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10 lessons on marketing strategy from two of the world’s smartest men…

‘If you always read the same things as everyone else in your industry, you’ll only ever have the same thoughts.’

The usual suspects (Ritson, Sharp, Binet & Field etc) are brilliant marketing minds who have taught us all a lot. But these are the texts any good marketer worth their salt should also be reading. That stuff should be just the table stakes. There’s no edge.

I’m a big proponent of stealing with zeal from other disciplines and applying these learnings to marketing.

I love the idea of what Edward O. Wilson calls ‘consilience‘ – the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” on strong conclusions and create a common groundwork of explanation.

Basically, it’s a good case for being a generalist in what you read and learn about, rather than over specialising in one area. It’s a way to avoid the ‘man with a hammer‘ problem. 

Having a diverse range of lenses to apply to marketing problems has helped me immensely. It’s a ‘kaleidoscope’ way of thinking. Luckily, the data says its a good way to approach life too. Personal and professional ‘range’ (as David Epstein calls it) is of huge benefit.

There are plenty of people with lots to say about marketing, despite rarely ever mentioning it directly.

Investing

For me the sector that unknowingly has the most to say about marketing is investing. It’s amazing how reading or listening to the work of people like Morgan HouselBarry Ritholtzor Patrick O’Shaughnessy with a marketing lens can un-earth some incredible insights that make me better in the marketing game.

Two people in particular in the investing game really stand out to me. I’ve mentioned Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett before in my writing. Whole blogs like Farnam Street have devoted hours and hours to studying the wisdom of the two men.

But not much has been written about how their ideas apply to marketing and branding. I think there are plenty of things we can learn.

Specifically I was recently reading a book on the duo by Peter Bevelin. It’s a fantastic book that juxtaposes some of Munger & Buffett’s wordly wisdom with ideas from other disciplines. While slowly savouring the writing, I kept getting the feeling that one could easily swap in ‘marketing’ for ‘investing’ and a lot of the advice would still stay the same.

So, here, for my own benefit as well as yours, are 10 golden lessons on marketing strategy that I took from the book.

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1) Keep it simple – you only really need to get the big things right 

According to Buffett and Munger, “you can live with quite a bit and still succeed if you avoid the most important mistakes”. So long as you are right on the very, very few big things that matter, most of the time you’ll get the right outcomes.

They urge the reader to “always look for the answer in the most fundamental way possible” and to not get lost in the detail.

In a modern marketing world that seems to thrive on unnecessary complication and getting deep into the tactical, targeting weeds, this concept is very refreshing.

According to Buffett:

“there seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult. But I was taught that in investing, it’s not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results. What you must do is handle the basics well. Clarity simplicity and concreteness have coalesced into a kind of religion for me – a set of never forgotten guiding principles.”

You don’t need to get everything right as a marketer. Usually a good enough strategy that clearly states what we will and won’t do, that can spur you on to great tactical ideas is enough to be better than 90% of your competitors.

2) Even very smart people do very dumb things in groups 

The two talk about how a lot of poor investing strategy is really just down to mindless imitation of other people. It’s crowd folly – “the foolishness of groups of people who resemble lemmings jumping off a cliff”. This is partly what causes economic bubbles and busts.

It’s also a clear parallel in modern marketing, where many of our seemingly smartest minds have been seduced by the lure of purpose, overt targeting, millennials and other topics that are partly useful, and partly nonsense. It’s easy as a high ranking CMO to get caught up in the hype and to get lost in the shiny new thing that will cure all ills.

But it’s far harder, like in investing, to take a step back, see the wood from the trees and be contrarian. It’s harder to not follow the crowd and to take some stick for being different.

As Rory Sutherland has said, it’s easier to get fired for being unconventionally correct than it is for being conventionally wrong.

But those who stand apart from the crowd and don’t mindlessly follow trends tend to prosper.

3) When you have complexity, by nature you have fraud and mistakes

Buffett and Munger aren’t luddites, but have also lived long enough to understand that one of the greatest ways to avoid trouble is to keep it simple. They don’t like complexity and distrust systems that aren’t easy to understand. They advise that we ‘dread and avoid as much as you can rewarding people for what can easily be faked’.

Sound familiar?

For all its incredible benefits, this is the state of digital advertising summed up in a few lines – uber complicated fraud ridden, easy to fake and most people aren’t really sure how it works. The people at the top of the pyramid are incentivised to make it more complicated than necessary to position themselves as the ‘high priests’ of the discipline.

In fact the worst parts of modern advertising are a bit like the worst parts of modern finance – unnecessarily complicated, driven by algorithms that nobody except ‘experts’ understand, fraud ridden and ineffective in the long term.

The key lesson here? Keep it simple stupid. Don’t fall for the lure of complication and avoid systems that one can’t properly understand at all costs.

It’s fair to say that if Munger & Buffett were marketers, they wouldn’t be fans of programmatic advertising…

4) Learn most lessons from the experiences of others…

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