Not so very long ago business was a lot simpler. A man, usually wearing a brown coat and smoking a pipe, would bring his new product to a man wearing a suit and smoking a cigar. He would nod approvingly and summon the head of sales, another man, wearing a slightly dodgier suit and smoking a Benson & Hedges. He would, in turn, let loose his travelling salesmen (wearing polyester suits and smoking Embassies), who would drive the length and breadth of the land in their Fords and Vauxhalls trying to persuade retailers (men with no coats at all and worried expressions) to stock the man in the brown coat’s new product.
There was, somewhere in the middle, a bit of advertising being done, but that was usually organised by the head of sales in his spare time and almost as an afterthought. To be fair, it often looked like it, too.
Then came ‘marketing’. According to The American Marketing Association, marketing is: “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.’ Now is it just me, or does anyone else detect the potential for maximum BS in that? I mean what, precisely, has ‘society at large’ to do with a selling a snare drum or a piano?
What I am trying to explore here is what actually is ‘marketing’ and what does it achieve and in particular what do some very important sounding people actually do? In some cases, I’m sure, ‘a great deal’ would be a fair answer and I can certainly remember well marketed products and services in our industry – not to mention, very much in the present tense, some good marketing people, too. They are out there and I hope if they’re reading this they will know that I am not suggesting everyone in their trade is a bluffer. After all, every trade has those – and my own is certainly not immune.
On the other hand, I also think ‘marketing’, particularly in very large companies, is sometimes used as an impressive sounding label describing nothing very tangible at all. It wouldn’t be the first time a once relatively minor function had expanded way beyond its original role – think of ‘Human Resources’.
‘Human Resources’ used to be called ‘Personnel’ and was mostly an occupation for former officers between the ends of their military careers and eventual civilian retirement age. I think it was assumed that, having been in the forces, they could understand and manage people. Heaven knows why. Now however, helped by tsunamis of employment legislation, Personnel has turned into ‘HR’ and become an extremely well paid paralegal career for people who run large departments with ever increasing influence over the way companies, which are they supposedly there to serve, are actually run and organised.
What has any of this to do with MI? Well, I can’t shake the pointing bone at any particular HR types, let me relate a recent event. A week or so ago the editor of a consumer magazine phoned to ask if I had any idea who does what at one of the industry’s bigger companies. Despite being head of an important publication and having been around as long as Noah, he knew no one there and needed some help wading through a sea of conflicting product information. Did I know who might be the person to speak with? Not a clue. Despite my own recent stint of nearly eight years editing a consumer title and now editing a trade magazine, I also had no idea who was handling anything much at all for said corporation.
Sadly, this outfit isn’t alone, because I can immediately think of three internationally significant companies in this business who, for all I’m aware, are as crewless as the Marie Celeste – and, I would suggest, m’lud, equally as adrift.
If this were just a problem of journalists being ignored, well, it wouldn’t be the heat death of the universe. As journalism is apparently on the way out, it could make business sense not to waste time keeping up with the press and said marketing people might well decide it isn’t their job to run shoulders with Grub St anyway. Which would be fair enough were it not for the sense that none of these companies seem to have much presence in his fabled ‘market’ these days anyway – mostly they appear to be drifting on a tide of reputation and sentiment earned years ago. Asking around, I find retailers telling me it’s much the same for them – they see a rep who wants orders but not a lot else.
In the immortal words from Cool Hand Luke, ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate’. And, surely, if marketing is about anything, then it is about communication? Surely, companies should be communicating with their customers, their retailers, the media – anyone who will listen, in fact? Or, are we now in another world altogether, one brilliantly ridiculed by the BBC series W1A, where the agonising decisions of the day are whether the company needs a ‘Director of Better’ or a new ‘Head of Diversity’? Maybe a head of Human Resources could advise…?