Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voice of the People

I was surprised, that day in class, when my accounting professor said he felt the most important function in a company is marketing.

This was significant for two reasons. The prof, Ram Ramanan (winner of the 2004 "Best of MPF" award for Best Class), had been known to take good-natured shots at marketing as a discipline, razzing it for being all overlapping circles and pryamids and touchy feely concepts like "brand." The second is that it's uncommon for one member of a team to acknowledge that a different division of the team is more important, or the most important. Of course, all departments have to work in synch for the organization to be successful. But how often do you hear, for example, the running backs coach or the linebackers coach of a college football team admit a different unit is the most crucial to success? (It's the offensive line.)

But over time I've come to realize Ram is right. The core of the company is understanding what the customer wants, and then giving it to them. Finance, accounting, R&D, operations ... they are all important pieces, and the business would fall apart without them. But they are all supporting the mechanism of delivering the goods to the person with the dough (the customer). Even your sales force, often assumed to be the key department, is merely the external-facing group that communicates or delivers the firm's value proposition: not defines and refines it.

This primacy of marketing came to mind when thinking about two incredibly stupid ads recently, and how smart companies will listen to the customer, even after a mistake.

The first is the evocative image of orange drapery falling over icons of the American landscape like the Hoover Dam and the Gateway Arch, to the moody music of Nick Drake.

If you lived in New York City last decade, or if you have a vague awareness of the art world, you probably know of the artist Christo, famous for hanging brightly colored drapery off large things. His "Gates" exhibit in Central Park was by all accounts a smashing success, adding bursts of color to a drab winter cityscape.

Not part of this essay, but I should point out that living in New York City sucks 12 months per year, but moreso in the winter. I can only imagine how this brightened people's shitty days.

You've probably seen before today the ad in question, from AT&T. Many art lovers (and intellectual-property lawyers, probably) asked themselves if Christo had been consulted or compensated.

It appears that AT&T made no effort to reach out to the artist before the ad was filmed. While this was narrow-minded of AT&T, they at least had the sense to add a disclaimer at the end of the ad. The credit to the original artist was added eventually, but not until after the outcry.

A more direct feedback can be seen in the case of the smarmy State Farm guy. What can possibly compete with ducks, lizards and the guy who was the black president on TV before Obama was the black president in real life? How about an obnoxious Tom Cruise lookalike who wanders through cafes and interrupts people?

I can only hope that State Farm read the Slate article, or otherwise heard consumer feeback to create this reponse, where she interrupts him:

Your lesson, Corporate America: Listen to your audience. If you make a dumb ad, pull it and make amends.


Josh said...

The Gates were pretty stupid up close, actually.

Scott Mortimer said...

...just who is that State Farm agent? BFD Slate called the dude 'handsome' (not my words)...lets learn more about the rep!