Marketing by numbers – why you end up with nought

July 26, 2014


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


  1. Ryan James July 26, 2014 Reply

    By god Jim, I think you've just nailed it in one!

    Yesterday you told me that this is probably the hardest blog you've ever written... well, well done you, it's also probably the best you've ever written, and probably one of the best blogs anyone has written on the subject of marketing in many years - bang on!

    For me it's almost always 'the brand' that's gone missing when sales and marketing fail to deliver, not the wrong systems or processes. Yes, systems and processes help make the most of a strong brand or indeed help compensate for a poor brand, but 'if there's no chemistry between boy and girl, no amount of marriage counselling is going to help fix the problem'.

    Bang on Mr O'Connor, I salute you.

    • Jim July 28, 2014 Reply

      Hey Ryan,

      Glad you like it. I started and scrapped it so many times!



  2. Lizzie Everard August 19, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jim,

    Good post, but I think you're too harsh on Bryony and it's unfair to single her book out to make your argument. Yes, she's making a scientific system that's clear for lots of people to follow—which some of us more confused types are quite relieved about!—yet she does also point out that you have to allow some emotion into the mix for any of this to work.

    I reckon Bryony's stuck to her 'logic' niche here, knowing full well that there's some excellent writing out there that gets more soulful on the matter.

    Some of us tick with logic, others with none at all! Most of us will be a mysterious mix of both logic and its delightfully messy counterparts and for what it's worth I AM glad the rules are there so I have a piste off which to jump.

    Live and let live, eh?


    • Jim August 22, 2014 Reply

      Hi Lizzie,

      Thanks for comment. I knew I was going to stir up some discussion with this topic and pressed delete a few times!

      I wasn't intending to "pick on" Bryony's book particularly, but it's just one that I'm familiar with, and it does typify an approach - I've tried to make clear it's the approach that bothers me, not her book per se.

      Also, I don't have a problem with logic, numbers, scientific approach. In fact I have a problem with creativity that's NOT founded on these things (because then it's just self-indulgent).

      But I do have a problem with marketing that's SOLELY based on those things. I'm pleading for logic, numbers and scientific approach PLUS emotion, soul and art. Hence the para "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!"

      Also, credit to Bryony for actually writing a book (more than I've done!) and realise she had to stick tight to her system/topic (especially given her title/theme). I was just trying to put the approach in a wider context.

      When I next see you I'll buy you a coffee - provided you promise you won't dump it in my lap!

  3. Sonja Jefferson August 20, 2014 Reply

    Hello Jim.

    You make some really strong points there. I totally agree with you about the need to value creativity in marketing. Perhaps for a while this got lost in marketing conversation. You are absolutely right to bang that drum.

    But I think that some people - particularly those who have started up their own businesses - need a framework before they can loose their creativity. They want to understand the big picture first before they have the confidence to walk on the wild side and let their inner Bernbachs run free.

    Marketing is tough to get your head round for many business owners - to the extent that potentially brilliant businesses don't do it at all. Bryony's book gives them a structure and understanding. I don't think she's ever knocked the need for creativity.

    It's horses for courses isn't it Jim? The structured approach works for some but not for others. Live and let live I say.

    • Jim August 22, 2014 Reply

      Hi Sonja,

      Thanks for measured comment. I've tried to clarify my standpoint in reply to Lizzie above (so I won't repeat).

      I totally agree about business owners and value of the watertight approach for them (and me - it has helped me get the process into better order in my head). But I do feel, although a lot of people won't want to hear it, that this alone is not enough to create a really successful marketing campaign (for reasons I explained).

      Ditto offer of coffee (see my reply to Lizzie) but with same caveat.

  4. Amy Grenham August 21, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jim
    Thanks for writing this piece. I, too, have read Bryony's Watertight Marketing, but have a different take on this.

    Your description of this book as 'marketing by numbers' is actually spot on, but that's not a criticism. For marketers working with small businesses, there is no 'data' department to fallback on, no report from 'digital', limited budget. You can be a (very) busy department of one.

    However, having the confidence of knowing this framework is in place changes that. This is my experience. I've been able effectively harness the real creative power of the whole team and, in the words of a famous song, LET IT GO!

    I'll leave you with that ringing in your ears....

    • Jim August 22, 2014 Reply

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment. You raise similar points to Lizzie and Sonja, so I hope my reply to them goes some way to responding to you also.

      I'm sure the watertight system has given confidence to many. Not familiar with the song Let it go (and searching online I've found a few with that title) but I think I know what you're driving at.

      Hopefully we'll meet up some time and I'll buy you a coffee too (this post is going to cost me!)

  5. Sonja Jefferson September 6, 2014 Reply

    Cheers Jim - looks like the sisterhood came out in force in response to this post! Offer of coffee most definitely accepted. Let's chat emotion, soul and art (with a smattering of logic)! See you soon. Sonja

    • Jim September 8, 2014 Reply

      Hi Sonja,

      Yes, don't mess with the sisterhood! But at least I got a bit of discussion stirred up...

      Hope you had a good August break. I'm just back from Canadian Rockies and very jet lagged. Will come into Bristol and buy you that coffee soon,



  6. Mark Baines November 6, 2014 Reply

    I haven't read her book and I know she's a great thinker and communicator and a lovely person to boot, but I spend much of my professional life encouraging clients not to do it themselves. Sorry Bryony.
    It pays to invest in us 'experts'.
    I only write headlines. I don't do body copy. I write by the seat of my pants and it works.
    I tell them, that as Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac's work, "That's not writing, it's typing".

  7. Dario Canale February 10, 2015 Reply

    Hi Jim

    Excellent blog, as usual. I couldn't agree with you more, you're 100% spot-on!



    • Jim February 11, 2015 Reply

      Hi Dario,
      Glad you liked it! As you can see, some others didn't.... I just felt I had to stand up in defence of "focused creativity" amid the growing assertion that anyone can produce great ads and marketing just by following a simple system. Who needs creative people when you can just do it by the book?
      Cheers, Jim

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