Groundhog Day: Where have the risk-takers gone?

Frustration-Eats-Pencil2Over the last year, I’ve found myself having the same exact conversation with my colleagues over and over again – and it seems like it won’t stop. Basically the gist of it sounds something like this:

“@#$$%$%@. Why won’t (input name of Brand or CMO, or Marketing Director here) actually try something risky and innovative for once? I’m tired of bringing ideas to the table, only to have them road-blocked by these bureaucrats. They demand fresh ideas, but they never have the onions to actually execute. Why am I wasting my $#$%*!@ time?”

It seems that there’s some law, similar to Moore’s Law, which postulates that the more new marketing innovations are made available to brands, the more risk-averse brands become.  This “Inertia Curve” doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  Too much choice sends marketers under a rock for some reason. I’m sure the economy and job security are a large part of this – but that can’t be all.  It just can’t.  We all know that down times like this are the BEST times for making waves. So where are the thinkers?  Where did they go?

Marketing professionals (myself included) are pulling their hair out performing acrobatic Bo jangles in the conference room, while our clients pore over mindless ROI projections and assess “brand risk” scenarios.  It’s enough to make one throw in the towel.  Media buyers and planners will always get a seat at the table, but talk about something fresh like mobile, and brands become Hamlet.

I read an excellent article about A.G. Alley’s new book ‘Playing to Win’ where the marketing titan discusses his assessment of today’s corporate brand culture.  He summed up exactly what me and my colleagues are feeling a lot of today.

“They think they have a hot product or hot service, and these don’t last forever. They think that benchmarking, best practices and copying what the rest of the industry does is a strategy. They try to be all things to all people. “

So in essence, he points out how brands rest on their laurels and play it safe – kicking the proverbial budget down the road without thinking about the bigger picture.  And in this kind of environment, no ground-breaking marketing decisions can be made.  So for those of us who got into mobile marketing to cause a stir and do something exciting, the search for risk-taking clients is like hunting for the elusive Yeti.

The Mobile channel is rife with this mentality. While we are certainly seeing a great deal more respect paid to mobile (there are some stellar standouts who are taking risks that are paying off) it’s still an afterthought for most mainstream brands.  Great ideas are brought to the table, but the scraps of shekels that remain after the standard TV and Media budgets are consumed are not enough to move the needle – but just enough to make the CMO feel like he checked the innovation box for the quarter.  The problem with this approach is that no significant mobile campaign will ever succeed unless the proper resources and focus is placed on it. So, they fail. And the cycle continues. Bean counters prevail, and it’s back to the basics.

Here are a few things that CMOs who are stuck in the mud can to do to move the needle on their innovations:

1) Re-think ROI:  Marketers have become spoiled by metrics like CTR, CPC and Conversion Tables.  This Spreadsheet Culture has created a new breed of market-think that by its nature shuns innovation and turns brand marketing into a Bloomberg Terminal.  This is no way to move ahead.  Mind you, I am not shunning the value (or necessity) of managing returns, however, I am espousing the return of bleeding edge thinking that got most top brands to where they are in the first place.  Take a look at your massive TV buys. What ‘measurable’ return do they get you (and please don’t cite Neilson ratings)?  Brand marketing is risky.  But it’s what drives the rest of the train.  Have the guts to slice off a significant hunk of your TV budget for Q4 and spend it on a truly integrated mobile campaign.  Sure, you will get push back from your CFO, but there is more inherent brand lift from doing something new, than making a cooler TV spot.  Create an experimental budget that is designed to make some smart mistakes. Learn along the way and in the process make some real waves.  You will enjoy your job again.

2) Think about Your Consumer:  Remember the days when the consumer came first?  Consumers are now doing more on mobile and social than any other medium.  I know, I know. TV trumps all.  But Second-Screen marketing is now a reality. Users now EXPECT more innovation and demand a mix of brand messages. Traditional marketing tactics will always have their respective roles, but branch out and think about how your consumers are buying, shopping and sharing.  Most good CMOs know this stuff, but for some reason when it comes to budget allocation time, they don’t take bold action.

3) Downtime is the Right Time:  Slow economies are hibernation times for innovation, but economic wisdom supports the idea that these are best times to make changes. Your competition likely has their head in the sand, too. Lets face it, once things look up again (and who knows when that will be anyway?) brands will gain the confidence to break out the red-velvet blazer. Break yours out now. You wont need to spend as much as you wont need to break through a lot of clutter – and your audience wont be over loaded with trinkets.

4) Listen to your Trusted Advisors:  Your agencies are good at what they do (well, most of them are).  Listen to them. They don’t want to lose your business, so it’s not in their best interest to do things that wont reflect good on them. You hired them to bring a fresh outside perspective and likely slogged through a brain-melting RFP process to select them. So let them do their job. I talk to a lot of pretty smart agency executives who have some really impactful and responsible ideas for their clients – and can’t get them to act.  We do care about your business regardless of how self-serving our motivation may seem to be at times.  We win by making you win.

I hope I wake up tomorrow morning to a new radio show.

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