Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

Marketing As Factory Work Is A Real Grind

By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
Back in the 20th century, marketing aspired to build champion brands that inspire people to just do it. Brands that elicit feelings, inspire awe, and occupy a piece of our mental, social, and cultural landscape.

But something happened between then and now. Our ambitions changed, and got smaller. Marketers often don't seem to aspire to build champion brands anymore. In fact, many marketers seem to have dispensed with brandbuilding as a goal altogether, no longer aspiring to build something magical, but in fact the very opposite, a factory.

You Are Talking About Marketing, Right?

That's right, a discipline that once dealt in magic now aspires to run like an assembly line for creating media and content assets. Blogs. Social media posts. Videos. Email. All have become widgets by another name. People like me who sell content marketing are supposed to like this. But in truth, this is a navel-gazing goal. It's largely organizational. It doesn't consider what customers need, or how to solve their problems, or build your brand. In other words, it lessens the value of what I can provide.

So How Did Marketing End Up Here?

So how did we get here? Lots of reasons. Channels proliferated. Automation entered the process. Organic social media divorced content creation from marketing purpose in many organizations. Charlatans lied to us about what could be achieved digitally, taught us to want the wrong things, and stole your money through ad fraud. The reasons go on and on. More than can really be explored in a blog.

But what we can explore is why this aspiration for marketing as a factory is fundamentally flawed, and what can be done about it.

Creativity Is The Prime Ingredient In Marketing

Corporations are naturally inclined to love the idea of running a marketing department like a factory. It implies scalability, efficiency, replicability, minimized risk, and idiot-proofing. And if you view marketing as a process where messaging and content are created, targeted, and published in a highly rigorous and disciplined process akin to running a newspaper (an understandable position after a decade of being told that all businesses must think like publishers), then the notion of marketing as a factory has intuitive appeal.

But marketing is not journalism. Journalism is impartial storytelling that strictly deals in facts (or at least that's what it's supposed to be). A news story doesn't need to deal in intangibles, it just needs to be complete, according to the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" format.

But marketing and brandbuilding are creative storytelling. They have to be. Marketing is expected to work magic, and you can't automate magic. Without magic, we've failed as marketers, because we're no longer adding value. We're just coloring things in.

Creativity Is Anathema To A Factory

Factories run on repetition and predictability. Creativity is the opposite of both. Put one creative person on an assembly line, and trouble will follow. Put all creative people on an assembly line, and that assembly line will be extremely slow, and you'll end up with a different finished product, created at a different speed, each time.

Factories Know Where They're Going

Factories can work with their enviable speed and efficiency because when an assembly line first starts up, one already knows exactly what the finished product is supposed to be. One knows its dimensions. Its composition. How it should perform. And how much deviation constitutes a failure.

But creative work is nothing like that. When you start the creative process, you only have a rough idea of what the end product will be. You know that it will be a chair, for instance, and you know that it has to support the weight of a full-grown person, and you know its function (i.e., deskwork) and where it's meant to be used (i.e., in an office), but that's about it. Everything else is decided largely as you go along, often in collaboration with others, with the occasional pause thrown in while you wait for inspiration to strike, and all those things take time.

Factories Know When There's A Problem

Factories have feedback mechanisms that reveal problems. If there's not enough output, somebody complains. If there's too much output, inventory piles up. If products are substandard, inspections find them or customers complain.

Twenty-first-century marketing is nothing like that. Now that brands have websites, social media, and organic content, they can publish a near infinite amount of content and receive very little feedback as to what effect it's having. Or they can publish very little content and receive more or less the same feedback.

If a brand publishes something bad, people rarely take the time to stop and say, "This post is terrible." It will be greeted with silence instead, and silence can have many causes, making it inherently harder to interpret than feedback.

This lack of feedback is one of the primary reasons why marketing has become widgetry. Without feedback, there's little incentive for marketing widgets to serve a goal. So the widgets are now the goal. They are content, existing largely to take up space.

Factories Have Different Metrics

Factories are oriented around speed, cost-efficiency, failure rate, output quota, etc. But think about what happens if you orient marketing around those things.

Output Volume

It's not that hard at a factory to determine the ideal number of widgets you should be producing each month. But marketing is nothing like that. There is no objective and/or reliable data out there for how many assets you should be producing. There's only trial and error. And even that is pretty unreliable given the high rates of turnover we have in our tools and our personnel that we have in marketing today.

And once output volume starts being used as a metric, it'll keep getting increased. And while having some optimization here is a good idea, there's no way of knowing how much is enough. With organic reach per post ever declining, and channels ever proliferating, there literally is no ceiling, other than when your people burn out and quit.

Failure Rate

A failure is easy to determine at a factory. It's a deviation exceeding a pre-defined deviation from a pre-defined ideal. In other words, a failure is something that stands out. But what's an ideal blog post? TV ad? Whitepaper? And how much deviation from it constitutes failure? I don't know. Do you? In marketing a success is something that stands out (i.e., the exact opposite), and it isn't really pass/fail either. It's more like a spectrum.

And yet there are still plenty of failures. Anyone who spends a few minutes actually consuming ads will tell you that. Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap. And if you believe the Ad Rating Database, a little over 50% of ads are ineffective (i.e., failures). But what about the success rate?

Copywriting legend George Tannenbaum has compared advertising to baseball, where it only takes a batting average a little over .300 to be a league leader. But if you have a .300 success average at a factory, your investors will be demanding your head on a spike before long.

Cost Efficiency

Don't even think about this one. RoI is not a good metric to use. It doesn't measure effectiveness, only efficiency, and doing the bare minimum can be highly-efficient. Use RoI as your guide, and you'll end up dragging your brand through the mud by utilizing high RoI tactics that require relatively little upfront investment, such as spam email.

And if I haven't convinced you yet at to why RoI is a bad marketing metric, let's shift gears and use movies as an example. The genre with the highest RoI is horror. The reason why is because the young people who watch these movies are undemanding. They only want things that are scary and gross. They don't care if the writing is terrible or the acting is bad. All the characters are just going to die anyway.

And most horror movies are bad. Fantastically bad. But their RoI is great, so nobody who makes them cares if they're bad. Would you want to try and build your brand that way?


Deadlines focus the creative mind, but a perpetual drive to increase speed will lead to increased hiring, but that often doesn't work as intended because approvals are often a chokepoint in marketing, and because a relentless push for more speed will burnout your experienced people, leading to their replacement by inexperienced people, who will take months to be as effective as the ones you just lost, if they ever do. And remember, marketing is knowledge work. If a marketer has no time to think, they add no value.

Why Extreme Division Of Marketing Labor Doesn't Work

Media and channel proliferation has led to an extreme division of marketing labor not unlike what you see at factories. But division of labor works for factories because you already know what the end product will be. But in marketing, it creates three problems.

1. Too Many Technicians, Not Enough Marketers

You end up with control over major channels and asset classes by specialists who only understand the channels and asset classes, not marketing or your business, and this has made it very easy for marketing departments and agencies to be overrun by people who, paradoxically, hate capitalism -- an untenable situation.

2. Marketing Assets That Are Professional But Not Persuasive

When you don't know exactly what the end product will be, you must ask questions, lots of questions, in order to make the best creative decisions. Specialists and technicians often aren't plugged into the rest of the company in the ways they need to be in order to get those questions answered. With either problem, the result is often the same; finished assets that are professional, optimized, expensive, and ineffective, because they were optimized for criteria not involving the customer, or perhaps even the product.

3. Overloaded Marketing Managers

In a department full of specialists, the boss will have to make all the marketing decisions, and sweat all of the details, and that just isn't sustainable, especially if you intend to keep increasing your output.

Factory Work Is For Big Fish

When you run a marketing department like you would a factory, basically you are saying that the wars of persuasion can only be won by the volume of your output, not by the quality or content of your messaging. Now some will disagree with that. They'll say that victory is achieved through mass personalization and precision targeting. But those things are fools' gold, at least for a while. Our data is compromised. Progress isn't being made. Key players are starting to block access to consumer data. And regulators may ultimately make it impossible.

And without them, all a factory can give you is output volume. And while the Internet is indeed something of a noise contest, making the idea of output volume as a goal somewhat appealing, if you actually embrace this thinking in a marketing department, you embrace failure, because there will always be a bigger fish. A smaller factory can't outfactory a larger one. You must win some other way.

So What Should Marketing Do Instead?

I know that pointing out flaws in a system is easy, and having better ideas and implementing them is hard. One cannot flip a switch and magically change everything in marketing overnight. But I feel like the process begins with slowing down a bit. Marketing departments are busy ticking boxes. Doing things because a checklist requires it, not because it solves a marketing problem. Busy, busy, busy. More, more, more.

We have to start backing away from that. We got into this thinking because of channel proliferation. And because of decade-old thinking about paid tactics and organic content. But you can't win a psychological battle through manufacturing.

Try making fewer assets instead that are better in quality, made for customers, not for search engines (SEO ultimately works by appealing to customers). And by "better," I also mean more creative, not just more polished, or more iterated. Everybody has whitepapers, videos, case studies, and social posts. If you really want to reach people, you also need to create things no one else has. That's how brands are built.

But marketing cannot be some artisan utopia. Marketing is about business. That means we need to reintroduce both sales thinking and creative thinking into the marketing process again, and use metrics that serve marketing goals, business outcomes, or brandbuilding goals, not just tactical or channel optimization goals.

This will require businesses to rethink who they hire, who they fire, and how they work with agencies. Context is everything, so I can't give you all the answers. But this should give you an idea what questions you need to ask.

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