My response to the angry CMO: Call it “Revenge of the Nerds, Part 1”

September 7, 2010

“Make me relevant!”

Over the weekend I read yet another article featuring a chief marketing officer bemoaning his advertising agency for (among other things) being out of touch with new media. This is for him, recompense in two parts. It’s all in good fun…

We all know the last few years have seen advertising agencies universally scrambling to figure out and monetize social media. Some are doing it better than others but all of us are feeling the heat. Adland wants to master social networks so we can sell that mastery to our clients. No big secret, right? The diminishing role of mass media, as a source of revenue needs to be replaced and social media is that new well. Maybe I’m overstating the issue or understating it. Either way, we agency folks are feeling the heat.

Yet, what if it’s actually advertisers who are most threatened by social media? What if clients are the ones truly freaking out? Not us. Them. Think about it. Clients are the ones who got advanced degrees in marketing, learning a ton of stuff that no longer has value. (Did it ever?) I don’t know about you but I got a liberal arts education. I took writing and psychology courses. Wrote a screenplay for credits. Hell, I only took one ad class and it was pass/fail.

The average CMO spent 8 years in college(s) learning stuff that seemingly no longer applies. No wonder they’re scared of new media. They didn’t take that class or anything like it. Maybe now they do but not then. If anything, such courses evolved out of communication arts, not business or marketing curriculum. Chances are, then, we artists and writers got the leg up. We were already learning how to communicate via film, design, poetry and prose. New media was merely an extension of that, albeit a significant one.

And they, with their popped collars and backward baseball caps, laughed at us. “What kind of job do you expect to get with that,” they sneered.

“One day you’ll be working for us!”

And what about the kids who studied computers, anthropology and psychology, all those courses no self-respecting Master of the Universe would ever enroll in? Those wimps, as much as anyone, understand human behavior and therefore the true promise of social media. They know it’s not a tool with an instruction book. They know you don’t need a master’s degree to master social media.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Zuckerberg studied Latin and enjoyed dicking around on the computer. In other words he was an odd duck who didn’t quite fit in, especially at Harvard. That is until he invented Facebook. I haven’t seen the new film, The Social Network but I’m guessing it’s a lot like Revenge of the Nerds. How sweet it is to think, nay know, that it is we, the curious legions of liberal arts majors and rogue bohemians, who understand social media and intuitively grasp its mechanism. For us it is just more of what we already know and like.

Zuckerberg: Revenge of the nerd!

So why do clients belittle us, decrying our ineptitude at bringing them solutions, even when we do? Next up, a closer look at social media in Adland, before and after.


13 Responses to “My response to the angry CMO: Call it “Revenge of the Nerds, Part 1””

  1. Jason Fox said

    I assume I’m one of the odd creative people (writer, for those who don’t know) who has a marketing degree. Many of my junior- and senior-level courses were the exact same ones being taught to MBA students. (After all, why would a professor rejigger a course when giving the same lecture twice is half as much effort?) I can say with confidence that most folks with a marketing bent – undergrad and MBA alike – saw the instruction and just that: instructions for being successful. As opposed to what they were meant to be, fundamentals of good business that require layers of creativity to be built upon them if genuine success is really to be attained. (I’m defining genuine success as the antithesis of the glad-handing and arse-kissing one’s way to the top.) Fifteen years out of college, I think my theory stands. At least according to the past classmates I’ve found on Facebook.

    I never thought it took a rocket science to do marketing. It’s the people trying to shoehorn in that rocket science that make it so confusing for all involved. Social media is no exception. It may be difficult to find a monetization formula, but listening and responding to consumers shouldn’t really be so difficult. After all, Gossage’s maxim still stands: People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad. Or a tweet. Or a Facebook status update.

  2. One of the most important truths I think anyone can learn in life, is that when we lack an objective perspective on an insecurity or a fault about ourselves, we tend to project it on to other people.

    I have no doubt that many ad agencies aren’t up to speed on social. Even the best among us are still pioneers, as you put it. And a lot of other agencies are still tightly holding onto some outdated ideas.

    But I also suspect a lot of CMO blame game is scapegoating and projection. I wish I had a buck for every time I’ve presented social ideas integrated with traditional work and my CD or the client just went with the traditional work because it was the standard thing to do.

    To give them credit, my clients were often appreciative that we consistently brought them solutions that tried to push their comfort levels. And they almost never turned around weeks later and said “You don’t know jack about social.”(Unfortunately I can’t say the same thing about some of my supervisors internally.)

    As time goes on, I’m discovering lots of agency folks experience similar situations. So I think you’re onto something here. And unfortunately, most creatives are in a position these days where they have to meekly accept the client/the supervisor’s projection and history revisionism.

  3. SRP said

    Jason & Mark-

    As usual, thanks for the thoughtful comments. You know, back in the day my old man told me the best thing I could do in college to learn how to be a good copywriter was to take psych classes and wait tables. Pretty good advice.

  4. Annette Skorupa said

    Hi Stephan,
    I find you father’s point about waiting tables rather interesting in this era of internships. Most of the part-time jobs I had in high school and college were in the service industries and had nothing to do with my college major or subsequent career(s). But these gigs did help round out my education/life experience. They also payed — I couldn’t afford to work for free. What do you make of the emphasis on internships these days?

    • SRP said

      I think internships are great, when and where available.
      My dad’s point about “waiting tables” was getting a life lesson in serving people and human behavior, two cornerstones to writing good copy.

    • I waited tables all through college, and among other things, it taught me to be a great multitasker.

      As an aside, I found waiting tables to be way more stressful than advertising. There’s that perspective thing again.

  5. Andy Webb said

    It seems to me social media communication is something the client is supposed to be doing, not the agency.

    The whole proposition is that the audience gets to interact with the actual company, true? (Perhaps this is not so important if the social media is skewed toward the promotional rather than the conversational/interactive.)

    What if Toto pulls the curtain aside and the audience finds out that it’s an agency man doing the social?

  6. Anne Ross said

    Will choose the liberally educated vs the trade school marketing degreed every time. Sorry dear friends, if I offend.
    “In times of change, Learners inherit the Earth, while The Learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer

  7. Anne Ross said

    Best education for advertising and now head hunting?
    Masters in Information and Library Management and bartending.

  8. troy hayes said

    Maybe the giant advertising holding companies should invest some of their profits into devising new ways to reach consumers instead of waiting for another “nerd” to turn our world upside down again.

  9. Wheaten said

    Hey Steffan,
    While I clearly see the playful jest in this post, I can’t help but comment on what I see to be a number of flaws in its rationale.

    Saying that clients (or biz/MBA peeps in general) “are the ones who got advanced degrees in marketing, learning a ton of stuff that no longer has value” is clearly a silly thing to say. In its simplest form, I am sure you are very famliar with the antiquated, but still relevant, 4 P’s of marketing. It’s 3 of those P’s that these “no longer valuable degrees” help them learn – which fortunately for agencies, leaves 1 of the P’s available for outsourcing – Promotions. At the very least, the communications sub-category of Promotions is where they lean heavily on agencies so they can focus on that “other stuff”.

    And unfortunately, or fortunately, for agencies, social media falls in that realm. So while clients are working out distribution issues, measurement challenges, and new product pipelines, it really should come as no surprise that they are leaning on commuications partners to figure out and keep up with evolutions in communications, including social media.

    I would agreee that it is frustrating to constantly present social media ideas only to have them shot down. But isn’t this perhaps an indication that agencies, as communications experts, are not doing a good enough job of a) simplifying the idea and/or b) making them exciting and relevant enough? I certainly see it that way.

    In a meager attempt to draw an analogy, imagine that you are a homeowner and your paint guy shows up with lead-infested paint. I think you would be disappointed in him, as the last thing you want to worry about is what kind of paint he is using. Now, if he said it was your job to keep track of the paint and all of the changes that are occurring in the paint world – that would be one fired painter, indeed.

    Just my 2 cents, interesting topic, keep on bloggin’ on.


    • SRP said

      My arguments are always suspect…
      Sometimes I just like the challenge of juggling thoughts and playing with themes. Throw in a resentment and I’m off to the races!

      • Wheaten said

        In that case, happy racing!! Keep your eye on that crazy social media horse, he can be a squirly one! 🙂

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