Marketing 101

[September 22, 2009]

A few years back, I was lead copywriter for a client in the financial sector. One day, he requested a direct mail package that would “break through the clutter” to boost acquisition. Now, generic business objectives like this were an occupational hazard we faced every day. All the same, we had way too little to go on. While the client had drawn up a detailed list of product benefits, the closest thing we had to a messaging platform was “Act Now!”

Nor could we fall back on the national brand campaign, recently launched by a prestigious general agency. Like most mid-level marketing managers at his company, our client vehemently rejected that campaign—based, apparently, on stray bits of focus group data.

When asked to expand on his project goals, our client responded with a few lines of explanation, a new list of product benefits, and told us the project was easy, just “Marketing 101.” To illustrate, he sent over a diagram a lot like the one I’ve sketched out below from memory:

As with every cliché, “Marketing 101” is spoken without real thought, but we were stuck with it. Despite our attempt to clarify the client’s intentions, we now had to reconcile conflicting demands: “Break through the clutter” yet conform to standardized “Marketing 101” ideals. Our client wanted a piece unconventional enough to stand out in a mailbox, yet conventional enough to fit snugly into a rigid conceptual template.

Next, the project went through several tortured rounds of revision, as our client worked out his marketing message little by little, word by word, sending over bits of Copy “for inspiration,” photocopied from earlier mailings.

With persistence, we finally produced a piece the client was satisfied with: a Frankenstein’s monster made of spare parts from several previous campaigns. When it was deemed a success we were relieved, until the client averred that its success was due to the live stamp he’d stuck on each envelope. “We have studies showing this always produces a bump,” he said matter-of-factly, adding “Good work.” Why then, I wondered, did we need all those rounds?

Today, I’d also wonder why anyone would pay six figures for a campaign so predictable they could build it themselves—with a pair of scissors and a glue stick. And while this story may give you a chuckle, it’s as relevant now as back in the day. Substitute “CTRL-C” for the scissors and “CTRL-V” for the glue stick and you have business-as-usual for countless projects at many a digital agency in 2009.

Despite the rapid evolution of marketing in the last 10 years, something fundamental is unchanged: We’re still too willing to manufacture what clients ask for instead of creating what they need. It’s time we moved on from Marketing 101 and established a new curriculum. Better yet, let’s throw the school books out the window.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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