Notes on marketing in NYC

Last night I ended with a rather sour note that compared the consultant’s life with that of a gray hound. A good metaphor but a bad rendering of life here at the heart of world of marketing.

Something’s going on here.

It feels as if the commercial world is beginning to take up residence of the excluded middle in the strategic world—that big stretch between the academics at one end of the continuum and the marketing practitioners at the other.

The academics keep their distance. Creatures of privilege, protected by tenure, safe in the parochial world of their “discipline,” academics like to imagine themselves the occupants of the world of pure idea. But this proves to be a world so divorced from the real world, so well insulated by privilege, that they have not had to grapple with the real intellectual challenges of the day. They are persuaded the categories are unstable, but they take this to be a license for their repudiation of the world.

The rest of us must use these categories anyhow—under pressure, with a world of reference whirling around us, with moments of clarity that come and mostly go.

On the other side, the practitioners who are deeply and properly occupied by meeting their numbers and managing growth. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to look up and out.

What’s out? It is a newly imponderable world. Consumer taste and preference continues to fragment, and change runs swift and fast. Advance warning becomes more important because the future gets here sooner than it used to. What used to be an option is now a necessity. Without advance warning, we must play a game of perpetual catch, to endure a condition of perpetual surprise. As Andrew Zolli puts it, advance warning is becoming “just in time” notice.

With academics confined to their corner, the commercial world is working its way up the continuum. This week I have worked with Sterling Rice, UBS and the Global Business Network as they explore the excluded middle (though both of them, to be fair, have made a good living looking in this direction for some time).

There are rules to living in this middle ground. The first one is that no one is an expert. In the old days, these forecasting sessions would have brought oracles together with those prepaed to defer to them. But here in the middle distance, no one can know for sure. The trick is to talk about what you know, and to suggest intelligent ways to think about it. This does two things. It gives advance notice, to diminish the “surprise” effect. It gives a first form, with which to think about what the novelty might be.

This doesn’t sound like much. But without it, we are flatfooted. Everyone who has played sports knows the difference between engagement and flatfootedness. The latter happens from time to time. A moment of distraction and we are removed from the flow. The game seems suddenly to be happening around us in hyper time. The most ordinary athlete passes us around effortlessly. If this is the difference between getting the news early and having it visit it as a surprise, then value is being created here.

New York City continues to be an interesting place in which to pursue this sort of thing. You still get the sense that the future happens here first. Even when, seconds after room service arrives, you are visited in your hotel room by a cockroach the size of a Buick. He’s looking for the future too.

2 thoughts on “Notes on marketing in NYC

  1. steve

    In business schools, we are constantly faced with tension between dealing with trends (and fads)–which external constituencies often want us to do so as to make us “relevant”–and focusing on creating and transmitting robust knowledge based on solid methods. The problem with addressing trends and fads is that we often have no distinctive expertise to bring to bear, and there is often no substance to the topics being urged upon us.

    For example, during the late dotcom mania, external boards of advisers, employers of our students, and the students themselves put excruciating pressure on business schools to shift attention and resources to Internet-related topics. Even though many faculty could see that much of the puported “revolutionary” intellectual content of the dotcom era was chimerical, it was very difficult to articulate that in the face of the gigantic wealth creation in the stock market of the time.

    So we ended up with Harvard Business School writing dozens of e-business cases that will probably never be used again and distorting its curriculum by offering zillions of e-business courses (many since folded for lack of interest). Most business schools made some sort of accommodation to the trend, leaving vestigial “centers”, courses, and other detritus that will soon seem as dated as the Brutalist buildings scattered across American university campuses.

    On the other hand, business schools pretty much failed to react to fads such as “reengineering”, which turned out to be wise as this was another flash in the pan. Unfortunately, such non-responsiveness is not principled as much as inertial–business schools pretty much missed the quality revolution and world-class manufacturing, which have turned out to be enduring features of the business landscape.

    The process of disciplinary research and the demand that knowledge be somewhat reliable and useful makes it very hard for academic institutions to surf the trend waves. That’s not always a bad thing, but it is a real limitation on what one can expect from academic departments.

  2. Grant


    well said, thank you.

    it is true we don’t want business schools and other academics haring off in pursuit of every trend, only to have to “reset” when the trend proves to be a fad. On the other hand, sometimes the fad becomes a trend, and the trend becomes culture, and if the academics wait to see if this will happen, they fall hopelessly behind the mark.

    Surely they need to make themselves a little more like a complex adaptive system that is capable of “sussing” out the new even as they got at more fundamental problems.

    And it is not clear to me that they are doing a good job even here with the fundamental problems. The world is changing in ways and at a speed that means, I think, that academics have to be much closer to the action to see how to address the fundamental problems. The ivory tour is not porous enough and the real intellectual action has moved into world.

    Thanks again.

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