Why if marketing is all you do, you’ll never be very good at it

Dane Smith and Toby Harrison

  • Ogilvy Australia
Dane is the behavioural science lead at Ogilvy. Being actively involved since its 2014 launch in Australia, he has worked to establish the national and regional footprint of Ogilvy’s Behavioural Science Practice - spanning the network’s APAC offices. Toby Harrison is chief strategy officer at Ogilvy Australia. In the past 15 years, Toby has worked with Government bodies in Australia, the UK and the US. In Australia specifically, Toby has delivered effective communications for both State and Federal organisations such as the department of Health and Ageing, the Australian Electoral commission and Transport for NSW. After studying Theology, Toby worked as a broadcast journalist, producer and director before moving into the world of communications. He cites diversity of thought as critical in the development of effective communications. With multiple Effies, 2 Gold IPA awards and the IPA Grand Prix for effectiveness, Toby is one of the most awarded strategists in the country.

OK, so you’re probably thinking: “Here comes another article to badger me about living in my bubble.” And also, “I bet this bubble-bashing piece will go on to explain how I can achieve better results through some heady dose of new life experiences, new routines and annoyingly different opinions on social media.”  

Well, no – but not a bad guess. In fact, this article isn’t about you at all. Or really even us, as marketers. It’s about the business problems we face every day and how to get better at solving them.  

Whether we’re tackling pandemics or promotions, our goal is always to find new and more creative ways to solve problems through marketing. But for some reason, most of us have come to believe this means continual improvement along one key axis: Marketing expertise.  

However, as we deepen our knowledge - immersing ourselves in old marketing case studies, best practice principles and expert opinions (no, the irony is not lost on me here) – we also begin to narrow it. In an industry where success hinges on creativity, innovation and effectively fuelled ‘difference’, we need to be wary of approaching all our problems like a marketing expert. Here’s why.  

We seek new answers but keep deferring to old questions.  

As psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, observes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “When faced with a difficult question, we often just answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”. In other words, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks pretty nail-like.  

This is not unique to marketing or experts. All humans approach their problems with an unconsciously posed question: ‘Where have I solved this thing before?’  

Of course, this question is an excellent starting point when you’re assembling car parts in a factory or troubleshooting your Wi-Fi at home. In other words, when the best answer is the one that’s usually right. However, if it’s a new answer you’re after, one that can greatly improve on past effectiveness or uncover something your competitors know precious little about, then old questions aren’t your guy.  

Take for example, the intriguing question of how to create more brand loyalty in a high-switch category, and how often it gets subbed-out for the comfier conundrum: ‘How do I provide more ongoing value to my customers?’. Without ever realising it, our familiarity seeking brains have changed the question and cut us off from a plethora of newer, more impactful solutions before we’ve even warmed the engine.  

Just imagine, rather than spending the next few weeks calculating what you can afford to chuck at customers in the form of points, discounts, vouchers or movie tickets, you might instead be thinking up inventive ways to get your customers sinking more time, effort or money into their membership. This would thereby increase their sense of personal investment in your brand and make it harder to walk away.

Then, as you carefully plot a year’s worth of scattergun promotions and deals on a calendar, ponder what could’ve been had you focused all your energies and budget looking for just one good experience to spike customer anticipation around renewal time.  

To get to new answers, we need to seek out newer questions. But where do we begin looking?  

Don’t assume the best marketers work in marketing.  

In the mid-1990s, the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in the UK had an unusual problem. Despite the proficiency of staff and operating procedures, the hospital’s morality rates remained alarmingly higher than the national average.  

After multiple emergency inquiries, the problem was narrowed down to a specific risk event: The handover of patients from the surgical unit to intensive care. It was concluded unnecessary deaths were occurring as the result of a series of small, ‘trivial’ mistakes and miscommunications between teams that on whole added up to disaster.  

Curiously, the solution for this problem didn’t arise from any medical expertise but rather, a deep-seated appreciation for Formula 1 racing. After reading the troubling report, two of the hospital’s senior physicians, Drs. Goldman and Elliot, began obsessing over the similarities between the hospital’s ‘handover problem’ and the brilliantly slick handovers performed by the Ferrari pit crew. After a mixed-feelings visit to Ferrari HQ in Maranello, the Drs returned to England with an arsenal of new protocols and possibilities in-tow.  

“Creativity doesn’t really emerge from any one discipline, it emerges from the intersections between them”, explained Ogilvy vice chairman and co-founder of the creative agency’s global Behavioural Science Practice, Rory Sutherland, in his opening address at this year’s Nudgestock.  

Nudgestock is a global festival of behavioural science and creativity. As far as marketing conferences go, it spends a surprisingly small slice of time talking about marketing. Instead, the speakers – an all-sorts of experts on human behaviour – share their perspectives on problems we like to treat as ‘marketing’, such as targeted media, social influence, misinformation, while they tinker away in ‘economic’, ‘psychological’, ‘anthropological’ or even ‘comedic’ terms (this year’s conference hosted John Cleese).

This year, a sociologist explained exactly how a social movement spreads through a network. A clinical psychologist described the type of onboarding experience needed to secure longer-term engagement with an app. An economist pointed out the sorts of nonsensical data practices which blind us to big opportunities to innovate.  

When we put down our marketing hammers and look at common problems through the wider lens of behavioural science, we start to encounter new, uncommon answers.  

Take care not to swap out one hammer for another.  

At this point, I’d like to make a few things clear:  

1. Marketing knowledge is obviously indispensable to a marketer, but so are other things. Experience is undeniably a powerful teacher. But by narrowing your problem-solving toolkit to that of the marketing specialist, you’re making yourself dramatically less effective.

2. Behavioural science is really not that different from what we do every day. While many still equate the discipline with ‘nudging’ or ‘System-1’, behavioural science is really much, much broader than that. It is the general study of why humans behave the way they do (and often, don’t behave the way they’re supposed to). Given that most – if not all – marketing problems contain a human making a decision in the middle, it’s fair to say behavioural science has an interesting, uncommon opinion on mostly everything marketers do.

3. Behavioural science is less like a hammer and more like a swiss-army knife. While it might seem like we’re cheekily advocating for one specialist perspective over another, the truth is behavioural science is not a traditional specialisation or single way of looking at things. To make better sense of human behaviour, it takes a combination of views, including psychology, biology, evolution and culture. While this breadth in perspectives might frustrate duelling scientists, it is a blessing to us as creative problem-solvers, as it arms us with more questions and opportunities to approach things differently.  

If we want to get better at marketing, we need to get better at solving marketing problems. And if we want to get better at solving marketing problems, we need to stop thinking so much like marketing specialists. As famed surgeon/unlikely marketing expert, William J Mayo, once warned: If you choose to be a specialist, you’ll just end up knowing more and more about less and less.  

Tags: problem solving, behavioural science, marketing strategy

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