The Dinosaurs Thud

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

In two days, two marketers responsible for spending a cumulative $9 billion last year lost their jobs, though nobody is talking about where all the money went.

First, Procter & Gamble’s Jim Stengel quit, followed by AT&T’s Wendy Clark. Both cited vague reasons for leaving (Stengel plans to follow an unspecified passion, and Clark didn’t want to relocate or commute 275 miles from San Antonio to Dallas). 

I find it interesting that the news comes after both marketers had been feted for their creative spending habits:

  • Clark spent billions changing names, first replacing SBC Communications logos with a newly-minted AT&T logo that looked shockingly like the old one (only 3D, so it cost a lot more to paint on every truck, and print on every invoice). She did the branding thing again last year to Bell South’s Cingular brand, which had far too much recognition among consumers to let alone. She gave aging rock band Oasis a few million for a corporate song, from which a 5-syllable refrain was used in ad buys worth many millions more. Print ads were abstract — farm tractors cut logos or somethingotanother in fields of wheat — while declaring AT&T’s intention to be a one-stop shop for communications
  • Stengel let P&G’s charge into creative ads, winning hoity-toity awards at Cannes and, eventually getting named "Advertiser of the Year" at last month’s International Advertising Festival. He pursued lots of cause-marketing campaigns, linking diapers with UNICEF, and its water filter product with a Third World drinking program. I don’t think he got to do the rebranding thing as fully as Clark did, but he oversaw marketing when the company spent $57 billion to buy Gillette, which then came out with a brilliantly spot-on branded product — the 7-bladed Fusion razor — that consumers are still trying to figure out

What doesn’t get mentioned much in praise for this profligate spending is the dire, perhaps existential dramas they leave behind: AT&T has yet to address its systems and service integration issues (see my own brand experiences here and here), and P&G is stuck in a deathmatch struggle with parity products on every store shelf and web site.

The supposed benefits of brand — the $9 billion Clark and Stengel spent to promote last year alone — do little to address these problems. At best, the awareness they bought achieved momentary attention, if not actual sales; at worst, all of their preconceptions about branding, however creatively imagined, were utterly irrelevant. Had any other executives in any other corporate departments been responsible for such expenditures without anything more to show for it than fond feelings propagated into the universe, they’d be fired for malfeasance and prosecuted.

Of course, branding is different…

But, while I don’t know either exec but would bet that they’re smart, well-intentioned people, doesn’t somebody have to ask: what happened to all that money they spent?

Brand and marketing are in a transitional period right now, as we struggle to come to grips with the fact that our Freudian fantasies of controlling or influencing the minds of individuals have given way to a marketplace that is based on reality, actions, and the "wisdom" of crowds.   

Add to that the impact of a difficult market, and you see marketers all over the world starting to question how those branding budgets are getting spent. Coca-Cola, traditionally one of the most drunken of sailors when it comes to marketing spend, is looking to marketing to yield some, if not much, of between $400 million and $500 million a year in savings. InBev is likely to reduce and change Anheuser-Busch’s freespending habits.

What, you say, a world without farting horses and soda-drinking polar bears? 

We’re not just in a transitional period, we need it to happen. 

Clark and Stengel are getting out of the game just past the peak. If they follow suit, both will get at least one more high-profile CMO job, or at least make lots of headlines at marketing conferences dispensing spending advice to other high-profile CMOs with lots of money to spend. 

Nobody will hold them accountable for what they accomplished, other than to celebrate that they spent billions of dollars with great ingenuity and panache. That reality will be left to their successors, who they leave behind with the daunting task of figuring out how to make awareness, intention, and the rest of the branding canon impact sales.   

I’d put money on those CMOs evolving into very different animals that Clark and Stengel; they’ll utilize operations, embedded communications, third-parties, and a host of other strategies and functions simply not in the DNA of old brand giants, or found in the hype of their symbiotic agencies.

The last few years may have been among the last of the era of lumbering dinosaurs.

But oh, what a glorious thud it was.

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