37 Lessons from a Career in Marketing

This week I celebrated my 37th birthday. I know, I know, I don’t look that old, thank you. But I am. My back and knees know it.

Anyway, birthdays are a time for celebration and also reflection. With my name flashing in lights on the blog calendar, I thought it would be a good time to put a list together of 37 things I’ve picked up during my marketing career.

The main issue is I’m a bit too lazy time pressed, to write a list of 37 things. I’m also rather cynical about the value of a long list blog post, where each item only has one supporting sentence. I’ve written a few over the years, and Neil Patel or BuzzSumo will tell me a long list is better than a short one, but it’s my birthday, not theirs, so I’ll write what I like.

I’ll try to stick loosely to the same theme, so here are 3.7 lessons from a career in marketing.

1) The more things change, the more they stay the same

When I was a boy in the 90s studying business studies at GCSE and economics at A Level, we looked at concepts like SWOT analysis, the 4Ps of marketing, price elasticity of demand and product lifecycle curves. All very academic.

Then the real world hit. I started marketing for a job and focused entirely on putting more bums on seats for cricket games or getting more students to sign up to courses at Newcastle College. I was confident I didn’t lean on anything I’d been taught in school or university.

After studying for a Masters in marketing at the Ulster University, I was surprised to discover that we were studying the same concepts as when I was in school: SWOT, 4Ps, pricing and product lifecycles. With a few more grey hairs in my beard and thin patches on top, I realised that I’d been implementing these for years anyway. How much could we charge for tickets without affecting demand? What makes our college better than the one over the river? And on it went.

With a bit of work, these old fashioned concepts of marketing have been integrated into essential parts of our digital marketing process at The Tomorrow Lab. As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

2) Marketing is misunderstood by the business world. But also by marketers.

In a completely unscientific straw poll of business leaders in Northern Ireland (read: a few conversations at the NI Chamber and an IoD event) it seems that most of them think social media, specifically Facebook, is the beginning, middle and end of digital marketing. It’s frustrating, but not surprising. Because every graduate I’ve interviewed in the last 2 years thinks that social media is the beginning, middle and end of digital marketing.

The misunderstood nature of marketing as a discipline is certainly not helped by marketers. A while back some big-wig at the CIM, supposedly the industry body for marketing, suggested it should be seen as a function of the sales team, to gasps of horror from marketers everywhere.

At various times in marketing roles I’ve been asked to write press releases, go and sell to a client, fix the wifi or deal with an irate minor celebrity stuck in a lift (true story). It wasn’t anything to do with marketing, but I did all of the above things because it felt like it involved customer interaction, which must be part of my role somewhere, right?

The lack of clarity over what marketing is and what it does as a function can lead to confusion and uncertainty. Finance directors like certainty, and hard numbers, so they invest in IT and networks or sales people with fixed targets, but find it hard to see marketing as anything more than a badly defined cost with even poorly defined returns.

This isn’t a whinge at FDs. It’s a critique of the marketing industry. We need to get our act together, if only any of us had time to lead the charge…

3.7) Lies, damn lies and statistics

Is marketing an art or a science is a debate that has been bubbling around academic circles since the 50s when Robert Bartels first asked the question. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject and I can’t answer the question in a few pithy paragraphs here, so I’ll duck it, but marketing has undoubtedly been taking more steps in the scientific direction over recent years.

Sadly, I believe that many of the steps towards science are a hindrance rather than a help. John Wanamaker’s famous quote from 120 years ago (no, it wasn’t Henry Ford) about half his advertising being wasted seems to be the main driving force behind the need to science up. In digital marketing, we can now measure EVERYTHING. But being able to measure something and being able to understand it are two entirely different things.

Mark Riston, a columnist in Marketing Week, pointed out that Facebook has over 220 metrics for ad campaigns. That’s two hundred and twenty. I can think of about 6 for TV and 10 for radio (caveat: it’s been a while since I looked at or booked either of them), which might not be enough, but I’m sure as hell 220 is too many.

And what each metric means can be a tricky thing to keep up with, even for those paying attention in class. Facebook counts a video view as someone who has watched 3 seconds, whereas YouTube considers you a viewer only after 30 seconds. But if a TV ad man ever tried to sell you ads based on someone watching only 30 seconds of a programme, they’d be laughed out of every ad agency this side of the Bann.

The long and short of it is that measuring more does not make marketing more of a science. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be collecting, analysing and interpreting more data. We should be. But only useful data. And I’d make a plea to start that process by looking at what really counts to most businesses – the bottom line – and working backwards from there.

If you think that’s too salesy in approach, ask yourself which of these two statements you’d like to make to your MD while asking for the pay rise you so richly deserve:

Hey Mrs MD, we’ve just broken all sales records for the last three quarters and digital marketing contributed an increasing percentage of those sales and is now our leading channel. Any chance we could talk about that pay rise please?

Hey Mrs MD, sales have been flat for the last three quarters, our spend on digital has increased 100% which has driven 63% more video views, doubled the rate of engagement and we’ve got twice as many likes as our biggest competitor! Can I have a pay rise please?

Option 1 may well get you a pay rise. Option 2 may well get you your P45.

Data matters. Of course it does. It did when I first started out and it does now. The data is different; I spent hours, days, weeks, obsessing over post code analysis and mailing return rates in 2003, countless meetings looking at website hits and bounce rates in 2007 and get square eyes considering engagements and views now. In the next 10 years, it will probably be about microchips implanted or branded contact lenses being worn. Or maybe not, but it will evolve. And the marketers and marketing teams that will make the most of this shifting landscape won’t be the ones who know how to export all the data into an excel spreadsheet but the ones who know how to work out what all the numbers actually mean.

All in all, I had a wonderful birthday, celebrating, reflecting and planning. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I think I’ll have another one next year.