News & Blogs

Our culture of learning makes us look stupid

David Grainger
David Grainger (former) Head of Strategy

If you type ‘what marketers can learn from…’ into Google, it returns over 31 million results. That’s a staggering amount of learning for a marketer to catch up on, and feels pretty much worthless.

In his recent column in Marketing, Mark Riston of The Melbourne Business School summarised this phenomena perfectly… “One of the great highlights of being a marketer is reading the clichéd, unintentionally hilarious articles detailing ‘what marketers can learn from….’. You take a current topic du jour and then append onto it a series of highly tangential marketing learnings of absolutely no value whatsoever.”

Back to those search results: Kim Kardashian tops the page rank of marketing theoreticians, followed by Sepp Blatter, Deadmau5 and Charlie Sheen. I don’t remember any of the above being part of my marketing degree module, but admittedly I did miss a lot of lectures.

We should always poke fun at how ridiculous our industry can be, but we shouldn’t trivialise a real issue.

London is the home of our marketing industry, and London is also in the throes of a fast learning love affair; we’ve reduced art, poetry, making a coffee and fixing a bike down to bite size chunks that can be consumed on a couple of Tuesday evenings. Furthermore, YouTube has convinced us we can turn ourselves into experts on anything within the next twenty minutes. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if we believe we can look at Kim Kardashians bottom and knock it into some sort of comms strategy before the pub opens.

Marketers are cultural magpies. We should never stop learning and never stop stealing stuff. Some of the best campaigns we’ve ever created have got a big fat steal at their heart. But equally, some of our biggest fails occur when we try to lift learnings from one walk of life and apply it to our own.

In his recently published book The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick attributes the fails to the ‘Year Zero’ narrative, which would have us believe that advances in technology mean that the world has changed so much that the old rules no longer apply. If we believe the past can teach us nothing then we’ll only look for inspiration in the here and now.

It’s a book for people who work in advertising, about how we think about how advertising works.

It was never intended as a history of advertising, but by exploring where we’ve come from, and how academic theories of advertising materialised, today’s account planner or media guy is far more prepared for what might come next.

It’s a fascinating book because it shines a very harsh spotlight on our inability to learn from our own past. Imagine if law applied the same cavalier attitude to precedent.

Paul Feldwick prefers to focus, not on the things that have changed but, on the things that haven’t… what makes us laugh or cry, our enjoyment of music, a need to feel valued as a customer.

Truly great advertising abides by its own set of unwritten laws. Those laws get added to with each passing decade, but not enough to warrant 31 million search results.

If you want to learn how to be a better marketer, start with a history lesson from your own backyard.