[originally posted here at bbh-labs.com]
We’ve discussed “wind tunnel marketing” quite a bit recently. As a result, we’ve been thinking more and more about one particular facet of the issue: the misuse of metrics and data. Few industries more regularly confuse their objectives and metrics than marketing. I’m referring to when marketers take digital proxy indicators of progress, and make them the destination, even when they’re multiple degrees removed from the objective. This is distinct from our use of data to adapt our efforts. Maybe it’s karma for collectively turning to display advertising in the late 90’s to save our business, unknowingly opening the Pandora’s box of click-thru-rates that’s held us back for over a decade since.
We reject the notion that is due to some psychological need for validation. If it’s about validation, there can only be an empty feeling elicited from the knowledge that the metric isn’t the objective. Thus began our Inception-esque voyage into the psyche of marketers.
Operating under the assumption we’re rational at some level, it was easy to see the correlation between this seemingly irrational behavior and a code of conduct prevalent throughout our industry: self-preservation. Maybe most professions exhibit this behavior to some degree, but the level of self-preservation in marketing is extreme. Scientifically speaking, Cover Your Ass Syndrome is an epidemic amongst us. It couldn’t simply be that opportunistic, self-preservation obsessed humans just naturally tend to find their way to marketing, right? We couldn’t possibly be like baby geese following the first thing that moves, in our case another human that shows as much self-centered focus as ourselves— suddenly and inexplicably asking “what do you do for a living and how can I start?”
Perhaps we’re victims (wait, is that the self-preservation talking? We’re in too deep to tell). Maybe this misuse of metrics isn’t, in fact, innate survival behavior to ensure we’re not left holding the bag when things go wrong. Perhaps this is a learned behavior we’ve created as a result of our environment. Our environmental analysis turned up three factors that seem to be directly responsible for our rampant metrics abuse. The first is the obvious reality of impatience, prevalent throughout shareholder demands and modern human nature. Let’s put that one aside as it’s been discussed ad naseum via analysis of CMO tenures and the fault of modern capitalist markets. It’s the next two factors that are more interesting- and more productive- to analyze. At the surface, they don’t appear linked to our misuse of metrics, but in fact they are due to their impact on behavior and culture within marketing organizations, from clients to agencies. Both are addressable, but would require an organization’s senior leadership to operate in very non-standard ways.
1. Pre-defined Bonuses
When companies define bonuses of marketing executives based on specific metrics like site visits or total audience engagement or- gasp- product sales, it’s human nature to pursue that bonus at any cost. In fact, the existence of black and white bonuses regularly takes a metric for success and makes it someone’s personal objective. What’s best for the company, calculated risk taking and long-term innovation planning go out the window when considered against school tuitions or new drapes.
Although controversial in many business cultures, why not solve this environmental issue by creating subjective bonuses– ones where employees are judged on rational, subjective contribution to the company? Did the risks they take make sense? Did their approach add some broader value? If the objective is what’s best for your initiative, rather than a metric that is only one of many proxies for that success, shouldn’t a bonus be tied to that?
Compensation subjectivity makes people uncomfortable, but with good leadership in place at a company, it’s likely a more intelligent option. Those that truly want what’s best for the organization will trust their leaders.
2. Crediting Systems
In today’s marketing landscape, the way ideas manifest is complicated. All the various executions of an idea involve more moving pieces, multiple partners and blurrier lines between disciplines. Yet, somehow we employ the same crediting system- from awards to inter-company recognition- as we did 30 years ago.
Our credit list may be extensive, but it’s still partitioned by execution: creative, strategy, production, media (assuming media people even get credit). This is true external to the organization (award shows, press releases), but also true internally at most organizations (departments, recognition).
Why? If lines are blurry, why must we categorize contribution? If this sounds ridiculous, please interview young talent in our industry. They have a tough time defining their role by agency verticals and almost always pride themselves on their organic contributions to an agency output. We love that, and in fact look for T-shaped individuals when hiring.
It’s when marketers credit by specific discipline that metrics become disproportionately emphasized. We may call it a team effort, but we take a Hollywood approach to “team,” defining it as a collection of individuals. So, digital-era metrics like sharability, clicks and participation must be measured because they reflect individual contribution (“my part of the project”). As a result, we make decisions that emphasize metrics instead of simply contributing to the broader objective. Credit is needed for survival in this marketing habitat. As a result, metrics are exaggerated and the overall objective goes by the wayside, the remaining vestige of community achievement in a market that deals in only individual currency.
At the end of this pseudo-scientific examination, it’s clear the environment is polluted. The result is a cyclical reality that few companies and brands transcend; even fewer do so consistently. The environment impacts the inhabitants and the resulting means of survival requires substituting metrics for objectives. That said, we remain optimistic that in the near future, leadership of marketing organizations will nurture a culture that shifts our archaic approach to incentives and crediting. This will cleanse the environment itself, breaking the cycle of rational argument for or against the use and application of metrics. The work will no doubt benefit as a result. Ironically, the beneficial impact of the change toward correcting our use of metrics may at first go unnoticed.
Hey, maybe we should put a measurement in place for it….