Beware marketing thought leaders bearing fashionable truths

I just came back from a conference full of marketers. Marketing conferences challenge the mind — but not necessarily in the way that they should.

There are the talks that are intended to inspire. They are about being true to yourself and your brand, or the power of outstanding customer experience to inspire people. They only make you feel good as long as you don’t look too closely at them. After that they fall apart, because they are based on stories rather than proof.

Then there are the case-study heavy talks. They show how someone succeeded and then offer best-practices. These talks are problematic, too. For one thing, you only hear the success stories. No one talks about how they failed — failure doesn’t make for a good talk, because no one wants to hold up people who failed as a “thought leader.” The concentration on success stories only makes the whole thing an exercise in survivorship bias, and therefore suspect. And as Jay Acunzo has pointed out, “best practices” will never make you stand out; they apply differently in actual practice as compared to the petri dish that the speaker is describing.

Finally, there are the data-heavy talks. Marketers measure everything, and then they argue about which things are worth measuring. (Sales is a good metric, but so many other things affect it that it’s hard to tie any individual marketing activity or tactic to changes in sales.) The theme of these talks has to be “your mileage may vary.” The tactic that works for them may not have the same effect for you — you’re not marketing what they’re marketing. There is another problem too: today’s hot tactic rapidly becomes overused, after which there is a consumer backlash, causing the tactic to backfire. This applies whether you’re talking about pop-ups or Pinterest or podcasts.

The sum total of the whole series of presentations is to make all marketing an exercise in fashion. Somebody tells us that one thing is in, somebody else demonstrates how something else works, and some other person measures the effects of some other fashionable strategy they did last week. You need to keep up on the latest fashion and bring what you’ve learned back to the office, where it will inevitably look worse on you than it did on those people at the conference — but even so, falling behind what everyone else is trying would be unconscionable.

I wish I could fix these problems, but I don’t have a nice neat solution for you. In any case, here are some ideas:

  • Know your customers, solve their problems. This is the little black dress of marketing; it’s always in fashion.
  • Use the channels your customers are using. Which ones are those? That will take work to figure out.
  • Try stuff. If it works, keep making it better. If it doesn’t, figure out what went wrong. (Both obvious and impossible, I know.)
  • Take ideas away from these talks. But adapt them to your knowledge of your customers, your channels, your budget, and your skills. They’ll work because you know how to apply them to your situation, not because they worked for someone else.

That’s a nice set of platitudes for you. Maybe I’ll add a few sexy case study stories and turn them into a good keynote speech.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Very insightful. Authenticity is key. Evey best practice has to be tailored, aligned or abandoned based on your client’s context and needs. Don’t sell or influence, make the client fluent in the value you bring aligned with your fluency of the client’s aspirations.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and could not agree more. You have to understand your clients and your context. It’s really just trial and error–no magic bullets or 6-steps to success. I’m a big fan of Jay Acunzo and his book “Break the Wheel,” as well. It showed case studies, but did not highlight them as best practices rather they were examples of how to use one’s own context and information. Curious about this idea in the first paragraph re: marketing conferences “but not necessarily in the way that they should.” How would an excellent marketing conferences challenge the mind?