Momentum for stalled, stuck, and stale industries.

By Steve McKee

In the 2012 FedEx Ketchum Social Business Study, dozens of major corporations were asked to weigh in on the impact social media is having on business today. Some_of_the_Participating_CompaniesThe study has many fascinating elements, but one quote in particular caught my eye: “While the search for a measurement solution goes on, 84 percent of survey participants agree there will always be some aspects of marketing that cannot be measured.”

I was stunned by that number–not the fact that 84% believe some aspects of marketing can’t be measured, but that 16% believe every aspect of marketing can be. These aren’t unsophisticated business people, they’re the marketing professionals behind some of the best brands in the world. How can they possibly think that?

I have a theory. These people may not actually believe that everything worthwhile can be measured; perhaps they believe that they should believe it. Perhaps in a desire to salve their ever-present sense of unsurety they cry out for data, particularly with higher-ups who don’t understand marketing and consumer behavior breathing down their necks. Perhaps that’s how they’re managing to hold on to their jobs in a still-dangerous economy.

Indeed, Spencer Stuart reports that CMO tenure at the biggest U.S. companies is increasing–from a low of 23.2 months in 2006 to 43 months at the end of 2011–and suggests that corporate consolidations and the vagaries of the stock market have “encouraged a natural conservatism.

It’s good that CMO tenure is increasing (the fact that it’s measured in months rather than years is part of the problem–see The Perseverance Dividend–but that’s best left to another post). What’s not good is a hyper-reliance on data. “Big data” is much in the news in our world, and we have only begun to tap its possibilities. But data will never take the place of imagination, and information can never rise to the level of judgment, to say nothing of courage. It’s those particularly human qualities we need more of.

In our research among stalled, stuck and stale brands, we found a loss of nerve to be one of four crippling internal dynamics. That’s certainly true at a micro level in individual corporations, but I’m beginning to wonder if five years of dismal economics have made it part of the zeitgeist.

If so, the only way out is out, and we may need to get there one brand at a time. Have you lost your nerve? Are you breaking new ground, going to work each day willing to be fired? Or are you in “safe” mode, like a laptop whose processor is on standby? Shake off the fear and boot up. Put the information you do have to work, but don’t dismiss ideas and insights that can’t be proven. Take a chance, and if necessary, make a stand.

Data is your servant, not your master. Never forget that.


Steve McKee

This smart looking guy is our agency’s president. When he’s not sitting in his not-so-oval office looking official, he’s busy writing books and winning awards for them.

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