge of taking a six-month semi-sabbatical in 2010 to read, write, and blog about this issue and what it means in the context of the rise of Asia generally and China specifically. Frustrated by the often soporific, wishful, It’s Going to Be Okay As Long As We Buy 20% More Display Ads This Year thinking that passes for futurism in our business, I have started to prepare by going back to the seminal thinking that laid the groundwork for modern marketing and communications. I figure this is a safe bet, based in part on my status as an amateur historian, and in part on my wife’s success as an Neo-Grahamian value investor.

My first three stops in the process are David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising, Claude Hawkins’ Scientific Advertising, (Ogilvy based a lot of his approach on Hawkins’ work), and, somewhat closer to home for a corporate communicator, Edward Bernays’ superior Propaganda.

Full disclosure: I am an advertising skeptic (too much push in the way it is practiced today), and a public relations skeptic (too much spin, not enough conversation), but I think the issue is more in how these tools are practiced and the belief systems that have built up around them than in the crafts themselves. In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Joker famously proclaims of Gotham “this town needs an enema.” He could just as well been strolling up Madison Avenue.

So I hunt for the grains of truth supporting the ziggurats of a decaying industry.

I’ve just finished Bernays for the second time (a simple feat – Bernays was so pithy that his work disappears on my bookshelf twixt weighter tomes), and I explained what I thought was one of his enduring truths in an OpEd in Media Asia: The public relations industry has become the captive of its tactics, bastions of execution that have either forgotten how to be counselors on business conduct or who have blown whatever credibility they may have once had in that role.

And China, where the industry has an opportunity to start with something of a blank slate, we are off to a tough start. Execution is wonderful, but we are all too often either swimming in a sea of spin or we are reduced to wrangling reporters.

The other two works are somewhat harder going, for me, anyway. David Ogilvy was the quintessential (M)Ad Man, and his prose carries the assurance of a man offering a service for which the need is a given. Hawkins is somewhat better, but the matter of advertising is a matter of “how” rather than “if.”

Yet good things surface. Ogilvy assumed pandemic attention-deficit disorder in his audiences, and he built his craft firm in the conviction that people had to be convinced to care. This seems self-evident, but it is too often forgotten in China. How, after all, are we to convince anyone of anything with a commercial that lasts less time than it takes us to read a headline?

To me, banner ads, search ads, and meat-grinder public relations that counts clippings from China’s content-xerox websites too often assume the audience cares.

Something is wrong, and so many of us know it. If we are ever going to have the cojones to do something about it, we need to begin by calling bulls**t on ourselves.