Effectiveness ignorance has left American marketing lagging behind the rest of the world

Effectiveness ignorance has left American marketing lagging behind the rest of the world

America’s marketing influence is diminishing because of a failure to apply the concepts of effectiveness that have served marketers in other countries so well. All is not lost though, it’s time for the country’s marketers to come back and lead as they once did.

Thirty years ago I had three remarkable experiences. I finished the data collection stage of my PhD in marketing. I was offered a Thouron Scholarship to become a visiting scholar at Wharton. And I realised I was heading for mediocrity.

The three things were sequential. The PhD at Lancaster University required time to be written up. The scholarship meant I could head to Wharton and do just that. And being there led to a faculty seminar where I presented my doctoral research and arrived at my humbling personal conclusion.

The Wharton faculty back then was God-like. Paul Green, who invented conjoint. Barbara Kahn, one of the great consumer researchers of all time. Jerry Wind, the marketing strategist’s strategist. They all came to my lunchtime seminar and listened, attentively, to a twenty-something English guy talk about advertising and kids. At the end they were polite but dismissive. Pleasant but patronising. I don’t want to portray the department as anything but supportive and generous, but when I finished my talk they collectively and correctly exuded a vibe of “that was weird, back to work”.

Afterwards I sat alone in the seminar room in Philadelphia, crestfallen, and considered my options. I could take the hint, head home, and join a marketing faculty at a British university. Spend the next thirty years revelling in my brief time at Wharton and the abject mediocrity that followed it. I could lecture about marketing to hordes of uncaring 19-year-olds. Hide from the companies that did proper marketing. Marry a nice sociology professor. Wear cardigans. Worry about academic titles. Drink wine from Sainsburys. Become a legend in my own lecture theatre.

Or I could buckle the fuck down and work out why my PhD was not good enough. Use the astonishing resources and access that Wharton bestowed to improve my research, my thesis and myself. And try to become an American-grade marketing professor.

And that last bit meant something. In the 20th Century marketing was American. The discipline, the theories, the textbooks, and the approach. To arrive at Wharton in 1994 was to see a future that was not just untenable in the UK, it was one nobody back home was even aware of. Marketing was a decade ahead of anything in the UK. The American marketers I met, academics and practitioners, were so advanced it made my head spin.

Absent friends

I wrote that last paragraph for two reasons. Partly because I am going to spend the remaining ones making the opposite point. And partly because I don’t want this column to appear anti-American. I love the United States. I lived there for many years. I love Americans. If not for a big night in North London and the subsequent surprise of an Australian wife, I would be there now. Happy. With a big bucket of coffee, higher cholesterol and a season ticket for Fenway. It is my favourite place and Americans are my favourite people.

And that is why I say with love, with respect and gratitude – America – you are behind. We are living in a golden era of effectiveness. But those golden rays of knowledge dim whenever I approach American shores. It’s not uncommon these days to see a passionate discussion on LinkedIn between multiple marketers about some aspect of effectiveness. It might be ESOV, distinctive assets, attention theory, wearout or any number of things. A notable aspect of the debate is not what is being said but who is not involved. Americans are not involved. Germans are. Brits are. Aussies are. Randos from South Africa are. Singaporeans drop by. But people from the biggest marketing country in the world rarely input or react.

I was thinking about this silence and the subsequent defect in marketing quality while listening to the ‘On Strategy’ podcast this week. It’s a great show. It may be the best marketing podcast of them all. And its new three-part series explores how companies and agencies can future proof their strategy. It’s excellent and features the best and brightest marketing minds.

But its host, Fergus O’Caroll, also has a bee in his bonnet about American effectiveness. O’Caroll, an Irishman who has worked in the US for decades, has (I think) the exact same historical respect and current disappointment with American marketing as me. “I’ve been doing this show for a couple of years,” he explains at one point in the first episode of the series. “I’ve been continually surprised and frustrated by the fact that we do not seem in my opinion to have the level of culture of effectiveness that they do in other markets around the world.”

And that is why I say with love, with respect and gratitude – America – you are behind.

“Maybe,” he later asks his American-based guests at the end of the series, “what is missing is an agreed upon way of looking at effectiveness, when we look at Binet and Field, when we look at Byron Sharp, when we look at Analytic Partners here in the US, and we look at the Effie’s, at shows like this… maybe what we are missing is a shared understanding of what effectiveness can be. Not just in terms of ‘work has to be effective’. But what are the components of effectiveness? The philosophy that underpins it?”

Push back

And what’s remarkable about this series isn’t just that O’Caroll is brave enough to raise this point in the epicentre of American marketing. It’s the responses he gets from his experienced, expert, highly articulate guests. All of them, politely but resolutely, push back.

“The challenge is that all of that work is valuable,” Jeff McCrory the CSO at American agency Mischief replied. “But it’s kind of like effectiveness in theory and all of us day to day have to deal with effectiveness in practice. It’s useful if we could find a way to get clients to pay attention to it in the aggregate. It’s not useful on any given project because every project has specific deliverables that are not in the aggregate. It’s literally real now.”

Tom Morton, a brilliant Brit who made the move to the US fifteen years ago, offered an alternative explanation. “The idea of berating American business for not reading enough Binet and Field is just not going to happen,” he argued in the third episode. “It’s an exotic practice. I think it may rely on the translation by people that are native to the US to make it relevant. The idea that we can do this by showing lots of case studies of TV ads for jars of jam from the UK is probably not going to happen.”

It’s a perspective that fellow guest Bonnie Wan, head of brand strategy at GSP, agreed with in the podcast. “I love you Tom!” she exclaimed when Morton has finished. “I love the perspective that you recognise the differences of the market!”

And as much as I enjoyed the perspectives of all the guests in the first series, I have to call bullshit on all their explanations and justifications. Bullshit.

Time to act

America is behind in marketing. It is behind because most of its marketers are ignorant of and inactive in applying the concepts of effectiveness that – thanks to Ehrenberg-Bass, Field and Binet, and a host of other thinkers – are entirely clear and accessible to all. These “theories” are not impractical at the coalface of marketing. If ever there was an example of perfectly applicable concepts it is in the current, uber-practical literature on effectiveness.

American marketing urgently needs to pull its ethnocentric finger out of its ass and try learning from others who may, and currently probably do, know more about marketing.

And they are not being ignored because of their “exotic” focus on strange, unknown brands and markets that are hard to decode for those living and working in America either. Change “jam” to “jelly” and use Google to work out that ITV is a bit like NBC and everything is clear. Try asking the Germans, the Mexicans or the Chinese about having to learn English before they could decipher the world of marketing and see how much sympathy they have for your plight. American marketing urgently needs to pull its ethnocentric finger out of its ass and try learning from others who may, and currently probably do, know more about marketing.

American exceptionalism was the reason that so many of us were blown away by the quality of marketing in the 20th Century. But it’s now becoming the reason that American marketing is so far behind the rest of the world.

Ignorance of effectiveness is the reason US marketing lags behind other marketing cultures. And that same ignorance is also the reason why so few American marketers are aware that they are so far off the global pace.

I am struck by how much money and time American teams spend on stuff other than understanding marketing properly these days. Their obsession with multiple pointless tech stacks. With ESG. With all kinds of other things other than marketing. And I know of three great American marketers who have all chosen to work within other departments within their firms, not marketing, to avoid the BS and to do “proper marketing” free from their cloying, out of touch and entirely useless marketing colleagues.

Exceptions to the rule

Of course, there are exceptions. What McDonald’s does in its home market is first class, for example. P&G remains the world’s most American corporation and also the greatest marketing company on the planet. There will always be superb American brand strategy and advertising execution to behold. But there is not as much of it as there should be. America is literally ten times the size of Australia, five times the size of the UK. We should be seeing what we saw in the 20th Century: this scale and its associated network effects ensuring America produces more leading marketing than everywhere else combined. But that’s just not the case anymore.

And when you work for American companies that have global marketing teams you see this disparity first hand. These teams aren’t following HQ in America for marketing direction. Not because of the age-old desire to apply local strategies to local markets. But because the US team are often off the pace. And their affiliate countries know it and know why. Local marketers are better trained, more knowledgeable and generally superior to their American peers. The disparity is real.

Again, I am not trying to portray all American marketers as sub-par. Just most of them. There are still world class marketers living and working in the US. Peter Weinberg and Jon Lombardo are probably the best marketing scholars I know and single-handedly have become LinkedIn’s greatest marketing assets. If you asked me for the best marketing academic on the planet I would reply Koen Pauwels from Northeastern University. He knows more about effectiveness than anyone. Granted, he’s Belgian. But he’s lived in Boston a long time and it’s a very low bar.

I don’t want to sound bitter or vituperative. My message that America is behind is not a vindictive one, it’s a plaintive cry for the country’s marketers to come back and lead again. And I want to keep it upbeat because American marketers don’t respond well to critical discussions of any kind in my experience. They worry too much that feelings will be hurt or that by singling out someone (in this case everyone) there is a risk of exclusion and embarrassment. It’s a genuine issue in American marketing teams as anyone that has spent time working there will attest. Everyone is so worried about the fucking optics no one is looking at the customer anymore.

But I need to say it. I need to tell American marketers that their general level of marketing is weak. That they are behind. That their knowledge and application of effectiveness is poor. That their excuses for not being better at marketing are soft. That they are a pale imitation of their recent predecessors.

Stop making excuses America. Open your minds. Learn about effectiveness. Step up. Suck it the fuck up. Get better at marketing again. We miss you.