Why do advertising gurus recycle
the same old pap?
Adapted from my book Of Marketing and Emasculated Goats (2016). The focus of this piece is advertising, but I have found the principle applies to lots of other kinds of alleged gurus in lots of other alleged fields.
I would find it less disturbing were the article unique. It is not. The advertising trade press publishes many such embarrassments and passes them off as vital insights.
Why do we hold up as “gurus” and “consultants” those who regurgitate the tired, the mundane, the obvious? Why does no one stand up and yell, “Hey! How about something to broaden our horizons, add to our skills, make us rethink our approach, make us angry, and maybe even make us better at our jobs?”
I am not challenging the importance of fundamentals. I review some of them in my book Of Marketing and Emasculated Goats, from which I shamelessly lifted this entry. (Don’t worry. I obtained my permission.) What I am challenging is the practice of bestowing guru status upon people who foist clichés and platitudes as “insights.” To be sure, there are useful gurus, but they are fewer in number, less famous, and a lot less rich than their platitude-spinning counterparts.
I suspect that there are two reasons that shallow, platitudinous gurus exist in greater number and make a whole lot more money.
Suspected Reason 1: No one likes a consultant who tells you that you’re doing things wrong. Unless, that is, “doing things wrong” means “not realizing how great you are and doing more of it.” Show advertising people why their award-winning work lacks selling power and you can kiss your guru career goodbye. Tell them that they have a certain je ne sais quoi, that they have a rare, intuitive gift for recognizing great work when they see it, and that anyone who objects just doesn’t get it, and they will buy your books and pay you to give keynotes at conventions.
I used to teach a two-day seminar on predictive advertising methods for the Direct Marketing Association. In New York, after I had challenged typical pre-research methods and suggested better ones, the creative director of a sizable agency made this revealing remark: “You want us to go back and tell management and clients to change our research methods? It’s not going to happen.” Note that he didn’t question what I’d presented. Rather, he made a telling observation about egos and the course of least resistance. The agency’s fiduciary responsibility to give the client its most effective work would have to take a back seat.
Change requires humility followed by effort. It’s much easier and way more romantic to stay the course and dismiss challenges as torpedoes to be damned.
To be fair, the don’t-make-me-change frame of mind is human nature. Marketers have no exclusive right to it, but neither are we immune.
Suspected Reason 2: The few times I have visited with alleged gurus, I have been surprised at how little substance many of them have in the first place. Not a few have built their careers on gathering and repeating the clichés and platitudes on which other alleged gurus have built their careers.
Yet they are not to be blamed, for in fact it is our fault. These “gurus” deliver no more nor less than what We The Market demand. See Suspected Reason 1.
I have spent my career trying to escape that trap. I wrote the above-referenced book in hopes of inspiring a reader or two to eschew the easy path and stubbornly cling to knowing and doing what works. If you do, you’ll earn a greater return for your clients, but you’ll never become a guru.