Marketing Is Dead

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It’s a great blog headline that will get a lot of attention, right?

The Harvard Business Review had a blog post today titled, Marketing Is Dead, written by Bill Lee. Beyond the irony that Lee used a traditional marketing tactic (solid copywriting) to illicit a stream of actions that have made this link incredibly popular (thus debunking his own thesis), once again we’re in a world where definitions and explanations get confused. If I can understand what Lee is saying (and it’s not very clear), it sounds like he is saying that traditional advertising is dead (as we have known it to date). This is what the article says: "Traditional marketing – including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications – is dead. Many people in traditional marketing roles and organizations may not realize they’re operating within a dead paradigm. But they are. The evidence is clear." To add some clarity, marketing isn’t dead – according to Lee – but advertising is dead. For the record, that’s not a semantic error. Marketing (which encompasses everything from product, price, place and promotion) is not only alive and well… it’s core to a business’ success. In short marketing isn’t dead. Marketing is everything.

On death and dying…

It’s less of a red herring and much more of a chicken little to make the claim that marketing is dead. In fact, I would tell Mr. Lee, the Harvard Business Review, and anyone else who asks that advertising (as we have known it to date) is not dying. In fact, it’s not on life-support, it’s not sick, and it probably doesn’t even have the sniffles. Does that mean that social media and digital media has not disrupted the model or added new layers and opportunities? Of course it has. Does it mean that newer components like community management, engaging influencers, building social capital with customers, and engaging with consumers in more collaborative ways (the four core pillars that Lee argues have put the death knell on traditional marketing) hasn’t changed the game? Of course it has.

Not all brands are social. Not all companies need it.

I’m not raging against the machine because I think that traditional advertising offers more opportunity than any of the solutions that Lee prescribes. I am saying that advertising – as a way of informing the masses about a product or service – is not only relevant, it will continue to be an integral component of all strategic marketing campaigns. In short: everything is "with" not "instead of."

Who cares about breakfast cereal?

You are a consumer packaged goods giant. You sell 48 different kinds of cereal. One of your bran-based cereals is coming out with a new flavor (maybe it has less sugar in it, maybe you’re adding dried blueberries to the mix). How are you going to inform the mass populous about it? Community managers going everywhere and anywhere on Facebook that health nuts hang out? You’re going to get customers super-interested in liking and friending your brand because they spend five bucks a month on a box of cereal? You’re going to engage customers and have them crowdsource the next update to your 300-year-old product?

Who are we kidding?

Does anyone care that much about their breakfast cereal? Advertising is a catalyst to inform. There are other angles (direct response, engagement, brand narrative, etc…), but it still acts as an amazing (and cost-effective) way to tell the masses that you have something new to say. We may not like the ads that the brand puts out there. We may not like the repetition or placement of where some of these messages appear, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that advertising is no longer a powerful way for a brand to buy their way into the zeitgeist.

More choices and a lack of scarcity doesn’t change that.

Beyond the four areas that the Harvard Business Review blog post outlines as the "next generation" of marketing services, we can’t forget that the more media choices we create (and we’ve been creating it by the tonnage) reduces the scarcity (or value) of an ad. That part is, without question, a reality. Advertising was a scarcity model and we live in a world where ads can (and do) go everywhere. That being said, there is still scarcity (there are only so many slots available if you want to buy an ad on the Super Bowl or the homepage of The Huffington Post). Is the value still there? Has the value model changed? Without a doubt. Still, if you want to inform a large audience about your brand, advertising is still very much alive (as is marketing, thank you very much). Saying that marketing is dead is like saying that product development is dead and that branding is dead. It may get a lot of clicks, but there’s no substance or truth behind it.

What do you think? Is marketing dead?


  1. Someone tweeted the title of Lee’s HBR post and I did a knee-jerk click-through. And immediately, I felt ashamed for falling for the clickbait (Really, do we need yet another “XXX is Dead” blogpost?). I felt even worse after reading the article waiting for the punchline.
    Thanks Mitch for helping me clarify my thoughts. I have a different take. Marketing isn’t dead (never will be). But it will need to shift from the hyper-consumerist, inadequacy inducing communication machine that grew out of the 20th century. My hope is we humans are beginning to realize that allowing traditional marketers and advertisers to stoke our fears of not having or being enough isn’t doing us any favors. Yes, it may sell cereal or beauty products or a BMW, but we’re starting to see the less obvious costs to our identities. This new web-enabled world we find ourselves in gives each of us a bit more control over how we construct our own personal narratives. Well, that’s my dream anyway.

  2. Few things bother me more than when people equate ‘marketing’ with ‘promotion’. Promotion is a subset of marketing, which, if you take a look around, is more alive than ever before (hello Apple, Adidas, Samsung, P&G, and the cool indie coffee shop at the corner of Jarvis and Richmond in Toronto called Fahrenheit). The fact that the author is publishing a book with Harvard Business Press is an act of marketing in itself, for one cannot ignore the tremendous brand of that organization as a whole. Marketing is evolving, as is promotion, but at the end of the day it still is about one thing and one thing only – do I have a product or service that the market actually wants and is willing to pay for? I don’t think this concept will die as long as we have competitive markets, hence why you need marketing.

  3. Thanks for writing this. Well done.
    Your comment at the end is especially clear. “Saying that marketing is dead is like saying that product development is dead and that branding is dead. It may get a lot of clicks, but there’s no substance or truth behind it.”
    The premise that marketing is dead is so stupid I would take it even further. Saying that marketing is dead is also like saying the US economy doesn’t exist. Almost half of the US GDP is directly or indirectly related to marketing activities – broadly defined.

  4. Solid Mitch, as always!
    As a practitioner of Advertising Research (Tracking, Testing etc) for 25 years, there is no question that consumers have become more elusive and smarter about the marketing model. Thanks to media fragmentation and emerging channels, we’ll agree that the “BBC-1” and “BBC-2” Push marketing model has been replaced with a Push-Pull one, where consumers are empowered to both seek, and be spoken to.
    What all research has shown, is that “Relevance” is still king – regardless of media channel, and whether that channel is established, emerging or new – there will always be a need for smart marketers, creative agencies and media buyers to pinpoint, nurture and communicate the drivers of brand choice.

  5. Everything we do is marketing. The word “marketing” had to have it’s own campaign to enter the Zeitgeist. We made it up. Blueberries huh? Really? Oh gotta try those!

  6. I wonder if it’s fair to say that interactive media are making advertising more accountable both to viewers (in the honesty of the message) and clients (in the way ad agencies must be accountable for what they recommend).
    Example: Run insulting ads (like the Groupon ads a couple of Super Bowls ago) or misleading ads, and the “constructive criticism” online is brutal.
    Example: TV campaigns can be tightly integrated with web sales. Geico’s TV/radio campaign has improved their market share for something like 18 years straight. It’s often highly entertaining, and has evolved hand-in-hand with Geico’s web capabilities.
    Example: Old Spice — what needs to be said?
    So maybe that new media have imposed a new level of accountability on traditional advertising, ironically saving traditional advertising from itself.

  7. Ahhh, that’s better. I had read the original article in HBR and thought it lacked depth and real understanding of what marketing is. All I am is a marketing guy, so I was almost dead! to me, Marketing starts with the consumer, figuring out their needs and matching up your brand to those needs. It’s about the brand vision and and then the how (strategy) and then has an executional element in getting there. None of that is dead.
    I ran the marketing at J&J and I remember one of my brand manager for Polysporin came up and said he wanted a website on “how to cleanse a wound”. My response was “do we really think that will get people excited?” It’s like your new bran cereal. Media choice, whether it be traditional or new media…is an executional element of a brand.
    New Media is exciting. The last few years have been like 1949 to 1957 with the launch of TV. I wasn’t around then, but don’t really think people had a separate teams on the client side for TV…I don’t think people declared marketing dead….or made fun of people who still liked radio or read the paper. And I don’t think they had the same battles of TV vs “traditional” mediums. Instead, people ran with it, learned and advanced over the next 10, 20 and 30 years of how to do it even better.

  8. I think the importance of marketing can be summed up by one, very short, sentence in your article. “Marketing is everything”. Marketing is more important and relevant than ever before… it’s also THE key element in business success or failure.
    “Good” marketing of a “bad” product can result in it selling millions. “Bad” marketing of a “good” product will see it crash and burn.

  9. I saw your rebuttal after posting my opinion which is more aligned with your thinking. New channels of communication have made more obvious the problems certain companies have with their underlying marketing tactics or lack thereof.

  10. Well, The thing about marketing is that it “TOPed” the peak of development, and now it has to be simple again.
    Consumers know we want to sell them, Ideas, Products, Services, promos, etc. Many consumers interact and “engage” with brands and not consume them, and others consume and don’t interact.
    And the “engagement” is just another transaction, and audiences know this. The control shifted or is shifting strongly.
    Unilever recently cut a lot of Marketing Positions, will reduce by 30% the “product lines” and will cut budgets on Media and TVC production strongly. Heinz Worldwide with their recent acquisition, is on the same path.
    And there is a clear difference between categories, High Involvement and low involvement.
    Marketing may not be dead, but it has to be simple again, Wendy Clark from Coca Cola had half of the story right, “the times of controlling the message are over” well is not just the communication, and more and more the consumers know that.
    Another important point is the ZMOT, where depending on the category, Advertising has zero influence in purchase decisions, or Consideration. As well as the shelf.
    The market and the consumer is evolving so fast that the Ego of us Marketers will be our worst enemy if we don’t adapt, and by adapt it doesn’t mean Oh Go Digital, because the digital spaces is as cluttered as TV, and Consumers interact with brands just as a value exchange.

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