A Marketer’s First Responsibility

What’s your first responsibility as a marketer? Is it to the brand? Growth? The bottom line? All the above?

Marketing exists to sell stuff. A lot of marketers would likely say their priority is to drive revenue through a variety of strategic approaches, from building the brand to more direct-response-oriented efforts. This bottom-line mentality is even more prominent online simply because we’ve gotten really good at tracking consumer behavior and transactions.

I’d like to suggest a different spin. It’s not new. A few industry voices have been discussing it recently, and my buddy Howard Gossage was all over it in the ’50s:

Our first responsibility should be to the consumer, period. We must respect the consumer first and above all else. Without the consumer, we have nothing.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around the TV ad model, what with TiVo, fragmentation, shrinking ratings, and so forth. Some of that talk can be dismissed as media hype, but the simple fact is the vast majority of people who can skip TV ads do. DVR growth has been overestimated for years, but we all know it’s going to happen. Momentum is finally increasing.

Gossage believed it’s inappropriate to barrage the consumer with intrusive, obnoxious advertising. He was speaking mostly of ill-conceived and dull advertising that merely bludgeons a consumer with the same message repeatedly, but he also had it in for billboards and other ad types that give nothing back. He saw consumer benefit in magazine advertising — it lowers the magazine’s cost. Broadcast ads make TV and radio programs free, no problem there. But billboards confounded him. As a consumer, I’m paying taxes to maintain roads. Why would someone clutter up the countryside with these ridiculous, oversized signs? It provides little value, and the vast majority are completely irrelevant.

His point was advertising must embrace a sort of social consciousness. As an ad developer, you must be aware of advertising’s effect (your ads in particular, and the industry’s in general) not only on the medium you’re in, but also on society at large. People don’t read advertising, he said (he worked mostly in print). “People read what interests them. Sometimes, it’s an ad.” As we advertisers barrage the consumer with more exposures every day, we’ll reach a tipping point. And if you lose the consumer, you lose everything.

Consider telemarketing. The industry oversaturated consumers with an intrusive tactic. Eventually, it enraged people. The government set up a national do-not-call list, and millions upon millions rush to sign up. Over 10 million phone numbers were registered in the first three days the registry opened, and nearly three short months later, it exploded to over 50 million.

Online has its share of intrusive ad formats, but intrusion alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Technology affords us the chance to do some really fun things with online advertising. But “can” doesn’t equal “should.”

Repetition of irrelevant, poor-quality creative that ultimately doesn’t bring value to the consumer is a bad thing. That’s what we must limit. Respect for the consumer should always be front and center, or we risk forcing people to ad blockers, cookie erasers, and all other manner of trying to get as far off the grid as possible while still getting the benefits of being online.

And if we drive consumers there, who do we market to?

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