The Last Post: the Top 10 things I’ve learned

So, apart from the odd bit of consultancy here and there, I’m retiring. I’d like to say a big So Long and Thanks for All The Fish, to all my clients, customers and colleagues and contacts, from whom I’ve learnt so much.

Thought it would be interesting to sum up what I’ve learnt in the last thirty-odd years. It’s easy to imagine that, since The Internet arrived, everything’s changed. But actually, when you really think about it, although the delivery mechanisms have changed and expanded, the core principles of successful marketing are utterly unchanged.

Here’s what I think they are, in no particular order (as they say on Strictly).

  1. Targeting your market: I believe you will much more successful when you target your media and your messaging based primarily on behaviour, not just on demographics. Sell to the people who are already buying not to the people who you think should be buying. This is a big, hard lesson to learn. People aren’t nearly so different from each other as many marketing people like to suggest. That’s why the TV is still stuffed with advertising. Super-targeted online advertising has its place but target it by buying behaviour and geography, not just age/class/sex.
  2. Isolating your key messages: what you say is a million times more important than how you say it. The content of your message is what matters, not the way you phrase it. Write clear headlines that say precisely what your target buyer wants to hear. Sure, you can be witty and engaging in your tone of voice, but puns, wordplay, ‘borrowed interest’ are the sure sign of an amateur practitioner. Your core messages must instantly identify what it is you’re selling and how it will solve your customer’s problem.
  3. Online/print design and art direction: clarity before creativity. Your customer must be able to read and understand your message as quickly as possible. So many billions of pounds/dollars are wasted every month by people obscuring their message with complicated, hard-to-read design and typography. You’re not creating art, you’re selling. Black type, upper and lower case, on a white background is always the good starting point, especially for body copy. I need a strong argument to do anything different. Never ever reverse out long copy. Just don’t, OK?
  4. Don’t look like advertising: the worst thing your advertising or marketing can do is to look like advertising or marketing. Everybody hates advertising and marketing. So engage your customers by producing stuff, especially your website, which looks and feels like editorial. This is another lesson that’s counter-intuitive. Go to a crap regional advertising or digital agency and you’ll get stuff that ‘looks like advertising’ and sounds like advertising because they don’t understand that successful advertising and marketing is much more subtle than that, much more considered and scientific.
  5. Long copy always outsells short: the internet is finally waking up to this fact. As soon as you start testing one v the other you rapidly find out that long copy which gives you all the great reasons to buy (and addresses all your reasons you might have for not wanting to), always outsells short copy. Designers will hate you but it’s just a fact.
  6. B2B is much harder than B2C: it really is. When I started as an ad agency graduate trainee they used to give the junior creative teams the B2B briefs as they were relatively low budget compared with the big flashy consumer accounts. Big mistake. Creating for a B2B audience means learning the language of the marketplace, understanding complex business concepts. And often B2B clients are very unfamiliar with marketing and advertising and can make some terrible decisions as a consequence.
  7. Most industry people don’t understand brands and branding: they think they do. They say they do. But they don’t. A brand is simply a set of values and perceptions (right or wrong) that exist in your customer’s head about your product or service. You don’t build a brand by creating a new logo and a colour scheme for your website. You build a brand by getting people to try your product. And you get them to try your product by selling to them. You sell to them by identifying the reasons they might try your product and telling them clearly and emotively. Time after time after time I see clients wasting their money on brand strategy documents, tone of voice workshops, colour palette analyses, straplines, positioning statements and mood boards. Most of this is utter, utter, utter bollocks. But it’s easy to do and makes clients feel important. And yet so often they won’t do the really important stuff like change the product (or even ditch it because, actually, nobody wants it) or restructure the way the company addresses its customers, or even rebuild their hugely expensive website so that people can actually use it easily. Fiddling while Rome burns.
  8. Marketing is making what you can sell: it’s not trying to sell what you can make. So many startups fail very rapidly simply because there isn’t a market for their products. All the best selling and marketing and advertising in the world can’t help you if nobody wants to buy. Marketing is selling. End of.
  9. The only book worth reading: I’ve read so many books about advertising, copywriting, branding, marketing, positioning, strategy, selling…you name it.  But the only book I’d insist everyone in marketing reads is Influence by Robert Cialdini. It explains the psychology of how people can be persuaded to do stuff. It’s not even a book about marketing, but the principles explained in it underpin every single form of successful selling. Things like Authority, Scarcity and Reciprocation. Most people in marketing have no clue about any of these, but learn this stuff and you will be guru-like in your approach to everyday marketing issues.
  10. Nobody wants to read your shit: the most important lesson of all. There is a transaction that underpins all successful communications. You can read the full story in my post HERE! but in a nutshell, your customer gives you an initial tiny nanosecond of their time and attention in return for learning something useful from you or being entertained. So whether it’s your website homepage, an email, a press ad, a TV commercial, an online banner, a DM letter…or any other kind of marketing you can think of…this essential rule applies. And once you understand this, you will use different kinds of pictures, different kinds of typography, different kinds of headlines, different kinds of body copy. And the world will be your oyster.


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