Operations Is Marketing

Or: two pieces of advice for less-than-amazing companies 

Nothing kills bad products like good ads.

That’s not a direct quote from Bill Bernbach, but it’s certainly a sentiment he promoted in the late ‘60s. Bernbach was one of the founders of Doyle Dane Bernbach (now DDB) and is certainly one of the godfathers of modern advertising. He was brilliant and made Don Draper look like Mr. Bean. If only Bernbach could have lived to see the current predicament of companies in the Internet age.

These days, bad products don’t need advertising to help them fail. All it takes are a few disgruntled customers with Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds, Foursquare commentary or a Yelp compulsion. It’s easier to complain than ever. And when someone complains, there’s a good chance that hundreds – if not tens of thousands – of people are listening.

Plenty of marketing pundits have focused on what to do when someone calls out your company or brand on a social network. By now, every major national brand has a Social Media Damage Control Plan waiting to get rolled out by their PR professionals. But I haven’t heard anyone suggest the corollary: a preemptive plan to the emergency situation. What’s that option?

Make better stuff. Be better people.

That’s not easy if you’re in a company where management doesn’t see those two things as core values. And that’s why operations is just as important — if not more important — than marketing in today’s world. In fact, operations is the front line of marketing.

Since the beginning of advertising until just fifteen years ago, part of your advertising agency’s job was to overcome your company’s shortcomings by focusing on what you did really well and trusting that the positives outweighed any negatives — not to mention that our messaging for you could counterbalance any negative commentary from your small circle of friends, coworkers and acquaintances.

We hoped your customers would say things like: “I like that company because of <thing they saw in advertising>. Yeah, I’ve heard their <negative thing> kind of sucks. But at least there’s <thing they saw in advertising>.”

These days, most of us in advertising will admit (to each other and usually behind closed doors) that we’re pretty powerless to overcome a bad product. There is — quite literally — a whole world of commentary on every product everywhere. Bad products are burned at the stake by fiery tweets a few thousand times before we ever get your project brief.

As a guy in advertising, it’s hard to admit that I might not be a part of the most important part of your business anymore. But if your product, service and customer service aren’t worth talking about — or worse, they’re only worth talking about because they suck — you have bigger problems than determining the message in your next ad campaign.

Ad people. We’re still here. Every one of us in every department of every agency is looking for the opportunity to work for companies who are focused on creating and designing an amazing product with superior functionality that provides the ultimate user experience. But if you don’t have those, there isn’t much we can do. And there are only two things you can do.

Make better stuff. Be better people.

It’s that easy. It’s that damn hard.

[EDIT: A day after this was posted, I read a post on the HBR blog by Ty Montague (“CEOs Are to Blame for Short CMO Tenures”) that makes a good argument that this marketing predicament lies at the foot of the CEO. It looks like he tackles the subject even more in his new book, giving specific examples of companies and CEOs that are doing it right.]