Marketing’s Least Loved: Getting through marketer’s block

In her first regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling explores aspects of marketing due for a revisit or reinvention.

I’m writing about some of marketing’s least loved but potentially most useful concepts. Taking a deeper look at the moments, tools and processes that need reimagining, blowing up, or just a deeper understanding, to help make the best of them.

Hello, panic my old friend

Everyone who works in Marketing knows the moment. The wheels of a project grind into motion, people start wanting ‘progress’, and initial excitement and energy turns into a side helping of panic. Getting started is difficult in any creative endeavour, and Marketer’s Block is just as real as writer’s block, though it seems to take fewer interesting forms – I’m not going to be suggesting Tennessee Williams’ Crème de Menthe and Champagne mix, soz.

Everyone finds bridging from “exciting opportunity” to “here is how we will approach it” difficult. First, our inbuilt fear of getting it wrong. Second, the sheer volume of ways to get started, of things one might investigate or try. And third, the demands we make of ourselves to try those new frameworks and approaches, new ways of doing things every time.

The trick is not letting the side helping of panic become a four-course meal with dull company in a shitty restaurant. The trick is making a little panic your mate.

Turn the behaviour science tables on yourself and your work

Take a tip from an ‘industry veteran’ (I mean I’m forty-two, but sure): a great way to beat procrastination and fear is to prompt or trigger the behaviour you want. Just ask the the behaviour expert BJ Fogg, whose work is as interesting as his name. Turn the tables of behaviour theory onto yourself and find a tool or chat or question that becomes the first thing you always do when you’re starting, or facing a block, or procrastinating.

That’s one less decision to make, a little less pressure to put on yourself or your team, a way of turning panic into progress. Where you go from there will be anyone’s guess – but that whiff of creative possibility is why you work in marketing, isn’t it?

Classic with a twist: from SWOT to TOWS

I know acronyms are dreadful but stay with me on this one.

Most people are vaguely familiar with a SWOT, the Strengths Weaknesses Opportunity Threats framework that for most of us ends up being pretty useless because it is unspecific and doesn’t help to make decisions.

TOWS is a much more useful extension of a SWOT. It looks at the same four elements but makes links between them. For example, understanding how a Strength can help to overcome a Threat, or where the Weakness in a brand, company or market aligns with Threats… probably where you next need to focus.

You can read more about the origins of TOWS here and more about how it can be useful here, but this is a great one to help you choose not just the right direction, but a direction. It helps to make the choices and sacrifices on which good marketing is always based.

Four C’s: so simple it’s barely a tool

The thing I really love about the Four C’s tool is the way that whoever made it up had to kinda work hard to get to four things that all start with the letter ‘C’.

I’ve used this in one form or another in every single thing I have ever worked on. Is that a selling point? Don’t know, but it has definitely become the thing I use to get going, keep going, and keep improving my work. It provokes me into being better because it forces me to combine rigour with imagination.

You can really make this a habit and always start with the same ‘C’, though you do need to keep going through each of them. The first time you go through, keep it at bullet points in each quadrant. Then you can start to see some threads, and draw out stories from there.

It can be easiest to start in ‘Company’ (including brand and product) as it can help distil some facts and get you going.

Consumer’ (people, audience) is best used to summarise what you know at arm’s length (the facts from research reports, the quant data) and more importantly, a prompt to build on that with some conversations with actual people.

Culture’ is society, the bigger forces at play, that can also affect individual consumers.

Some people take the fourth ‘C’ as ‘Competitors’ and some as ‘Category’. I’ve settled on ‘Context’ because it is a bit of both, and starting with a wider framing helps you explore.

Make the real world a habit

A window on the real world helps overcome Marketer’s Block more than any framework.

Going to the store and really having a good look; having a chat with someone at the agency or company you don’t usually get to talk to; running a quick exploratory group… there are many inexpensive and quick ways to get that real close-up view.

Learning to love, or at least not loathe, Marketer’s Block

Pick a few things that work for you, don’t worry that they’re really simple, and make them a fall-back habit that helps you work with that initial panic. You’ll learn to love the way a little panic keeps you on your toes (TOWS? Sorry) rather than crippling you with The Fear.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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