Not all change is good in adapting to a digital era

Marketers are obsessed with change - but a healthy respect for established thinking is also important.

Steve Harrison...change must  be based on knowledge-accumulation
Steve Harrison...change must be based on knowledge-accumulation

Come across any "charlatans or half-wits" today? How about "individuals with a holistic view of the world and extraordinary observational powers"? I reckon you won't bump into many of the latter, but you'll have shared a meeting with the former before you go home tonight. Then again, what do I know? I left the industry a while ago. Or, more accurately, it left me. And the direction it's headed gives me the willies.

That new direction has, of course, been steered by agencies and clients adapting to the digital era. Seeing the direct networks and ad agencies gyrating like dads at the digital disco has been pretty alarming. So, too, have been the industry leaders' views on the future. Time and again they've told you that if you don't change your ways, you'd better contact the World Wildlife Fund, because you're staring extinction in the eye.

In Advertising Age's "trends to watch in 2008", Bob Liodice, the Association of National Advertisers' president and chief executive, said: "A new kind of marketing professional is emerging - individuals with a holistic view of the world and extraordinary observational powers. These 'renaissance' marketers will be part-humanist, part-psychologist, part-anthropologist and part-technologist."

In the UK, Chris Arnold, the chair of the Direct Marketing Association's Agency Council, explained: "When the Wright Brothers first flew, it was a consequence of writing new rules. They believed they had to start again and write rules from scratch, to throw out all the old rules and beliefs. DM is in the same position now. It's on the brink of a new era."

It's a vivid analogy, but dodgy aviation history. It's also a dangerous vision of the future because: a) it denies the validity of all that's been learned by marketing professionals on both agency and client side, and b) it delivers that future into the hands of those whose "extraordinary observational powers" allow them to detect a very convenient bandwagon rolling by.

Convenient? Well, yes. Because it's easier to talk the transitional talk than to sit at your desk, steep yourself in your business, study your customer, learn your trade, adapt its principles to new circumstances and pass on your learning to your staff. In the current climate, anyone who does uphold such practices is seen as reactionary. Indeed, the most damning criticism anyone can deliver comes with a raised eyebrow and the rhetorical question: "You're not afraid of change, are you?"

Me? Afraid? No, not as long as change is based on humanist principles, whereby cultures develop and individuals gain enlightenment through the constant accumulation of knowledge. But, instead of corporate humanism, I see a creeping barbarism, in which past knowledge is dismissed as irrelevant by the proponents of perpetual change.

The damage is clear in everything from grand strategy to day-to-day tactics. Here's the business commentator Mark Ritson on strategy: "A brand manager took me through their fresh brand strategy, and it was terrible. It was like most brand positions: pointless. About eight out of ten brand strategies have no impact whatsoever on brand equity and this was going to be another addition to the big book of pointless branding."

As to execution, I recently sat with the D&AD black Pencil advertising judges, who complained of young creatives who now see Philistinism as a virtue. It's true, but then again, many agencies have also abandoned such bulwarks of creative culture as a signed-off, single-minded brief, sufficient time to do it justice and the presentation of just one agency recommendation.

Quite frankly, most direct agencies were never too principled about such things, and now they've lost the air-cover they once enjoyed from their advertising brethren. Having said that, direct was good at tactical skills. But now, few agencies bother to, for example, test inserts against press ads, run A/B splits or challenge their control packs. Is it because everyone's become so brilliant at breakthrough creative? Dream on. According to the latest Nielsen Report on the state of direct mail, a new high of 21 per cent of all mailings are binned before being opened. Some might say this is exactly why we should be switching to online. That, however, is missing the point: if a mature DM industry can no longer master the basics, how can it help the relative tyros in digital?

Many of the successful digital shops have sensibly sought the advice of old pros. Unfortunately, the sectors these former leaders once served increasingly regard their knowledge as irrelevant. And that doesn't just apply to direct and advertising. In April, Campaign quoted Sital Banerjee, the global media director of Philips, as saying: "When I interact with a cross-section of young people with funny titles around the world, I am frustrated by their complete lack of knowledge." Many, he says, haven't even grasped the basics of reach and frequency.

Aside from the irate Mr Banerjee, are clients happy with this? Frankly, a lot get the agencies they deserve. Many, it seems, would prefer to oversee another rebranding exercise, while leaving the bread-and-butter tasks to those ill-prepared to perform them. Either that, or sit brainstorming for blue-ocean thinking in "the digital space".

This desire to dive deeply into the shallow end was highlighted by the Hadden Consultancy's study of a cross-section of marketing managers that says: "87 per cent preferred a reliance upon 'intuition' as opposed to 'a focus on concrete facts, details and what is'." In other words, gut feeling over informed opinion. Mark Ovenden, the marketing director for Ford Motor Company, noted this superficiality: "Marketing is doing itself a disservice attracting the wrong personalities."

Alan Tapp, a professor of marketing at Bristol Business School, is more forthright: "If best practice has little or no value, what does? The answer is the 'cult of the new', a world that lacks substance, fads take over and marketers become obsessed with change." Malcolm McDonald, Cranfield University's emeritus professor of marketing, is equally critical of a discipline that has lost respect because "lots of charlatans and half-wits have got into it without qualifications".

Harsh words - but could it be that one of those "charlatans" will be standing next to a Nobo board this afternoon, arching an accusatory eyebrow at you and asking: "You're not afraid of change, are you?" In fairness, maybe they'd be advised to take refuge behind that Nobo board. Maybe it's now too difficult to perform the myriad functions expected of a marketing director.

That difficulty is described in the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road. Set in a thinly disguised IBM, the boss talks about who should lead in a complex, ever-changing business world: "Your public relations expert? Your electronics engineer? Your management consultant? No single one of them has the right background, or the right qualifications, for the job. I've talked to some of the top advertising and promotions men in the business; I've talked to some of the top technical men in the computer field and I've talked to some of the top administration men in the country, and we've all of us pretty much come to this conclusion: it's a completely new kind of job, and we're going to have to develop a completely new kind of talent to do it."

Yates certainly nails the problem of finding the homo novus with the necessary vision and skills. Except, he was writing in 1961 and set his story in 1955. Fifty-three years, in fact, before Mr Liodice spied his renaissance marketer with "extraordinary observational powers" skipping over the horizon.

Clearly, nothing is new. Indeed, anyone who is any good always feels insecure about the future. But throwing the baby that it's taken nearly 100 years to nurture out with the analogue bath water is a crazy response to the opportunities digital presents. Let's finish with something written at roughly the same time as Revolutionary Road: "It took millions of years for man's instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about 'changing man'. A communication must be concerned with 'unchanging man', with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own."

These are the words of Bill Bernbach. I hope that even those most committed to tearing up the old rules will respect his views and take his advice.