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Is marketing a science?

Most departments within a business conduct their day-to-day activities based on the perceived rules, processes, best-practices, metrics and targets. However, many marketers often begin to fail at marketing when they start to fall in line with the rationale of most of the corporate world.

Think about most teams within a business; finance being the standout, but also operations, logistics, production etc. They’re all on the lookout for a winning procedure that can be copied, repeated and optimised. There tends to be a right and wrong way to do things in some departments. In some practices of business, if you do things in the wrong way, people will be injured or people could end up in prison. It’s all very scientific. If you speak to business owners and marketers about whether marketing is a science or an art you’ll get a range of different answers.

There are of course elements of marketing practice that do well for the implementation of the scientific method, however, the majority of marketing practice doesn’t really work this way.

The reality is there can never really be a standard approach to marketing, because if everyone followed the same thought processes and the same implementation then everyone would end up doing the same things, looking and sounding the same. It’s a race to the middle-ground. I call this brand camouflage.

By chasing the middle ground – by camouflaging your brand so it looks like everyone else – you lose the mental monopoly that makes your business come to mind when people try to overcome the problem you’re solving, or when they’re choosing between two propositions that essentially are the same thing.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increasing number of science words creep into business the lexicon. Many departments continue to look to science for direction, however, it’s interesting that marketing continues to take its vernacular from military terminology. And that’s because marketing and military strategy are very similar.

One of the central tenets of military strategy is attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy and that means being able to think it laterals, in ways the average person on the street wouldn’t see as conventionally logical. If you always took the most logical course of action the enemy would know what you’d plan to do before you’d even planned it.

Unless you’re in a really innovative, entrepreneurial business, the culture of the business will probably be one of ROI, risk-mitigation and rationalism, whereas marketers need to be thinking about game theory.

Increasingly, I see marketers who want to or are forced to play by the rules of other parts of the business and all that happens is marketing output becomes the middle of the road; a diluted soup of nothingness. The essence of marketing isn’t about just doing, it’s about being creative and doing something different, but most marketers these days turn up and do their master’s’ bidding in the most efficient manner possible and what comes out of the other end is predictable mediocrity.

From my experience, the clash of heads that arises when one part of the business works for efficiency, and where the other is looking for the magic that happens every now and then, can result in power struggles and mistrust.

So as marketers we spend a lot of time analysing, to try to bring our activity in line or at least make it understandable to a finance team. Sure you can make some guesstimates in marketing, but you can never really tell if something is going to resonate with an audience and just take off.

I have my eccentricities and I am fully aware that the reserves of differentness are where I’ve gone when I’ve come up with the best ideas and best campaigns. I am also fully aware that to many this can appear illogical and it’s easier in the modern workplace to lose your job for not conforming to the perceived wisdom of logic than it is to lose it for a lack of creativity.

Of course, marketing is one of the most subjective initiatives a business is likely to undertake. I like to think that my experience – having worked in marketing for about 15 years – gives me a deeper understanding about what I embark on than many others. But still, I like to dress it up in science to justify what it is I’m working on, to present it to others and get them to agree it’s a good idea. At least that way there is some form of collective accountability if things don’t quite go to plan, which they often won’t when you’re dealing such a wide range of factors.

I admit that I often sit up until the early hours analysing analytics trends to try to determine how I can justify my choices. And rather than this being about making sure the best results come out of the other end of the marketing process, it’s often a defence mechanism. There are rules and best practices that we all conform to, but let’s be honest SEO is probably the least scientific discipline in digital marketing!

I also see myself spending increasing amounts of time on analysis of campaigns, where the results of the analysis have little bearing on future campaigns – or at least I gain no greater insight than I achieved during the campaign itself.

While other departments are talking the talk of pure science, perhaps we should turn away from the logic of pure science and start looking to the social sciences and world of psychology. Because without a greater understanding of what really makes the human brain tick and what drives buying decisions, all the marketing analysis, and all the data in the world is still fairly irrelevant.

But whilst we do look towards psychology for inspiration I would suggest that we never lose sight of the military terminology that was introduced into the marketing lexicon. It was done so for a reason. Because repeatability is predictability, and in marketing that means mediocrity. And who wants that?

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