Bob Hoffman
Mar 12, 2020

The Ad Contrarian: Looking for problems

One of the biggest dangers successful brands face is falling into the hands of dumbass marketers. An analogy to the game of baseball helps explain why.

He swings...and misses (Shutterstock)
He swings...and misses (Shutterstock)

Successful brands are usually created by an inscrutable recipe of hard work, good product ideas, luck, and competent marketing. After a period of success there is always a second (or 10th) generation of marketing. Many new generations of marketing make a similar mistake. Before we get to that mistake, let's talk about baseball.

In Major League Baseball's National League, pitchers (the players akin to bowlers in cricket) have to hit. They are very bad hitters. Not because they lack athletic ability, but because they usually didn't hit much, if at all, in high school, college, or the minor leagues, where young pros are sent to develop their skills. Hitting major league pitching is indescribably hard, and if you rarely hit as an amateur, coming into the major leagues and trying to hit is a nightmare.

Because pitchers are such bad hitters, National League teams usually have between three and five automatic outs in every game they play. This is a significant hardship because in every nine-inning game you only get 27 outs.

But baseball people are smart. They don't spend a lot of time trying to teach pitchers how to hit. Yes, they have them take batting practice to keep their timing up, but they figure that there's a limited amount of time to be spent in training, and it's best spent improving a pitcher's pitching technique rather than his hitting technique. In other words, there's more benefit in improving what he does well than in trying to improve what he does badly. Many marketers don't understand this.

Every company has strengths and weaknesses. The temptation to focus immoderate amounts of time, energy, and money on tweaking weaknesses rather than maximizing strengths can be overwhelming. To wit...

For many years I did advertising and marketing work for a large fast food corporation. Marketing regimes at large corporations like this don't usually last long. In my 16 years in their stable of agencies, I lived through several marketing regimes. As each new marketing regime took control it was inevitable that they would look at research and discover that—surprise!—they did not score well with consumers on healthfulness. What fast food company does? And the wild goose chase would begin.

Instead of focusing on improving what they could do well and try to deliver a better hamburger in a cleaner store in less time, they would go on a "let's pretend we're healthy" kick which would go nowhere. Months of work and zillions of dollars would be wasted because time and money spent on a non-productive exercise was not spent on making what they could be good at better.

When new marketing "leadership" shows up at a successful brand, it is highly likely that the very first thing they will do is try to identify what "the problems" are. It makes them seem smart. If left unchecked this inevitably leads to trying to fix what the company does poorly instead of maximizing what the company can do well.

In other words, they try to turn pitchers into hitters.


Bob Hoffman is the author of four best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter and blog, where this post first appeared. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency. His latest book, 'Advertising For Skeptics', is now available.

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