Why Does Marketing Have To Be So Damned Hard?

Fact: Failure rates in marketing are astronomically high.  Only a small fraction of new marketing initiatives succeed in achieving their intended objectives.  If marketing were a baseball player, it would NEVER have made the major leagues.  If marketing were a horse, you'd need 10:1 odds at least (and even then you'd be best served to box your bet across win, place, and show). If marketing were a bridge, you'd certainly not want to drive across it on a windy day.

Why?  Why is it so damn hard to make marketing work consistently and reliably?

You might argue that the challenge lies in the very dynamic markets we operate in.  Shifting sands are the rule, not the exception.  No sooner do you get your feet under you, than your knowledge is antiquated by the latest disruptive force.

Could be that marketers are in a constant state of experimentation, always in search of the magic combination of message and tactics that "move the needle."

Or perhaps it's the absence of good "raw materials." Maybe we're just reflecting the frequency with which we are given uninspired products with no news value and no clear differentiation.

But lately I've been thinking that it's because of two key factors:

1.     Marketing involves integrating the left and right brains -- something that very few people are capable of.  It requires an ability to think conceptually and unencumbered by the present realities, yet being able to evaluate critically in a rigorous way.  Without the former, we fail to innovate; without the latter, we fail to focus.  Moreover, it takes more than one person in an executive committee who can actually do this two-brain thing to notice and approve a good idea when one hits the table. Odds of there being a quorum of such people in any one boardroom are long indeed, given that executive committees normally include strong left-brainers from finance, IT, and manufacturing/operations.  No judgment here, just an observation.

2.     Marketers tend to be more right-brain than left-brain. They enjoy concepts and creativity and innovation and inspiration, but not the repetitive types of analysis that tend to extract true insights from the cacaphony of marketplace response. Many don't have the patience for disciplined experimentation and continuous improvement, preferring to "try new things" and make a name for themselves within their industry.

Fortunately, there are tools to help us overcome our fundamental limitations (personal or organizational) and learn from the collective experience of others.  For example, in 2009 the Marketing Science Institute published a book edited by Professor Mike Hanssens of UCLA's Anderson School called "Empirical Generalizations about Marketing Impact," which clearly lists 16 categories of collective learnings from hundreds of academic studies of marketing impact over the last few decades.  For example, did you know that:

-       Gains in market share do not often lead to gains in profitability in either short- or long-run.

-       Changes in pricing have approximately 26 TIMES the impact on sales as changes in advertising spend levels.

-       Changes in sales budgets have more than 3 TIMES the impact on sales compared to changes in ad spending.

-       If advertising doesn't work in the short term, it will NOT work in the long term with more exposure.

These are but a few of the gems you find in this book, which you can order at  Or, if you prefer, check out Mike Hanssens' recent webcast on this topic to be really astounded by all the things that you SHOULD have known about marketing but likely didn't (or didn't have the proof).

When we get marketing "right", we make it really HARD for OTHERS to imitate. That's why the big marketing victories are so transformative for companies (and careers).  If we got just a little better at standing on the knowledge shoulders of our marketing forefathers (and mothers), we might actually get it "right" more often, and make it harder for THEM to catch up with us.

7 comments about "Why Does Marketing Have To Be So Damned Hard?".
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  1. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., January 18, 2011 at 5:07 p.m.

    Brilliantly said.

  2. Daryl McNutt from New Moon Ski & Bike, January 18, 2011 at 5:39 p.m.

    Bravo! I can't express how much I agree with this article.

  3. Lisa Kaneff, January 18, 2011 at 6:52 p.m.

    Agreed. Just like right-brained marketers need left-brained analytics folks, the art side of good marketing creative needs the science side of research and data. Art and science on the strategy side and the execution side.

    Awesome article. Thanks!

  4. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group, January 18, 2011 at 7:02 p.m.

    When you say "marketing," do you mean advertising? (I see that in your "Did you know" bullets, you talk about advertising.) Because direct/digital marketers have a completely different experience from what you describe. Not that it's easy . . . or everybody would do it. But it certainly is true that what we do more often than not does work consistently and reliably. I guess direct marketers have to engage both their right and left brains because everything we do gets measured.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 18, 2011 at 7:55 p.m.

    Excellent !

  6. Kelly Wenzel from Centro, January 19, 2011 at 8:18 a.m.

    A great read, and one I'll be sharing with many. I would add that the complexity (and the challenge) is exacerbated by two other dynamics: first, that much of marketing is frankly, subjective. Which makes it easy prey for all and sundry to weigh in with opinions they expect to be actionable. Or relevant.

    Second, is the the number of constituents a successful marketing team is trying to serve simultaneously. Not only are we trying to "move the needle" in the market, we're trying to serve internal customers who have their own needs, demands and deadlines, like the product team and most importantly, Sales.

    Add it all together and not only is it a lot to do, it's a lot to try and get RIGHT.

  7. Steele Hays from SecureWorks, January 19, 2011 at 9:18 a.m.

    I followed the link to, but you have to be a paid MSI member to be able to read more about the book "Empirical Generalizations..." or to order it from If that is not the case, please enlighten me. Thanks.

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