Marketing’s false prophets are undermining our industry

Fake experts, uninformed thought leaders and swaggering magnetic prophets are proliferating, and their rise threatens to further undermine the industry, says Mo Dezyanian—

I learned to read and write with my grandmother. It’s a cherished childhood memory. When I close my eyes, I can see her steady hand. Her piercing blue eyes. Her smile.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, his grandma taught him to read and write.” But no. My grandmother and I learned together.

It wasn’t uncommon for women in the Middle East to learn to read and write in their 50s. Many of my grandmother’s generation would only realize their limitations when the children left home.

Then they would often find sanctuary at the local mosque, where prayer, a soupçon of neighbourhood gossip, and a trusted Imam could help them to navigate a world that increasingly required reading and writing.

Some scholars have identified female illiteracy rates over 60% in Iran as a precondition to the 1979 revolution*, which essentially replaced a pro-Western authoritarian monarchy with an anti-Western theocracy. Many of the religious leaders who came to rule had been trusted community leaders, mostly deeply faithful. Some, however, were ill-intentioned and used religion as a means to power. Something universal rings true here.

False prophets attract the uneducated

One of the ongoing debates about marketing these days is about the lack of formal grounding in the fundamentals of our craft, and in particular a grounding in business basics. Some celebrate it. I lament it.

I’ve written about this myself a number of times. And I’ve noticed the problem has only been exacerbated by the increased pace of technology.

Nature loves a vacuum, and this lack of education has provided ample room for fake experts, uninformed thought leaders, and swaggering magnetic prophets. You may know them. Or read their hastily published books. You may have witnessed their keynote speeches or watched countless hours of their online videos.

They’re untrained, uninformed, and everywhere. They preach of a new world order. They make money by being famous. And they’ve done more damage to the industry than you might think.

The erosion of our industry

At best, these experts and gurus are inspirational but impractical. At worst, they damage our credibility and undermine our industry. They use anecdotes to show you how marketing has forever changed. You know, like the time they couldn’t rebook their flight ticket over Twitter.

And I get their point. Experiences alter customers’ relationships with a company. We’re all competing for attention more than ever before. Training employees to embody the brand is part of marketing. And so on and so forth.

But those things in isolation aren’t marketing. They’re tactics.

When we reduce our industry to (admittedly engaging) bite-size bits, we diminish the value of the rigour and discipline required of a professional service.

We add fuel to the flames of the marketing-is-puffery fire, the one that leads non-marketers everywhere to think that marketing is essentially slick, shallow hype. When we villainize marketing we tarnish the already poor reputation of marketers in boardrooms everywhere.

Our industry is two-headed. It runs on the energy of out-of-the-box thinkers, visionaries, dreamers and misfits. It’s fuelled by creativity.

But it still needs discipline, rigour, science. It is precisely this tension—the tension between creativity and rigour—that makes our industry unique. And it is precisely the disinterest of many marketers in business basics, strategy, return on investment, that adds fuel to the flames of the puffery fire.

So as our industry spirals deeper in a crisis – any mainstream mention is either a privacy scandal or a tone-deaf ad – we have a choice. We can choose to make education a core focus of our industry. Build discipline around our craft. Act as a professional service. Stop following the swaggering magnetic gurus.

And start marketing. Real marketing.

*Nowadays, literacy rates (particularly female literacy rates) in Iran have considerably improved. A brighter future is ahead.

Mo Dezyanian is the president of Empathy Inc., a professor at Centennial College, and has co-written the curriculum for the Chartered Marketer’s media course.

David Brown