"Half your marketing budget is effective. You just don't know which half."

I’m talking with a client. We’ll call him Mr. Q, because that makes him sound like a spy.

“I just want to know what part of my marketing is working,” Mr. Q tells me.

“Well, how’s business?” I ask him.

“Business is strong,” he responds. “Sales are great. Leads are up, site traffic is up, but I don’t where to attribute the success. Is it the paid search campaign? The trade shows? The work we do with you guys at Media Shower?”

I start with my favorite analogy.

The Cake Analogy

“Let’s say you’re baking a cake,” I respond. “You follow the recipe faithfully. You put in the flour, the sugar, the eggs. You bake it at 350 degrees. The cake comes out delicious. Now, which ingredient made the cake delicious?”

He chuckles.

“It’s the whole, the sum of all those ingredients, that makes a cake. If your marketing program is working, then the recipe — your current marketing mix — is a good one.”

“I get it. But I’m in charge of marketing. I have to be able to show where we’re spending our money wisely, so we can do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.”

“You can adjust the flour, the sugar, the eggs, and you might still have a perfectly good cake,” I continue. “Maybe even better. But the cake might also be a disaster.”

He pauses, then concludes, “I don’t buy it. With that logic, I should just let everything ride on autopilot.”

“If it’s working,” I respond, “autopilot is not a bad idea.”

“My team is working on better reporting, so we can see how many customers are coming from each part of our marketing program. Why not just double down on the top performers? Your cake analogy doesn’t work.”

“Let me try the Coke analogy, then.”

The Coke Analogy

“Since birth, you have been bombarded with messages advertising Coke,” I point out. “You’ve seen them on TV, in supermarkets, displayed on diner signs, thousands upon thousands of Coke impressions. Do you ever buy a Coke?”

“I try not to.”

“Come on. When was the last time you had a Coke product?”

“I don’t know. I had a Diet Coke at a party a few months ago.”

“Great. Now, which Coke impression made you choose the Coke?”

He chuckles again. “I think there was nothing else to drink at the party.”

“That is a really bad party,” I sympathize.

“It was a children’s birthday party.”

“This is the attribution problem, and it’s everywhere in online marketing. Not many people talk about it, because it reveals an ugly truth: online marketing is not clean-cut. We have massive streams of reporting data, but these reports offer the illusion of control; at best, they only represent half the story. It’s a lot muddier, a lot messier, than people admit.”

“You’re preaching to the choir.”

“Let’s say a prospective customer sees your company five times on the Web. First, she clicks on a search ad. Then you remarket to her with two banner ads. She reads a piece of content on your website, then clicks to your social media account. A few days later, she comes back to the site and makes a purchase. Now, which of those impressions should be credited for the sale?”

“We typically say the last one.”

“Should it be the last one? Or should it be the first one, the one that introduced her to your company? Or should it be the one that was shown the most often? Or should it be the one she spent the most time on?”

He sighs. “So what’s the alternative? Do nothing?”

“The alternative,” I explain, “is to balance knowing with not-knowing.”

The Wanamaker Story

Permit me to pause the conversation here, for I want to introduce you to John Wanamaker, one of the unsung geniuses of American business.

His Wanamaker’s department store chain, first introduced in Philadelphia in 1861, was the Amazon of its day. Wanamaker changed the way people shopped, using innovations like the fixed price system, in a day when haggling was still common practice. He created the money back guarantee, so shoppers could be assured of quality. He created the in-store experience, by building a massive pipe organ and holding spectacular concerts in his stores.

He was also an innovator in advertising, placing the world’s first half-page and full-page newspaper advertisements. In the early days, he wrote his own ad copy, but later hired the world’s first full-time copywriter, John Emery Powers, under whose excellent leadership Wanamaker’s revenues doubled from $4 million to $8 million per year.

It was Wanamaker who purportedly said, “I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” If John Wanamaker, business genius and marketing pioneer, could not figure it out, what hope is there for you and me?

But look at all this data we have today! you might cry. Look at the tools! Wanamaker wasn’t able to geotarget, to remarket, to daypart! After working with hundreds of clients, I believe these complex tools, and the flood of data they generate, have actually made it more difficult to figure out which half of our marketing budget is working. The reports give you information — you “know.” But they invariably open up more questions — something you “don’t know.”

It is probably a sign of maturity to be able to see in shades of grey: realizing the world is infinitely more complex than black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative, good vs. evil, and so on. It is the ability to live in this grey area — demanding accountability, but accepting that you will not have all the answers — that good marketers must have.

Reality is complicated. Your marketing program is, too.

The Health Analogy

The great psychiatrist M. Scott Peck used to say, “All symptoms are overdetermined!” He meant that everything has multiple root causes. For example, I’m healthy most of the time. Is it because I have a pretty good diet, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, meditate daily, or because I am rarely exposed to ebola? Which one of these things keeps me healthy? The answer, of course, is that all symptoms are overdetermined: you have to see it health (or the lack of it) as a system.

Your marketing program is also a system. The question is: is the system healthy? Is it generating results? Is the company growing? You must demand accountability for each piece of your marketing program, but you also must take all reports with a grain of salt. When you do this high-wire balancing act of “knowing” vs. “being comfortable with not knowing,” it’s usually pretty easy to see, over a period of months, when something is clearly not working.

Recently I checked in with our client, Mr. Q. “How’s the recipe working?”

He laughed. “The cake is pretty good.”

“You know, it’s hard to find a good cake recipe,” I pointed out. “When you find a keeper, make it again and again.”


Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of the upcoming book Mind Hacking. This post is free to distribute under CC 4.0: if you like it, please share it.