The Danger of Acting Safely

Take a break from management consultants and work with your agency on a calculated risk.

As we discussed in the first part of this series, management consultants are in many ways the polar opposite of marketing agencies, particularly in their fundamental understanding of consumers. 

In the world of consultants, the consumer is something akin to “Homo economicus,” a common expression in economics coined by John Stuart Mill that describes humans as consistently rational and driven by simple self-interest. There is great comfort and safety in this view of consumers as predictable actors, because it makes forming strategies to influence them an exercise in logic and reason. Advantage, consultants. 

But as the term implies, this is a primitive view of consumers that doesn’t reckon with the complexity of the real world. If you’re still on the fence about whether consumers are rational and predictable at their core, consider these unrelated facts:

  • Americans have a higher success rate at filling prescription medications for their pets than for themselves.
  • 20 percent of Americans who own hearing aids do not wear them at all.
  • Americans leave $24 billion in unclaimed 401(k) company match money on the table each year.

Even products and services that are undeniably beneficial to consumers go underexploited because the irrationality of the modern shopper is being ignored. Our age of information and big data has not led to a strategic enlightenment, but rather to a reversion to the coldly rational, consultant-led view of consumers. 

As consultants engulf more of the marketing world, buying the agencies and guiding the strategies, marketing communications strategy has become more cautious, defensive and unimaginative. Consequently, novel marketing solutions give way to blind faith in technology. The rationalist’s delight: Throw a website at it. Build a platform. Make it digital. In a world where logic and instant validation rule, working with a good agency to come up with a genuinely creative marketing solution may seem to have no place. 

The cautious approach to strategy has only made the job of CMO more tenuous. Chief marketing officers now last only 40 months on average—by far the shortest of all the C-suite roles. Many companies, like Unilever, eliminated the position altogether. CMOs are increasingly asked to master rational, tactical approaches to marketing, often in conflict with their deep-seated beliefs, or they’re replaced by people who will. 

Tools for a Better Game Plan

We actually know how to win with consumers today. It’s not a secret—there’s data: 

It’s the message, not the medium.

  • Only 5 percent to 35 percent of an ad’s return on investment comes from targeting, while the majority comes from the actual creative work (Nielsen).

It’s the long term that matters, not the short.

  • 58 percent of all media impact occurs in the long term (Nielsen).

Emotions count.

  • Emotionally driven marketing delivers greater business impact, even for highly researched products (Binet and Field). 

It’s often not until clients have their backs to the wall with no more safe moves to make that agencies get a chance to do their best work. Many of the proudest case studies that agencies trot out occur in just these sort of Hail Mary pass situations. Such was the case with the invention of the Aflac Duck, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign and Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” 

Of course, it’s too convenient for agencies to whine to their clients, “Come on, take a risk!” So in the spirit of taking action before it’s time for a Hail Mary pass, here are some calculated risks you may want to talk about with your agency:

Qualitative Research

This form of insight-generating research has become passé in the age of data, but skilled agency strategists (and their favored third-party moderators) are able to divine new opportunities directly from consumers’ mouths that probably haven’t shown up in any consulting decks. Let them explore again, and challenge them to tell you something you haven’t heard before. They will relish this opportunity. 

“Business Problem Brief”

Create a brief for your agency that simply describes a particular business problem. Without prescribing tactics or messages, challenge your agency to devise new, creative solutions to the problem without constraints. Detail what has been tried and failed, and see if your agency can short-circuit the system. 

Testing Methodology

Challenge your agency’s strategy department to dream up an innovative testing methodology for new messages, product ideas or marketing approaches. Agencies now have incredibly sophisticated data leaders who think far beyond Google Analytics or copy testing. There are efficient ways to keep an assembly line of new ideas rolling out for feedback. Give your data people a chance to be proactive, not just to write reports.

Our specialty at Manifest, content marketing, is particularly prone to safe thinking and the guiding hand of consultants. Reason dictates that if you just provide some helpful information to people, they’ll hand you their money. But as with advertising, what drives success in content are creativity, novelty and emotion. Content can do incredible, improbable things for businesses if it’s freed from the drudgery of simple education and thought leadership. But only if you’re willing to feel uncomfortable from time to time. Not to worry, there will always be a consultant ready to help reel you back in when you need it. 

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