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Being a Contrarian: When the Common Wisdom Is Not So Common

Posted by Ron Jacobs on June 12, 2018


By nature, I am not a contrarian. I have written research papers, articles and books that are well researched and cite multiple sources. I seek agreement among more than one expert on best practices. That’s a safe and establishment point of view.

I am also not a reporter. I don’t just repeat what sources tell me is the most popular way to do things. Often, I get ideas from forward-thinking thought leaders inside and outside of the marketing community. These are leaders whose ideas may be visionary or innovative. I have always tried to get ahead of trends, and think about where the market is heading.  

I am intellectually curious. So, when I read about tools and techniques that have become part of marketing’s common wisdom, I wonder if I should be using them or recommending them to my clients. As I think about new ideas, I try to learn if the reported result is typical or even common for marketers that have tested the idea. It should be no surprise that marketers see different results when using the same techniques, even when they rely on so-called best practices. But if marketers follow best practices, shouldn’t they see the best results?

In marketing, there is no General Law of Relativity.

There are many theories, premises and hypotheses that govern physics. These theories are backed by mathematical formulas, and although challenged, they often stand for years. In marketing, there is no one like the late Stephen Hawking to challenge our ideas in a multi-disciplinary way. Part of Hawking’s genius was to create a mashup of ideas from different fields of physical theory: gravitation, cosmology, quantum theory, thermodynamics and information theory. These thought mashups often provided results that were counterintuitive, and helped Hawking to reach conclusions that were previously unthinkable.

Imagine if someone did the same in marketing. What if there was a theory unifying advertising, public relations, direct, database and digital marketing? Instead, marketers argue the benefits of each discipline, imagining that old theories have been supplanted by new theories. The common wisdom is that all the old ways of planning, creating and executing marketing communications are being replaced by digital tools, AdTech, MarTech and AI. But maybe the common wisdom isn’t true for every category or every size firm, or the ways that many organizations still do business.

A contrarian would question these ideas, and would not so readily accept what passes as gospel at the altars of marketing conferences and summits, only to get repeated across blogs and posts worldwide. There are many examples where ideas left unquestioned have slowed down transformation, not accelerated it. 

Ideas that are perfect for large enterprises are often not a good fit for small to mid-size businesses. Large firms have legacy processes that took years to put in place. It’s not easy to unseat and replace legacy processes. So, while marketers in one area of an organization may make progress, those in other areas may cling to comfortable ideas of the past. This often results in no gain.

Small and mid-size firms trying the exact same ideas as large firms often find that they don’t have the resources to invest in marketing experiments or ideas that may carry great risk. Maybe that is lucky for them. They also don’t have the same kinds of customers as larger firms. So, executing the same social media strategies, inbound marketing techniques or outbound marketing tools won’t provide the same results.

Are regulated industries so different from other organizations?

Marketers in regulated industries like banking, insurance, and utilities have a different set of issues. Some of the processes that they need to change are regulatory in nature. Unless the regulators bend, there is no changing them. However, many of the practices in regulated businesses weren’t put in place by regulators. They were put in place by people in regulated organizations. Sometimes they may reflect past regulations. Too often, they become barriers that are an unchallenged heritage of how these firms have done business. They are accepted practice, but no longer have anything to do with these firms being regulated or unregulated. They are an easy excuse for why innovation or transformation can’t move forward.  

When Jacobs & Clevenger proposed the use of social media to our electric and gas utility clients, our client contacts pushed back, explaining that their customers only cared enough to engage with the utility when there was a problem, such as when storms interrupted their power. Further, our clients argued that every online post from the utility would have to be reviewed by an attorney, like all other outbound communications and copy.

Legacy thinking initially kept utilities from testing social media as a customer service contact tool. Of course, their customers didn’t see it that way. As social media become more ubiquitous, our utility clients allowed some testing without the previous restrictions. Soon, utilities expanded this to provide information that customers considered critical during outages, such as the outage cause, the number of customers affected, and a time estimate of when the power would be restored. Utilities learned that overall satisfaction is significantly higher among customers who receive outage information than it is with those who don’t. Improved customer satisfaction scores are a key point with regulators who make decisions about rates and other issues for utilities.  

Don’t just accept the common wisdom. Question it.

Sometimes, best practices become common wisdom, but don’t provide the best results. A best practice may not be right in every case. Too often, a meme quickly spreads through the marketing ecosystem, repeated in countless blog posts, webinars, marketing summits and content. Just because no one questions these ideas doesn’t mean that they work every time. And, just because they were last year’s shiny new idea doesn’t mean that they will keep working tomorrow. Or, are even working today.

All innovations and transformations require risk. It’s not hard to find rationales for being risk averse. We are taught at an early age to be good, to be safe and to do the right things. We avoid anything that can attract criticism. We worry that our job may depend on it.

Yet our culture romanticizes and rewards the business revolutionaries, subversives and anarchists, people like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Warren Buffett. These are the contrarians in our midst that dare to think differently. Each is changing the world…well, at least the businesses in their categories. They think differently. They don’t follow the crowd, the common wisdom or the business legacies in their way.

Maybe there is a little of that rebel in me. I have spent my career in direct marketing, a field that was the ugly duckling of advertising. Today, all marketing and advertising uses the tools and techniques of direct marketing, from capturing and applying data, to using it to acquire, onboard, activate and create loyalty among customers. Analytics and measuring results are things that I starting learning and using on my first day.

Direct marketing now goes by many names: direct response, CRM and people-based marketing are just a few. Truly, direct marketing today is mostly just plain old marketing. So, I spend my time speaking and helping businesses, ad agencies, governmental organizations and others transform by applying data-driven principles that I have practiced and written about for years. These ideas were considered contrarian when I started my business years ago. 

So, should you be a contrarian? Only if you want to lead digital or business transformation in your world. How to become a contrarian? The following are some good articles and posts on what it means to be contrarian. Yes, it includes some risk. It also can result in great rewards.

Three points about contrarian thinking:

  1. Develop your own views, removed from the influence of mainstream thinking.
  2. Don’t succumb to euphoria or panic. Maintain a steady course.
  3. Continue to explore new paths and take unexpected steps forward.


Need help with transformation or becoming a contrarian? Just want to learn more about what it means? Contact me at ronjacobs@jacobsclevenger.com

Topics: Retail Industry, Digital Marketing

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