Direct Approach: Marketer, heal thyself

It's up to us as marketers to diagnose what 'ails' our clients and then offer a tailor-made remedy.

In a recent article, one of my better-known colleagues used the analogy of detective work and crime fighting to explain what it is that we all do, drawing his inspiration from the new 24-hour Crime Channel. Being of a less gruesome disposition, I have instead drawn my inspiration from medicine. Or perhaps I just prefer medical detective work to criminal detective work.

In medicine, you have a field where immense advances have been made in the past 40 years. No-one questions this. Even the language of medical experimentation is unfailingly optimistic. It refers to "progress" made, to medical "breakthroughs" and to "new advances". Every day brings a new discovery, or a "wonder drug". Even bad news is merely a temporary setback to be overcome at a later time.

This is in contrast to the business of marketing, in which our language is pessimistic. We talk of "fragmentation", "the death of ..." and "decline".

You rarely hear doctors moaning: "Ooh, my drugs cabinet has fragmented terribly, what with these new-fangled treatments!" Or: "Leeches are just not working as well as they used to."

Actually, there's a good reason why doctors view progress happily, and we often don't. Medicine contains two vital stages: diagnostics and treatment. And advances in diagnostics have kept pace with advances in treatment.

In marketing, they have not. We have a litany of 21st-century "treatments" at our disposal, but the science of diagnosing (or "testing", to use an old-fashioned term) has fallen behind.

And because advances in media and technology are now so far ahead of advances in diagnostics, we are in danger of discovering cures for which there is no known disease.

Imagine going to a GP in a hyper-modern 21st-century surgery. A PC on the desk. White light. A pharmacopoeia of 10,000 different possible drugs lies open. "You seem slightly splenetic," the GP says, "and there may be a problem with bad humours. Your soul also needs to be purged of demons. We should try a course of antibiotics."

Now, if this seems funny, notice how often you hear phrases such as "We need a mobile strategy" or "What are we doing in social media?"

It's a bit like saying: "I need antibiotics. I don't know what for, but I want some." Or it's like going to a doctor and saying: "Can you find something wrong with me that requires analgesics?"

Mobile is an exciting treatment. It's even a "breakthrough". The only problem is that no-one knows how to identify the symptoms of the disease for which it is the cure. And if I hear Facebook is the answer to one more (undiagnosed) problem, I'll scream.

What can we do? Well, for part of the answer, I recommend you spend more time watching TV. In particular, one of the best programmes on TV: House.

It's here that we switch on the telly (or set the Sky+ box) and tune into Dr Gregory House, the hero of the American cult TV series.

If you were doing an elevator pitch for House, this is how it would run. An antisocial maverick doctor who specialises in diagnostic medicine does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases that come his way using his crack team of doctors and his wits. What you'll see when you watch it is the practice of diagnostics. The procedure which marketing is increasingly missing.

House, played by Hugh Laurie, is a doctor with a difference. He's a kind of Sherlock Holmes (House? Holmes? Geddit?!) of the hospital. He adopts an investigative approach to diagnostics. He doesn't pretend to know everything. He digs deep before making a diagnosis. He looks to find out what the problem is before trying to remedy it.

He also knows something we don't. That there's a big difference between a symptom and a problem. And that treating the symptoms may sometimes treat the problem. And sometimes not. He also knows that confusing a problem with its symptoms is dangerous.

Low awareness, say, is a symptom that might be a problem or it might not. Raising awareness may cure the problem, or it may temporarily disguise that the problem has not been solved.

Aspirin reduces inflammation. So, measuring the success of aspirin by an attendant reduction in inflammation is like measuring the success of advertising by an increase in awareness.

Market research reveals symptoms. Consumer attitude is a symptom. Behaviour is a problem. And, similar to treating medical symptoms, changing consumer opinion may often have only a peripheral connection with the problem you need to solve. What people say and what they do are sometimes well correlated. At other times, they are diametric opposites. Lower back pain can be symptomatic of kidney disease. Or of a muscle problem in the lower back.

But what House realises is that diagnostics is a science. Though not an exact one (which begs the question: if medicine isn't an exact science, how can direct marketing be?). For example, he recognises that observing a patient's response to a treatment is sometimes the best way to diagnose a disease.

If unsure of which diagnosis to give, he will try the more likely (or sometimes the less harmful) course of treatment and see if it works. This is what, in DM, we used to call "testing".

As often as not, this is the best - and the most scientific - approach. Indeed, it is the right approach for everyone smart enough to realise that the word "scientific" does not mean the same as "never being proved wrong".

We all need to become Dr Houses. We have to use our "crack team of doctors" (clients, account handlers, planners, creatives and analysts) and our "wits" (gut instincts and experience) to identify the problem. And only then can we start moving towards solving it in the most appropriate way.

The difference for us (aside from the fact that House is fiction and we all live in the "real" world) is that people's lives are not in our hands. Only their direct marketing budgets. But the job is, in many ways, similar. Diagnose what's happening, experiment with ways to solve it, refine those experiments and apply the learnings to our next "patient". It is our duty and we have to become experts at it again.

If you haven't watched House, give it a go. If enough of us set out to bring diagnostics back into the mix, maybe we'll get somewhere. You never know, we might even convince our clients to spend a proportion of their budgets on testing again, so that we can solve the "ailments" their brands face. All we need to do is to make them feel safe enough to be adventurous again.