The Theory Trap

    “This plan is infallible!”
    –From the unspoken thoughts of Wile E. Coyote

Learning how to build successful marketing campaigns takes practice. You have to learn the hard way: by doing, making mistakes, and redoing. Theory can be helpful, but true insight comes from the friction between planning and execution.

Of the failures of the dot-bomb era, 99.9 percent resulted from overemphasis on theory and underemphasis on practice.

A theorist believes that the world works based on a set of rules, that you can read those rules in a book or an article, and that you can use those rules to design a successful marketing campaign.

I call this the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) approach to marketing, and it’s likely to be as successful in business as your average D&D player is in a singles bar.

The “X-Files” summed it up best in the classic episode, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” when a slovenly hacker pulls himself up in front of his interviewer and says, “I didn’t play all those years of D&D without learning something about courage!”– right before the camera shows him cowering and whimpering with fear.

That kind of second-hand knowledge is almost always useless; the rest of the time, it actually hurts your chances.

I’m not knocking education; as I’ve said before, I’m the product of the world’s finest and most expensive institutions of higher learning. However, classes don’t teach you how to run a business.

A practitioner may work with rules but understands that rules were meant to be broken, and that the effectiveness of any given rule that you follow is always in a state of flux.

One of the old rules was this: Spend a ton of money to build a national brand overnight. Theorists who treated that law as immutable are now on permanent vacation. Practitioners follow a rule as long as it’s clear that it still applies, but they are willing to shed their prior beliefs and take a 90-degree turn at a moment’s notice.

I call this the “no-huddle” approach to marketing. You must always read your environment — and be ready to change your play, your formation, even your entire philosophy in less than 30 seconds. There’s no time to huddle and call plays from a set script. Even if there were enough time, blindly executing a seven-step drop against a blitz formation is a recipe for disaster.

America Online’s Steve Case is the epitome of a great no-huddle marketer. When he took over a small, struggling online service provider known as Quantum Computer Services, AOL was a pipsqueak among titans. Established players such as Prodigy (backed by Sears and IBM) and CompuServe (owned by tax preparation giant H&R Block) had the young upstart outranked and outflanked. Case focused his team on building the easiest-to-use service, and he marketed opportunistically.

In 1994, however, sensing that the masses were finally ready to embrace the online world, he launched his famous carpet-bombing campaign, making AOL disks ubiquitous, universal, and the perfect dorm-room coasters. This unprecedented and aggressive approach allowed AOL to leapfrog its larger, more established competitors and become the world’s largest online service provider.

Then, once AOL had achieved market saturation, Case pulled off the biggest coup of all: using AOL’s dot-com stock to buy Time Warner, the world’s largest entertainment company.

Case and his team at AOL changed plays repeatedly, overwhelming opponents with their ability to strike quickly and decisively. He wasn’t following a rule book, he was writing one using his own intelligence and, just as importantly, his experience as a marketer dating back to his Pizza Hut days.

As a marketer, you’re going to make mistakes. But a good marketer, like a good quarterback, learns from those mistakes and instantly adjusts the offense for the next play, almost by instinct.

If you want to succeed in business, put down the dice, forget about fighting orcs, and pick up a football. Besides, it’ll be good for your complexion.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.