The Four Letter Word.
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me call out the four letter word that divides us, pollutes our business relationships and stymies our strategic thinking. While it may seem innocuous at first, in short order it becomes noxious, emitting the faint odor of non-commitment and intellectual abdication.
The four letter word is test.
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I was reminded of my longstanding hatred of the word when I read this exchange in an interview Subway CMO Tony Pace did with The Wall Street Journal:
WSJ: Given the massive change happening in advertising, are chief marketing officers equipped to handle the job today?
MR. PACE: I think there is a lot of learning as it happens going on. More than ever you need to be in the test-and-learn mode, because you can’t wait for a general consensus to emerge on what is working and what isn’t, because you may be late.
Subway is clearly a leading edge advertiser, and I don’t worry at all about their level of commitment to innovative marketing, digital or otherwise. What concerns me is what happens down the line when junior marketers and ad agencies hear “test and learn” from a guy like Tony. Test becomes no longer a strategy but rather the absence of strategy. Challenged to create innovative programs and approaches for marketers, media companies and sales organizations almost always hear “Let’s test the idea (at a paltry fraction of its scope) and see how it does first.” The new site, network or platform that fights its way into consideration with an agency planning group ends up with a very hollow victory: a test — sometimes for as little as $10-15k — against ridiculously shallow direct response metrics that virtually guarantees failure.
Is this any way to run a new paradigm? All this testing and learning is nothing more than bureaucracy. It’s time to look in the mirror and confront our own complicity in the problem. Agencies and marketers: is the perpetual test and learn model really showing you the best of what digital marketing has to offer? Or are you simply mitigating risk like a bunch of insurance people with cooler clothes? Sellers: are you so desperate for any level of acceptance that you’re shorting your best ideas and programs?
Here’s one concrete suggestion to stop the madness of the test: Next time an agency or client throws the four letter word at you, ask them to go ahead and discuss the long term relationship first. There are no more tests, only first installments in well-considered, long term, committed marketing relationships. If the person saying test can’t or won’t have that conversation with you, then walk away. Your ideas are your most precious commodity. They deserve better.