13 bad marketing habits to ditch in 2013

After the excesses of Christmas, the traditional January purge kicks off in earnest. Nicola Kemp picks 13 common bad habits that marketers should forgo this year.

1. THE MIRE OF MARGINAL THINKING

'If you need a machine and don't buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don't have it'

Henry Ford

Marketing is littered with cautionary tales of an entrepreneurial upstart brand revolutionising established business practices.

Take the advent of Netflix and decline of Blockbuster, for example; if it taught us anything, it is that the desire to protect or adapt an existing business model rather than embrace the digital ecosystem is quite simply brand suicide. This curse of marginal thinking is perhaps the biggest barrier to business success in the modern era.

With the benefit of 10 years' hindsight, one Blockbuster press release from 2002 now seems incredible. It declared: 'We have not seen a business model that is financially viable in the long term in this arena. Online rental services are serving a niche market.'

Even now, many brands are still dragging their heels when it comes to adapting to the proliferation of digital.

In Velocity: The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital, Ajaz Ahmed writes that one of the reasons why established organisations struggle to innovate is that the existing team already has its hands full doing its current job. Big organisations are usually built for efficiency, not innovation.

'In many respects, innovation is seen as the opposite of efficiency, because it is not routine and has unpredictable outcomes,' argues Ahmed. 'This can create an environment in which there is no investment into future revenue streams because of the short-term impact on margins. As a result, the established business becomes resistant to innovation because it feels threatened by it, creating forces that actively discourage new thinking.'

In his latest book How will you Measure your Life? Clayton M Christensen, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, says that every time an executive in an established company needs to make an investment decision, there are two choices on the menu.

The first is the full cost of making something completely new. The second is to use what already exists. The marginal-cost argument almost always overwhelms the full-cost. However, he concludes: 'When there is competition, and this thinking causes established companies to continue to use what they already have in place, they pay far more than the full cost - because the company loses its competitiveness.'

Indeed, one of the big themes to have emerged in 2012 among many marketers was that of frustration. Without a high degree of autonomy, marketers cannot move fast enough to keep up with the sheer pace of change and innovation in the marketplace.

In Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, economist Tim Harford writes that many corporations today have the right level of centralisation for an era dominated by logistics and scale, but too much for an era dominated by innovation and creativity.

This is particularly true in marketing, where the advent of global network and brand deals have denied local markets the ability to engage with local suppliers to drive fast and adaptive innovation.

Compare and contrast this approach with that of Google, where engineers are allowed to spend one-fifth of their time on their own projects.

If the recession has left many marketers trapped in a mire of marginal thinking, then 2013 must be the year the industry finally embraces change; otherwise, it risks following Blockbuster down the path of irrelevance.

2. SETTLING FOR LESS

'The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it'

Steve Jobs

When the economic downturn has, in effect, become 'wallpaper' to marketers, it's time for corporations to stop using it as a catch-all excuse for lack of investment. Let 2013 be the year that marketers champion the value of their work across the business, and in the boardroom.

3. THE ENDLESS PURSUIT OF MEANINGLESS 'LIKES'

'Now is the Wild Wild West in social media' 

Chris Hirst, Grey London

Meaningless metrics have become a fact of life for marketers and it is time for the industry to recognise the futility of terms such as 'like' or 'fan'.

Many media experts have waxed lyrical over the value of a 'like' and marketers have tended glibly to follow suit. The industry must start from scratch when it comes to understanding how to measure the value of social media and stop attempting to impose dated metrics on modern channels.

It's a litany of misleading statements: connections, friends, fans and likes all mark very different sets of online behaviours.

Chris Hirst, chief executive of agency Grey London, says that not everyone wants to be a 'friend' of or 'like' a toothpaste brand, for example. 'Looking ahead, I can't believe that consumers will be willing to share as much data publicly as they do now. People don't understand that a "like" isn't an abstract event, but a mechanism for data storage,' he adds.

Stefan Olander, vice-president of digital sport for Nike, believes that brands should stop focusing on clicks or 'likes'. 'A whole industry is stuck on trying to force old metrics onto new channels. Too many businesses are thinking "I need to sell inventory", rather than 'How can I add value to a smartphone, or a new device?'" he adds.

To attempt to take the richness and complexity of human relationships and reduce them to a series of streamlined interactions is impossible. It is naive for brands to expect to do the same, package it up and stamp a media value on it.

4. EMAIL DEPENDENCY

'Sending emails has become more "the thing" than actually "doing the thing"' 

Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA

The chief executive of one of the world's biggest telecoms companies issues on-the-spot fines to agencies and employees who pointlessly 'cc' him on email exchanges, wasting valuable time. Meanwhile, Mickey Drexler, J Crew's enigmatic chief executive, 'cuts the crap' with an all-company speakerphone system.

Email is in many ways the scourge of the modern age and, for marketers, the effect is two-fold, as many brands are too reliant on email marketing to reach their consumers, as well as using it as a communication crutch to bombard colleagues with pointless missives.

David Thorp, director of research and professional development at the CIM, says there is an overload of poor email marketing. 'It's lazy marketing,' he claims. 'Its cheap to send out, so some people don't bother to target properly and the net effect is it is seriously counterproductive for many brands, as the metrics just don't measure up.'

5. HAVING IT ALL

'My ego aspires to make it happen, but my authentic self is not sure it is worth it'

Female respondent to the McKinsey 'Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work' report

Flexibility will be a key buzzword in 2013. Technology has revolutionised the workplace, and brands that want to keep the best talent will harness its power as a force for good.

Facebook chief executive Sheryl Sandberg declared last year that 'there is work and there is life and there is no balance'. 'Presenteeism', the mistaken belief that marketers must be present in the office at all costs, is taking its toll.

Of course, there are millions of working men and women facing much more difficult life circumstances than juggling myriad engagements of a typical marketing and advertising professional. The fact remains that, for those struggling to hold on to just one thing, the debate on 'having it all' must seem like it comes from a parallel universe. However, that doesn't mean professionals shouldn't strive to make a change in their own spheres.

We shouldn't be afraid to speak up when we hear trite statements about 'baby brains' or are exposed to the sheer lack of compassion dished out regularly to those seeking to run a career and keep up with the various demands of family life.

This is a year the marketing industry needs to face up to some uncomfortable facts, which need both to be acknowledged and changed. An industry that fails to place flexibility at the heart of its offering will never attract and retain the best talent.

6. THE DEAD END OF DISCOUNTS

'If you follow the road of price promotions, you will quickly realise it's a dead end, with no profits' 

Thierry Billot, Pernod Ricard

If the recession has taught us anything, it is that price promotion is not a sustainable marketing strategy. Brands have lined up in the past few years to sacrifice their long-term brand equity at the altar of short-term profits. This is the era of buy one get two free, where supermarkets have become all powerful.

One former editor of mine once quipped that we would know the recession was over only when Marks & Spencer ditched its 'dine in for two for £10' offer. Discounts have fast become a one-size-fits-all marketing solution.

Marketers would be wise to listen to Thierry Billot, managing director of brands at Pernod Ricard, who says that brands are diminishing their equity for promotions. 'Consumers get confused by price-cutting and it is difficult to bounce back from that,' he explains.

7. BELIEVING IN BUSINESS AS NORMAL

'Change is often seen as a threat, but to an entrepreneur, it's oxygen. It's what being alive and enthusiastic about business rests on. When the established way of doing things is in turmoil, new energy has the best chance to step in and succeed by doing things better than they've always been done before'

Sir Richard Branson, The Virgin Group

 The recession isn't going anywhere fast in 2013 and those brands that continue to hope that their business will 'bounce back' on the basis of an increasingly elusive economic recovery stand little chance of survival.

8. LATENESS: SPARE US THE 'BUSY-OFF'

'There is an immeasurable distance between late and too late' 

Og Mandino

I cannot be alone in thinking, when faced with persistent lateness, the underlying message it conveys is not 'look how busy and important I am', but 'I am incompetent, I cannot work out how long an hour is and I cannot manage my own time'.

Despite this, 2012 was the year that the 'busy-off' rivalled preoccupation with the weather's place as the nation's number-one obsession.

Dan Hagen, head of planning at agency Carat, says that lateness has become a cultural phenomenon. 'The problem is that when there is a culture of reactivism, everything becomes more important than what you are actually scheduled to do.' Let 2013 be the year the industry at least tries harder to be on time.

9. CAMPAIGNS

'Long-range planning works best in the short term' 

Doug Evelyn

Given the prevailing always-on culture, the notion that brands can rely simply on planning out their campaign schedule in advance is fundamentally flawed.

Chris Arnold, founder of agency Creative Orchestra, says that the bureaucracy that hampers big organisations has become obstructive. 'Clients need to get away from being so campaign-focused; otherwise, they are a year late with their response,' he adds.

10. ASSUMPTIONS

'It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail' 

Abraham Maslow

While marketers speak about the perils of the data deluge, the fact remains that there is still an unhealthy reliance on assumptions in the industry.

Martin Bailie, commercial strategy director at agency glue Isobar, says: 'People assuming success or hoping for success is not good enough. It is time to ditch the guessing and focus on empirical data.'

One of the biggest challenges created by the improvement in data collection and storage is the growing disparity between the amount of data collected by brands and their ability to meaningfully interpret it. Let interpretation and understanding trump assumptions this year.

11. GREENWASH: BEYOND CSR

'We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don't belong here' 

Enron's 'Visions and Values' corporate policy

Consumers increasingly judge brands by their actions, and social responsibility has rocketed to the top of the corporate agenda as a result. It has become so much bigger than just a marketing tool. This is the year brands must do more than say they are good; they must prove they are.

12. PROCUREMENT ABOVE ALL THINGS

'My favourite things in life don't cost any money. It's really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time' 

Steve Jobs

Russ Lidstone, chief executive of agency Havas Worldwide London, says that one key challenge is the rise of procurement and the procurement process. He adds: 'It is natural and understandable that prospects want to know they are getting value for money - and we are keen to ensure value and transparency. However, an industry-wide challenge is the degree to which the procurement process (sometimes automated) leads to "low cost" overshadowing the strategic and creative process, the people, and the power of great creative ideas.'

13. THE MORAL VACUUM

'Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being' 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Perhaps one of the most depressing byproducts of the economic downturn is the creep of sharp practices into corporate life. From bad manners to imposing impossible working conditions on marketers, the 'uncertain economic climate' has fast become a catch-all excuse for operating in a moral vacuum.

Demanding careers, family responsibilities and acquiring and attempting to maintain the various trappings of success have a tendency to swallow up time and perspective. Marketers must recognise that in life, we don't have to operate in the margins.

In the words of Clayton M Christensen, one of the world's leading thinkers on innovation: 'It's easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time. The boundary - your own personal moral line - is powerful, because you don't cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there's nothing to stop you doing it again. Decide what you stand for and then stand for it all the time.'

Nicola Kemp is head of features at Marketing, you can follow her on Twitter @nickykc

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