I’ve just read Watertight Marketing by Bryony Thomas.  It’s good – full of excellent practical advice on how to tighten up your marketing to get a better return on your investment.  But, like a huge number of other marketing books, courses and seminars that present a system for success, it fills me with misgivings.

I’m not picking on this book in particular – it’s just a good (as in “one of the better ones” and “representative”) example of a type.  It’s the type, as a whole, that I have a problem with.

These “How to…” books are useful.  But only as far as they go.

As Hamlet says,

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

There’s more to marketing than these books would have you believe

Simplicity is seductive

The world is complicated.  People are lazy, so they are hungry for simple solutions.  Whether it’s losing weight, or winning customers, a simple system that’s easy to follow is going to be popular.

Marketing people have figured out this is what people want.  They’re in marketing, duh!  So you get a lot of books like Bryony’s that provide a simple way of looking at things, with simple diagrams, and a simple process to follow.

Her book is useful, because it gives you a clear picture of what it takes to put a watertight sales funnel together.  And it talks you through all the stages – “do this, then do this, then do this…”

Simple is what sells the book.  Simple is what makes it useful.  But, being simple, it has shortcomings.  In other words, the very thing that makes it good also makes it flawed.

Reality check

Life ain’t simple.

So just reading this particular “how to” book, and getting your head around this specific system, won’t make you a successful marketing practitioner.

It’s a start.  And reading more books like this, on “how to win with AdWords”, or “how to market with SMS”, or “how to manage your metrics”, and all those other topics crying out for a “how to…” guide, will plug further gaps in our knowledge.

They’ll give you a sound foundation based on best practice.  And they’ll help you avoid many of the most common mistakes.  You’ll be a solid, dependable and efficient professional, in a plodding sort of way.  But that’s not enough.

Invisibility is not the goal

If this is all you do, the work you produce will be formulaic.  Because that’s what you’re following, a formula.  It will take you to the same place as all the others who are studiously putting one foot in front of the other on the prescribed path.

In other words you are spending a load of time and money just to lose yourself in the crowd.

Deep purple

At the start of Bryony’s book she writes “If you’re the owner of a small business this book is for you.  If you’re a highly ambitious owner of a small business heading towards being a big business, or your goal is to build a business that sells for millions, this book is a must.”

In other words she’s primarily writing for “challenger brands” – something we’ll come back to.

If you are to challenge the big boys, and become one yourself, you can’t afford to waste a penny of your marketing budget (which is where Bryony’s book comes in – do what she says and you’ll save money).

But you’re also going to have to do something else (which is where Bryony’s book won’t help).  You must come up with a message that punches way above its weight – one that makes a big impact with a puny budget.

In his book Purple Cow Seth Godin gives loads of examples of small businesses that did just that, by being remarkable – they realised that to stand out in a world of black and white cows they had to be purple.

Does your marketing cause erectile dysfunction?

So you’ve got to do something different, something that makes you jump out from the crowd.  But getting attention is not enough – you’ve got to communicate it in a way that moves people, a way that wins hearts and minds.

Marketing is like sex – nothing happens till people get excited.  And if you spend all your time stuck in a bean-counter, task-orientated, box-ticker, don’t-think-for-yourself or colour-outside-the lines-frame of mind then you’ll never create a single communication, let alone a brand, that’ll ever make the earth move.

Define the problem.  Work out your objective.  Draw up a plan.  Use systems, formulas, step-by-step best practice approaches for all their worth.  But there comes a point where you’ve got to cut loose and let your imagination off the leash.  Otherwise all you’ll be is same old same old.  And boring as ****.

Two heads are better than one

What we’re talking about here is a change of heads.  Put your Mr Logic head on to do all the groundwork.  Then put your Mr Creative head on and go walk the wild side.  Where will you end up?  Somewhere more interesting than you are now!

Way back in the Mad Men era there were two characters who personified these two very different approaches.  David Ogilvy, coming from a market research background, was a methodical, analytical, left-brain sort of chap who tended to produce campaigns, backed up data and piles of best practice, that were hard to argue against – logical, but not terrible lovable.


Ad for the world's loudest clock?

Ad for the world’s loudest clock?

Ogilvy’s approach worked fine for big and well established brands that had lots of money to spend.

Bill Bernbach, however, was the exact opposite.  He was a genius at helping smaller challenger brands take on the market leaders.  Like Avis.

An ad that tries harder

An ad that tries harder

Or become market leaders.  Like VW.

Lateral not literal

Lateral not literal


How to turn a car made by Nazis appear lovably American shortly after the war

How to turn a car made by Nazis appear lovably American shortly after the war


Go forth and be creative

Bernbach’s words are hard to improve on, so I’ll just quote him.  “A company will spend years in research and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a point of difference for its product, and then use run-of-the-mill advertising to convey that difference to the people.  Why?  They must know that if their ad looks like all others, their product will be classed with all others.  So often the words are saying ‘Look how different I am’, while the total ad says, ‘Pay no attention to what I say, I’m really one of the boys’.”

And here, for me, is the killer.  “There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

In the same letter (his retirement letter, describing how he has been searching for people to replace him) he adds “I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.”  He complained that those who follow formulas exhibit “sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas.” They could defend their work “on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshipping a ritual instead of the God.”

In other words he passionately believed that great advertising, marketing, branding (call it what you will), has a soul.  Like great art, music, literature, architecture and even cookery, it’s created by people who first mastered the rules, then went off piste with a passion.  Think Picasso, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Gaudi and Heston Blumenthal.  Or, put it another way, you don’t get the Mona Lisa, a work of sublime mastery and mystique that transcends any explanation, if you stick to painting by numbers.

Mona Lisa picture credit