The one where people tell marketers to ‘kill ourselves’, plus 5 more helpful thoughts

I received a few tweets and messages last year that were a teeny tiny teensy bit unsettling. They were to do with marketing and marketers, and they got me thinking about what us marketers do for a living. In this post (originally published in B2B Marketing Magazine) I thought I’d share what happened, why I think it happened, and suggest five thoughts that might prevent it happening in future. I touch on a few sensitive subjects, like manipulation and intrusion, before ending with an excessive motivational message. (And, for fun, I also share perhaps my favourite ever example of marketing communication).

Let me set the scene briefly…

“Kill yourself”

I (evidently) blog about marketing. I tweet about marketing. I speak at public events about marketing. I have co-hosted networking events for B2B marketers. I’m writing a book about B2B marketing. All of which I do because:

  1. I like my marketing job, my marketing team-mates and the hundreds (possibly thousands) of fellow marketers I’ve met along the road;
  2. I think it’s helpful and decent to share experiences and lessons learned with others that might be struggling with similar problems as you; and
  3. I am, admittedly, a bit of a marketing nerd.

Alas, I’ve learned there are some pitfalls of being a vocal proponent of marketing…

Every now and again, someone I don’t know tweets me a blunt message about marketing and marketers. (It’s Twitter, after all). For example, they send me this famous video clip:

To quote the late, great Bill Hicks, “if you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself“. We’re “satan’s little helpers.

Marketers – Satan’s little helpers

Bill Hicks was a comedian. A very funny one. I suspect he truly meant what he said about marketers (noting that it didn’t stop him advertising his comedy shows or selling tickets), but ultimately he was making a joke, just to cheer people up. We need to be able to laugh at stuff. I think the world would benefit from more laughter. I smiled at that clip (a bit).

However, the second and then third time a complete stranger sent it to me, it did give me pause for thought. It reminded me that many people don’t respect us marketers – many even despise us.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but in this post I thought I’d stick up for myself and my fellow marketers. I wanted to offer a few perspectives on marketing  – and to offer a slightly more motivational message to my peers in the industry. I raise some serious points, but this post is intended to be a bit of fun. As I hope will be evident from the next brief section of this post. Because, to start, I thought I’d share with you my unfortunate nickname…

My unfortunate nickname

Nicknames are popular in cultures all over the world, often as both a term of endearment and to poke a bit of fun. They’ve been commonplace for centuries (the origin of the word nickname even dates back to the 1300s, according to Wikipedia) and I’ve been a little bit fascinated with them for as far back as I can remember. Probably as a result of watching too much sport and reading too many gangster stories as a kid. Which youngster wouldn’t be fascinated with names such as the prohibition’s ‘Machine Gun Kelly’, or boxing’s Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, or football’s Emlyn ‘Crazy Horse’ Hughes. And who could forget Maverick and Ice Man in Top Gun?

(By the way, a big shout out at this point for the hilarious nickname of English footballer Fitz Hall, who was nicknamed ‘One Size’ Fitz Hall!).

I’ve had a few nicknames in my life. For example, I was called Jock at primary school because I have a Scottish name. And then there was ‘Bean’, which I was awarded on account of a truly awful haircut experiment when I was 14 years old. Alas others I’ve received have been even less complimentary, so I will only divulge them upon payment of a Gin & Tonic. They were as uncomplimentary, perhaps, as my current nickname, ‘Spammer’…

How I came to be called Spammer

My family and I live in one of London’s suburbs. I’ve met lots of nice people there, including lots of fellow dads. Our kids all went to the local school together, and so we’ve gotten to know each other quite well over the years. We’ve all taken turns ferrying our respective kids to or from school events, or birthday parties, or some other extracurricular activity. And of course we’ve managed to sneak in the occasional beer together, and quite a few curries, and even a few trips to the cricket. And sure as eggs is eggs in London neighbourhoods, nicknames became an inevitable feature of our relationship.

Some nicknames were awarded in response to a single, memorable incident or a defining personal trait. ‘Dragon’, for example (who is an impressive, multi-lingual market researcher), was named ‘Dragon’ after dressing as St. George and the Dragon at a fancy-dress party. ‘Stroller’ (who is a successful business founder) was named after his prodigious lack of speed when playing sport. I hope you get the general idea.

Aside from memorable moments and personal characteristics, however, most of us were given nicknames that related to our respective jobs. So, for example, one dad is a police officer – so he became ‘The Enforcer’. And one dad has a PhD and is a professor at King’s College, so he became ‘Doc’. Another is a director of a successful business and was a Governor at a local school, so he became ‘The Governor’ – or ‘The Guv’nor’, for short.

That time-honoured tradition in my neighbourhood was continued when I arrived on the scene. When the local dads asked me what I did for a living, my response of “I work in marketing” quickly earned me the title – yep, you got it – ‘Spammer’. Because, to a great many people, that’s exactly what marketers do for a living. We spam people with intrusive crap. Cold calls. Junk mail. Excessive email. Boring advertising.

What people think of marketing

I don’t mind being called Spammer. The chaps that awarded me the name are a fine bunch of blokes, and I confess to liking it more than the nicknames of my youth. But its origin has often given me food for thought in terms of what people in the real world think of marketing and marketers… and I doubt it’s all (if ever) good…

I doubt few people would rank marketing as being as important or valued as doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers or other professions that are furthering or protecting our species. We won’t appear as obviously helpful as the wonderful women and men that keep our electricity supply working, keep the water running in our taps, or keep our supermarkets well supplied with food. [* Big personal shout-out at this moment to the wonderful people that make and bring us teabags! *]. And we’re probably not perceived as important as the comedians, film stars, guitarists, rappers, poets and others that put smiles on peoples’ faces.

It’s almost certain that there are very few professions that the ‘average Joe’ on the street would place below marketing in a list of important and respected occupations. (Traffic wardens, perhaps?). And that perspective seems to be corroborated by research. I remember an Adobe survey in 2012 that said marketing and advertising was in the bottom four valuable professions to society. Sadly, if I recall rightly, an unhealthy percentage of marketers agreed with that point of view! Even worse, a US survey in 2015 revealed that only 4% of people believe marketers act with integrity.

Ouch!

I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that viewpoint has changed (positively) in recent years.

Why do people feel that way?

[If all I’ve done is depress you to this point, please bear with me fellow marketers – I do get to a motivational bit soon].

Perhaps there are obvious reasons why marketers aren’t trusted or respected. Many people are generally mistrusting of big companies given public scandals (e.g. fuelled by a steady stream of headlines about big business not paying taxes). People are mistrusting of unkempt consumerism driving debt and also of unsustainable supply chains. And in another specific example, the recent Facebook issues have floodlit the fact that personal data is both being monetised to generate advertising revenues and has been mis-used to subvert the democratic process. All of which has consequently heightened concerns about mistreatment of data privacy. Marketers on the shop floor aren’t fully responsible for all that, but we’re indelibly linked to it.

As a different and more obvious issue, people know that we’re paid to sell things. And let’s not kid ourselves, who likes to be sold to? Who likes to be cold called, or stalked around the Internet with retargeted messages, or otherwise inundated with sales messages? If people cared to take the time to think about it, I doubt many would like to dwell on the fact that there are people out there (i.e. marketers) trying to persuade or influence them in some way.

So, again, poor consumer perceptions of marketing as a profession are understandable.

But what about our world of B2B marketing? I suspect perceptions are somewhat different – partly because all B2B companies undertake marketing and typically have a marketing team. They know and accept that marketing is a critical part of any successful business. However, we might infer from research published in Forbes – which revealed that only 2.6% of Board members have managerial marketing experience – that marketers aren’t as respected as we might like. We’ve all heard the jokes about Marketing being “the colouring-in department“. And that’s despite the same research in Forbes demonstrating that Boards with Marketing representation show higher returns.

So poor perceptions abound. Which leads to some big questions: What do we do about it? How do we respond to some concerns about what we do? How can we avoid receiving a “marketers should kill themselves” message in our inboxes?

Here I offer five thoughts…

Five ‘ageless truths’ about respectable marketing

1/5. We’re the customer’s champion

We all know that B2B brands are only here to do one of two things – to help customers fix problems they’re facing, or to help them make the most of new opportunities. Doing one of those two things as well as, or better than, our rivals is how we succeed – and it’s a win-win: The customer fixes their problem or opens new opportunities; and we get paid for helping with that.

Great products, that deliver real value to customers, at an equitable price, is not only good business, it’s the only way to build sustainable relationships and therefore repeat business. Looking at it the other way, if we offer inferior products and services at unfair prices, the end is in sight for our brands.

I’m a fan of the old-fashioned notion that marketers need to be the customer’s voice within our companies. I think that if we always approach our work with a ‘how are we helping’ mentality; if we actively push for customer listening and feedback programmes within our companies, and act on the feedback; if we raise blue murder within our companies if our products and services are competitively inferior; and if we generally just make sure that we’re creating what people need or want – then we shouldn’t care what others think of marketing.

The golden question we each need to pose to ourselves, of course, is whether we are each currently spending enough of our time focused on customer listening, and subsequent responses (including service enhancement).

2/5. No manipulation

On a related point, there’s a public notion that marketers manipulate customers into purchasing crap, unhelpful and unwanted products. In B2B, I have way too much respect for customers and clients to believe that they can be manipulated into buying something crap that they didn’t want. Every B2B buyer I’ve ever met has been an intelligent, circumspect business professional, and the notion that they can be manipulated in buying something they don’t want or need – bypassing their free will – is condescending in my opinion.

For example, I can’t imagine someone accidentally buying a fleet of new Airbus A380s because of a nice marketing advert they saw on LinkedIn. I can’t imagine a Facilities Director re-locating their global Headquarters just because someone sent them a persuasive marketing email about a new office block that is opening in Basingstoke. And I equally can’t imagine an experienced Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Information Officer or other senior Executive investing in a complete overhaul of their email marketing system, their international haulage network, or commissioning a new geological survey, without due care and attention.

Again, B2B brands and B2B marketers are here to fulfil needs and wants. Sometimes we might stimulate demand by highlighting new problems and opportunities that customers didn’t even know existed. And often we might want to persuade customers that they’d get far more value working with us than they do from their current supplier. But in all of those cases, if there is no customer need or desire, there will be no purchase. And no bamboozling will change that.

All marketers are here to do is to create products that customers need, and then put the best possible case forward as to why we’re the best choice to deliver on that need. The rest is in the B2B customer’s hands. Of course, some marketers are better at presenting their case than others, and at making sure their story is heard, but to call that manipulation is a falsehood.

The golden point underpinning all this, of course, is that we must never, ever lie. An ageless truth of B2B marketing is that our brands have always got to be truthful. Forgetting for a moment that misrepresentation is typically a criminal offence, and it’s akin to being a catfish (which is the domain of trolls and predators), being truthful is simply the right thing to do. Our customers are bright and will spot falsehoods quickly enough. There’s nowhere to hide in B2B marketing – the truth will out.

In terms of public perceptions of marketing, we can’t help it if other people don’t believe we’re being truthful, but at least we all know that we are.

3/5. Intrude carefully

Being the very best answer when customers type “I need help with XYZ” into Google is, I have to assume, welcome by everyone. I don’t see people complaining about Google being a great resource to find solutions. And so I can’t imagine one of us marketers not investing in inbound marketing and SEO.

But what about outbound marketing – pro-actively getting in touch with potential customers and/or putting our brands out there in front of them?

Outbound marketing – particularly mass marketing – has received a lot of criticism within our own ranks for many years, and has to be where external claims of intrusive behaviour by marketers stems from. Addressing that in its entirety is far too big a topic to address fully in this post, but I wanted to offer a perspective…

There are lots of examples of amazing outbound marketing that people have grown to love (admittedly most of it from B2C brands). Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign; Always’ ‘like a girl’ campaign; Peter Kay’s adverts in the UK for John Smiths Bitter; B2B’s very own Jean Claude Van Damme ‘epic splits’ for Volvo Trucks; and many more traditional outbound campaigns have been shared and loved by millions. Nobody was born with an inherent desire to see what the next John Lewis Christmas ad looks like and yet huge numbers of people are often inspired by it all the same. And I hope not too many people would bemoan charities trying to raise awareness of their causes. In fact, there’s a great quote from creative legend David Droga that sum’s up peoples’ feelings about mass marketing tactics such as advertising: “Everybody hates advertising, until they lose their cat.

I subscribe to the fact that intrusive behaviour is bad. Unless – and it’s a big ‘unless’ – that intrusion is helpful, or insightful, or interesting, or just downright entertaining. I believe the mantra that we can get away with intrusions into a customer’s world, but only if it’s truly in their self-interest, if it’s super-helpful, and/or if it’s just plain old good fun. And so I believe it is imperative that whatever us marketers put out into the world has to be brilliant, useful and truly worthy of a few minutes of a customer’s time. Because it’s the rubbish that people hate.

[By the way, although I’ve cited advertising examples above – because they’re easy for everyone to grasp and relate to – outbound marketing doesn’t necessarily have to mean advertising or mass marketing. At the end of this post I share a link to possibly my favourite ever piece of outbound marketing – delivered for a great cause. I literally love it!]

4/5. Putting our to use skills

In a moment I’m going to return to some hard-nosed business perspectives – namely about us marketers being here to help our employers meet their targets – but before that big ending I wanted to share one more amazing thing about marketers. We have amazing skills – skills that other people don’t have…

Many among us are degree-educated. We know how to earn attention and craft persuasive communications. We understand how to get discovered online. We understand how to develop and deliver upon a strategy. And those are all things that charities, local community causes and clubs, small local start-up businesses and others are crying out for – but may not have access to.

And so wouldn’t it be amazing if every marketer did a tiny little bit more pro bono work every now and again? Imagine what we can all help people to achieve.

I know from personal experience that it’s bloomin’ hard to find even more time in our diaries, but for those that haven’t tried it yet, I can’t begin to explain how rewarding it is to help others in need. I was truly humbled a few years ago when our Marketing team took a day out to come up with creative designs for – and then paint – a day-centre for kids suffering with AIDS. It brought us to tears. It felt important. As it did when we helped create bookmarks for another small children’s charity to sell in Oxfam charity shops.

I commit to trying to do more of that.

5/5. Marketing is one of the most important jobs in the world – so there!

So here’s my big ending. Let’s hit the nail on the head. Let’s not shy away from who we are or what we stand for as a profession…

Us marketers are here to make money for our companies.

Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re here to help our companies to succeed. We stand for sustained, ongoing growth or we stand for nothing. That’s why we get paid. It’s our first and last imperative as a profession, and it’s the most significant thing – if not the only thing – that what will transform business’ perspectives of us. Period.

Now as we’ve covered, we don’t and won’t achieve that by manipulating people or by selling crap. As every one of us knows in B2B Marketing, we will only succeed if we continue to build valued, sustainable relationships with customers. Which is where identifying, developing and delivering brilliant products and services, at an equitable price, that help our customers to succeed comes in. And that’s what good marketing is really all about.

And here’s my excessive, good-natured assertion about that. We’re not doctors, or teachers, or police officers, or scientists, or engineers, or even plumbers, but we do help people in others ways. Let’s celebrate what we do bring to the table…

Good marketing (as an activity, not just a team) helps keep existing customers happy and helps win new business, now and into the future.

Which helps a business to stay healthy and grow.

Which in turn creates income and job security for existing employees – and creates job opportunities for new employees.

And it also creates the confidence for our companies to invest, perhaps in things like investing in new IT, or new office space, or in new office cleaners, or in a myriad other additional things.

Which provides cash to employee and supplier families (while creating a sense of self-worth that having a job creates).

Which then gets spent in local communities, and also other businesses.

Which makes those families, communities and other businesses happier.

In other words, marketing is good news. Or, as I pointed out above, good marketing is good news. In fact, I think it is an important job. And I’m proud to say I do it.

Summary

I was REALLY nervous about writing this blog post, lest it come across as some sort of cringeworthy, ranting manifesto – like that awful moment at the start of the Tom Cruise movie ‘Jerry Maguire’. I didn’t intend it that way.

I’m also not an economist, so I’m sure I’ve over-simplified the above. I also haven’t touched upon the critical but complex topic of companies becoming more authentically focused on a sustainable, inclusive future (although here’s a provocative article I recently read on this topic – a topic that I hope will become increasingly important in our world). And I’m also not really suggesting that marketing will save the world.

But, in our current economical system, healthy business is important for people and communities – and good marketing has a role to play in that. We’re only here to help people – our customers – to succeed. And we only prosper if we achieve that.

And that’s my opinion.

By the way, if that argument isn’t good enough for you – here’s another. It’s (mostly) a really fun job, done by lots and lots of really nice people, none of whom are setting out to harm anyone. And what’s wrong with that (* he asks rhetorically, since he doesn’t want any more nasty tweets *)?

How about this for the power of marketing communications…

To end on a high note, here’s probably my favourite ever example of pro-active marketing communication. Enjoy…

 

(credit: angel and demon illustration is via Vecteezy).

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