Marketing: A creative endeavour without a concrete outcome

Jan 30, 2021

And IT is a good example, says Matt Reynolds, founder director of social enterprise It’s What’s Next IT. Marketing is a complicated investment but, done right, transformative.

I HAVE recently been enjoying YouTube videos by Rory Sutherland. Rory is the vice-chair of Ogilvy UK, one of the world’s most respected marketing firms.

As a marketeer, he sees the value of firmly positioning and owning a niche, his being one of “lateral thinking”. Specifically, what can happen if rather than doing what everyone else is doing, you go do something that no one else is expecting.

By way of an example, he presents the idea that rather than spending around £150 billion on HS2 in order to decrease journey times by train, the government could spend far less money to make the journey more enjoyable and stop people caring about the journey length.

You could, he suggests, pay celebrities to walk up and down the train all day every day giving out free Moët et Chandon and no one would care how long the journey was.

OK, so that’s a trite example. But one idea stood out for me in a talk that he gave in 2017: “My Advertising is so Efficient it No Longer Works”.

Matt Reynolds

In it, Sutherland talks about how business is overwhelmingly dominated by “procurement logic” – cut costs, maximise efficiency – and that the default mode of doing business is to “reduce the price of things”.

This is something that we all struggle with in types of business but it affects the way that business buys IT. Because the outcomes of investment in IT is so uncertain, the cost itself becomes nebulous and we see a tendency just to prefer lower prices.

Sutherland is making this point because he is trying to sell marketing. Specifically, he is trying to sell marketing into businesses that are looking at his proposals through the lens of that default modality of price reduction.

Marketing is a creative endeavour without concrete outcomes – someone at some point in their career had to stand up and swear blind that a meercat puppet would sell insurance with the same alacrity as selling buckets of water to people who were on fire (and I doubt they had the numbers to back it up) – and I would argue that IT sits awkwardly within both creative and non-creative endeavours. 

There are parts of IT that are simply engineering – attach widget A to sprocket B and stand well back – but equally knowing what to build requires highly creative thinking, and it’s that side that is difficult to cost.

Salesforce recently put out the fourth edition of its Small and Medium Business Trends Report. It is an international report with about a third of the respondents coming from the UK.

One trend the authors discuss is that “digital-forward SMEs are better equipped to handle market volatility” and go on to say that the respondents talked about email marketing, CRM tools, project/collaboration tools, and marketing automation.

These are all standard “digital transformation” tropes – using information technology to improve the customer experience.

One tendency when making decisions around things that are not fully understood is to put downward pressure on the price. “If this costs me less and it turns out not to be right, I have lost less”.

For most businesses, IT is not well understood and this simply adds to the effect of looking to make decisions that appear to maximise spend.

However, buying IT – especially IT that is around “digital transformation” – is a mostly creative endeavour and looking at it purely from the perspective of how big is the number on the invoice is largely missing the point.

If I could sell you an email marketing platform that meant you should be able to close new business twice as easily as you do today but it was going to cost £100k a year, would you buy it over the one your marketing bod used in their last place that costs £50 per month and that they are really trying to sell you on?

The safer answer is £50 per month, and if you don’t really know if the £100k a year one is worth it, why risk it?

What is essential is to find a good partner who knows what they are doing, whom you and the rest of the business can get on with, and who can help you understand how to properly evaluate spend and its potential (hopefully its likely) return, because once you get past buying a few Microsoft 365 subscriptions, IT investment is much more complicated but, done right, is always truly transformative.

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