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On January 18th 2014 John Hancock (The Copy Mentor), arguably Australia’s best marketing copywriter and thinker, passed away from cancer. I’d worked with him for over 25 years and he was a good friend.

We’d been discussing for some time an idea of launching a marketing consultancy called “The Naked Marketer“. The premise was simple – we would work with CEOs, CMOs and business owners, to identify what was right and wrong about their marketing. Put simply – we’d tell the truth.

With no agency bias, or new business agenda, we would analyse their marketing activities and make recommendations to improve them.

It came about as a result of so many colleagues complaining about their marketing work practices and the lack of accountability or pride in results, that have permeated the ranks over recent years. Not to mention the digi-nonsense flooding cyber-space.

Hancock wrote the following essay – it is typical of his intellect and honest approach to marketing – which is extremely rare today.

John Hancock - The Copy Mentor

John Hancock – The Copy Mentor

The Marketer Stripped Bare

Marketing fashionisti go for the layered look this season. Fads come and go so quickly in the digital age that quick-change accessories are essential. You need several new looks in place on Monday morning, so you have a campaign featuring the latest craze ready to present by Wednesday afternoon.

By Friday it’ll be, like, you know … SO Wednesday that you’ll have to trot out something even newer.

Today not even a noticeable minority of marketers have truly come to terms with websites, much less social media. Yet the industry is already buzzing about the new GPS-driven handsets that promise to deliver your offer when the customer points her phone at a retail outlet.

No worries; wear your media and channels in layers, and you can quickly discard the old to display the new.

But what is actually going on underneath all the glam and the bling? Is the body of marketing as sophisticated as its tools and toys; or has it become mutton dressed up as lamb?

Not too long ago the practice of marketing marched in step with technological change. We had always counted responses and run tests, so when computers came along, we just counted everything faster and designed even more sophisticated tests. Acting on the results, we dramatically improved the profitability of our direct response ads and mailings.

When computers progressed to the stage of delivering personalised mailings, they quickly became the norm. This caused another jump in profitability.

Toll-free numbers immediately increased inbound phone traffic, leading to the first call centres. But they were just taking orders until the predictive diallers arrived, followed closely by truly computerised call centres that gave us instant, real-time results for the first time in our careers. Telemarketing exploded. So did profits.

But at every step of the way, professional marketers counted and costed and tested. Then we counted and costed and tested again. The things that became common policy were those for which we had hard numbers.

After spending time with clients and researching online, I’ve become increasingly worried. If we stripped marketing bare this week, I’m afraid we would find a discipline that has not kept pace with itself.

Marketing departments seem to be deploying new tools helter-skelter, without even rigorous accounting, much less rigorous testing. Where are the case studies on social media showing the increase in labour cost required to maintain Facebook and Twitter pages? Where are the A/B tests that divide a customer base into social-media and non-social-media segments to show what difference, if any, there is in the number or profitability of transactions?

The problem goes even deeper, or earlier, than that. Too few marketers with whom I’ve spoken have a clear grasp of the basic numbers describing their digital channels, from email openings, to click-through, to final transaction.

If that were the whole problem, the solution would be simple: today’s marketers need only pull up their socks and get serious, and all will be well. But I worry that the real problem is more profound.

Can the discipline keep up?

For most of my 40 years in this business, the technological changes themselves were actually more dramatic than those of today. We had to adapt, not from old computers to new computers, but from no computers to computers per se.  But we had a long time working with remote mainframes before we had to deal with the desktop revolution. We had over a decade’s experience with personalised mail packs before the first laser printers opened up new possibilities. We had years to cope with almost every new earth-shaker.

You have to react to multiple innovations in a single year.

There’s another challenge you have to face, that we escaped: pressure from the top. While computers were huge news in my early years on the job, their use as marketing tools wasn’t widely publicised. The CEOs of client companies weren’t breathing down the necks of their Marketing Directors to use personalised mailings or to install toll-free phone lines. The developments that affected marketers were well-known within the discipline, but that was about it.

Today, your boss’s boss hears about each new marketing wonder as soon as you do. Her son-in-law tells her; she tells your boss; and that afternoon you get an email along the lines of, ‘We need to be in this new space. Give me a proposal by COB Friday.’

On top of everything else, you operate in a fog of regulations and PR fear that actively discourages any sort of free-wheeling experimentation. Free-wheeling experimentation being, of course, the thing that generated all those technological goodies in the first place … and the thing we used to do to develop new ways of profiting from the latest toys.

Had we worked under corporate regimes like today’s, I doubt very seriously that we would have been anywhere near as rigorous in our analysis or as successful in our uptake of new technology.

The Nude Future

So what are you to do? Frankly, I hope this essay opens a debate and dialogue on that subject. To kick it off, here’s a general idea from an old guy who’s had to cope with greater changes than you have, though at a much slower rate:

The body of marketing thought is a beautiful thing; it requires no adornment. Strip off the digital clothing and take a long, hard look at the naked facts about how your business works within its major channel. Make sure you and your team know by heart all the basic numbers describing the key channel.

Dig deep. Be rigorous. The main channel should have good data on it; master that data. On the other hand, if your firm lacks good data on its key channel, take the initiative to develop it.

Your objective here is to absolutely master the key channel for your firm … as it is today. That way you have a thorough understanding of what has to happen in each new channel as it is dredged by the gadgeteers.

Finally, I challenge you to invent new, faster and cheaper ways of internal accounting and channel testing. I predict that today’s free-for-all will not last much longer. Sooner rather than later CFOs will demand that marketing heads cough up some numbers on all these whiz-bangs.

Start thinking and experimenting right now. Imagine how you could answer the toughest CFO when he asks you how much more profitable Twitter is than Facebook … and how much more profitable iPhone apps are than either. Or not, as the case may be.

By stripping away the ephemeral fashions and focusing on the eternal body beneath, you’ll be ready to answer.

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I’m off to raise a glass to The Naked Marketer. Cheers…Malcolm