Archive for October, 2011

Lords of Strategy – A Call For Rigor

October 16, 2011

I recently finished reading Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, by Walter Kiechel. The book is a comprehensive history of the evolution of business strategy, and the people and companies who made it what it is today (primarily Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Co., McKinsey, and Harvard Business School).

While reading the book, and now after having finished it, one thought has echoed louder for me than any other: solving massive problems at massive scale requires massive rigor.

Solving problems like how to inspire thousands of employees to adapt to a digital mode of working or how to shape the perception of a brand within the minds of millions of connected customers requires a level of applied knowledge and purposeful experimentation that is missing from marketing practice, both inside client organizations and within the partners who serve them.

In the early 1980’s Bain & Co. led a competitive analysis project for Bausch & Lomb, who was trying to sort out its competitive advantage in the contact lens market. The consultants tracked down a BBC news video of the Queen of England touring a competitor’s new factory, and identified the nameplates on each machine in the video. They visited every equipment vendor and got the costs of the machines. Finally, they reverse-engineered the competitor’s total costs for the new plant. The project took approximately 3 months.

The exigencies of the contemporary marketing landscape fight against this kind of meticulousness. There is no patience. Yes, everyone wants a sure thing; but they want a sure thing in the short term.

It feels as though marketing efforts—ads, web content, social network efforts, etc.—have become unmoored, floating off into a universe of marketing for marketing’s sake. Every day they feel more disconnected from—or worse disinterested in—what actually makes the ecosystem of business + product + customers healthy.

It’s understandable. The digital revolution has fragmented and overturned everything it’s touched. Confronted with a bewildering array of new tactics and accompanying success metrics, we’ve taken shelter in counting whatever we can count, regardless of its meaning.

What I’ve seen reminds me of one of the essential sins of the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008; banks, in the name of innovation and profit, created complicated “financial products” that were so contrived and re-packaged as to become completely disconnected from the underlying unreliability of the borrowers at the other end of the long chain.

Like these junk mortgage products, so many of our marketing efforts, and their measures of success, have become disconnected from their core purpose.

The time has come to set things right.

The maturity of digital communications technology, its central role within marketing and its increasingly essential role within any business, calls for a recommitment to a long-standing, but recently lost, mission: rediscover the relationship between investing in connecting with customers and creating clear and measurable value for the business.

It won’t be easy. It will take effort. It will take a great deal of applied intelligence. And, perhaps most importantly, it will require the will and commitment of visionary CMOs and CEOs working together with a new breed of partner who understands both the potential of digital capabilities and the rigor necessary to unlock that potential.