The Wizard

4 November 2013

Off To See The Marketing Wizard: Why You Need To Look Behind The Curtain

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Questions the Answers…

A recent class discussion brought up one of my core tenets: the need to question everything in the market.

We were discussing Charity: Water, a nonprofit that achieved near celebrity status because of its use of social media and videos:

Great ad, right? When asked to analyze why the video worked, a student described it as “authentic” and “transparent” — two clichés now so overused, misused, and abused that they no longer have meaning. Analysts need to ditch easy labels and go behind the curtain to see if the wizard is real or just smoke and mirrors.

In Charity: Water’s case, the founder (who oddly goes unnamed in the video) is Scott Harrison, a previously successful New York City club promoter. No wonder hundreds of people attended his birthday party! Being an NYC club promoter also gave him valuable connections that helped launch and market Charity: Water. Where was this info in an “authentic” and “transparent” video, which makes the organization sound like it started with nothing?

In addition, some have questioned Charity Water’s methods and actual impact.

The student’s response (partially in jest): “You’re a hard man… Yes! Charity: Water has critics. Don’t we all?”

Yes! But there’s a big difference between criticism and critical thinking: criticism is saying “bad” or “good”; critical thinking is asking “why” and “how.”

The business world abounds in snake oil pushed by smooth talkers. Yet instead of taking a hard critical look at the hype and talking heads, too many managers nod in agreement and resort to jargon to justify poorly informed choices:

  • “Our social media may not be ROI-positive, but it’s stimulating engagement.” In other words, your social media team likes to chat on company time.
  • “In order to stimulate sales, we need to leverage big data.” In other words, your team wants more expensive computers and software, when the fundamental problem is a defective product.

We’re seeing it all around: Best Buy, Pepsi, and other companies who bought into the social media hype and wound up paying a steep price.

By persistently asking WHY and HOW, we might see the pulleys and levers and mirrors, and learn what can or can’t be done. We can’t blame the man behind the curtain for fooling us; he’s just pushing buttons. When we settle for jargon and clichés in place of hard questions, we ultimately fool ourselves.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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