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  • Bob Hoffman

MARKETING'S UNTOLD STORIES


Have you ever wondered why the highly touted marketing miracles you read about in the press never seem to work for you?

In recent years, copywriters, branding experts, strategic thinkers, and advertising and marketing agencies have evolved a conceit by which they refer to themselves as “storytellers.”

Although it is largely self-inflating bullshit, I enjoy this conceit. It puts an emphasis on the concept of stories and helps explain and expose one of the great logical errors of our industry. I call it the “untold stories” problem. Here’s how it works.

Most of the information we get about the success or failure of advertising and marketing initiatives comes in the form of a story:

  • A press release

  • An article in a trade publication

  • A feature in the business section of a newspaper, website, or on TV

  • A case history presented at an industry conference or event

The stories that reach us are often superficial. They are mostly just headlines lightly dusted with a few specifics, some meticulously curated numbers, and a generous helping of spin.

As a result, the narratives we get are often devoid of some important specifics that are key to understanding the true nature of the “story.”

Nonetheless, for every story to which we are exposed, there are a thousand untold stories we don’t get to read or hear about. These are the non-spectacular stories, created in non-spectacular fashion, by non-spectacular brands. In other words, they are about 99% of everything that ever happens in marketing.

I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to suggest that we are far more likely to read success stories than failure stories. Ask any business editor. The number of PR releases she gets about a brilliant new activity will outnumber the releases she gets about a dismal failure by about a zillion to one.

After all, who wants to alarm the Board, embarrass the CEO, scare the shareholders, and frighten the puppy dogs by revealing what bewildered bumblers we are? It’s a lot wiser to be forthcoming about our successes and circumspect about our failures.

When this becomes terribly dangerous is not when it is applied to a specific case history, but when it is applied to primary information we get about marketing fundamentals.

I would wager great stacks of money that the untold stories of the mediocre performance of most marketing activities outnumber the widely circulated stories of success by a hundred to one. This is doubly true of (but not limited to) the trendy shiny-new-object activities like NFTs, content marketing, virtual reality, native advertising (remember that old thing), AI, the metaverse, “personalization,” and whatever new marketing miracle happens to be trending this week.

The narratives we are exposed to about these activities, and the belief we have in their efficacy, are profoundly skewed by the bias toward trumpeting success, not failure. This is perilous. It leads to conferences, books and, god help us, webinars extolling the effectiveness of marketing activities based on wildly unrepresentative samples. It gives our entire industry a false impression of the value of these undertakings. It leads us to throw money at expensive, wasteful tactics. And it reinforces the lemming-like attraction of naive marketers to the trendy fantasies that have dominated our industry for years.

 

It is not that the stories themselves aren’t true. It is that the stories being reported are likely to be wildly divergent from the results to be found in the general population of experiences with the activity in question -- the vast majority of which go untold.

Before you take any story or report about an advertising or marketing activity as indicative of a general truth, you’d be wise to assume that the fact that it is being told at all makes it likely that it is one or two standard deviations from normal. You should assume that the overwhelming number of stories that haven’t been told on the subject are not nearly as rosy.

In marketing, the untold story is usually the real story.


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