A view from Dave Trott: Marketers' belief in numbers
A view from Dave Trott

Marketers' belief in numbers

There’s an old joke about a drunk on his hands and knees under a lamp post.

A policeman comes up and asks him what he’s doing.

The drunk says he’s looking for his keys.

The policeman asks him where he dropped them.

The drunk says he dropped them on the other side of the street.

The policeman asks him how come he’s looking over here.

The drunk says because this is where the light is.

That joke actually tells you a lot about marketing.

Because marketing does exactly that – it only looks where the light is.

It only values what can be easily seen and counted.

This is known as the McNamara fallacy.

Robert McNamara was US Secretary of Defense from 1961-68, during the Vietnam War.

He wanted a foolproof method of knowing whether the US was winning the war.

He believed numbers were the only reliable metric.

And the only reliable numbers were the body count – how many Vietnamese soldiers were being killed.

And those numbers told him that North Vietnam was losing so many men they couldn’t continue.

For McNamara, numbers were infallible.

Well, perhaps so, if you get the right numbers.

But the numbers themselves weren’t accurate.

GIs would inflate body counts in order to claim a successful mission.

Officers would inflate body counts in order to obtain promotion.

So although, in theory, numbers are infallible, the numbers were actually very fallible.

And after many years of inflated body counts, the US had to withdraw from Vietnam.

Because McNamara assumed only the bit he could measure was important.

The McNamara fallacy is similar to the way today’s marketers operate.

We believe online media gives us accurate data, whereas traditional media doesn’t.

And, like McNamara, we are slaves to numbers.

So we ploughed billions of pounds and dollars into online media.

We can see it’s working from the number of "likes" and "followers".

The evidence is there in numbers on the screen, and numbers don’t lie.

Except when they do.

According to CNET, only 38% of internet traffic is human.

The rest is bot-farms, huge warehouses full of computers whose job it is to register "likes" and "followers".

These numbers can then be sold by the million to media companies.

Who can use them to justify the fees they’re charging clients for achieving those numbers.

The marketing people are impressed by numbers, so they’ll believe them.

Just like McNamara, it never occurs to them to question how the numbers were created.

The love of, and trust in, numbers overrides everything else.

According to Reid Tatori of Media Post: "We start with the notion that only 15% of the impressions ever have the possibility of being seen by a real person.

"Then factor in the 54% of ads that are not viewable, and you’re left with only 8% of impressions that have the opportunity to be seen by a real person."

Marketing people never question numbers because they seem objective, not subjective.

But using numbers is like looking where the light is.

You only trust what can be seen and measured.

That’s why it’s worth remembering what Einstein said: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.