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An ode to playing the long game in marketing

So much of what causes marketing efforts to “fail” has nothing to do with the efforts themselves, but rather the time horizon they were given for “success” was too small.

In my previous life I was an executive producer of a morning radio show in Chicago. The host would always warn stations before they hired him that they would lose audience when he took over, but then over time he’d build a larger audience than they had before.

Station managers would nod and say they understood but when the audience numbers started dropping, management would get nervous and pull the plug at exactly the wrong time – when the audience numbers were at their lowest. Of course this was right before the numbers would go up again.

Sound familiar?

As a marketer, you’re often tasked with delivering results within the next quarter. And management doesn’t want to see numbers go down at all. This leads to a rash of bad decision making and ill-formed strategy because it’s just not possible to go from 0 to 100 that fast.

(Side note, we always chuckle when new clients say they don’t have a crazy fast timeline and when we ask what it is it’s “by the end of the month.”)

Time horizons are the problem

The issue is not really one of competence, budget, creativity or strategy. Largely, it’s that marketers are simply not given time. 

No one campaign or even string of campaigns will make a brand. It takes repeated effort in the same direction to make a dent and start capturing market share. Note: there are exceptions especially when working with huge budgets – but alas, most B2B marketers are not working with large amounts of cash.

Think about how many years you had to hear “15 minutes could save you 15%” from GEICO to remember it.

Recently, The B2B Institute found that marketing effectiveness increased when campaigns ran for a longer duration (in addition to the number of channels and budget.)

Is it really hard to imagine that people need to see your brand and its message for longer and in more channels for it to stick?

The old rule of thumb was 8 impressions – but that was in a cable TV world. Now I suspect it’s 100-200 because our media saturated brains simply cannot process all the messages competing for brain bandwidth.

Playing the long game

If you don’t have a huge brand name and don’t have gargantuan budgets, you’re going to need to play the long game. It’s actually not even a choice. You are up against physical limitations of our universe.

Sure, you could bet big on some kind of stunt or attempt viral marketing – and it may work. But for the 99% of companies that those tactics won't work for the only other choice is the long game.

Here’s where many marketers go wrong. They fail to realize this fundamental fact and start marketing without aligning on a well-calibrated and realistic time horizon for success. Then after a quarter or two with no results, they get in trouble and cede more power to sales and the product folks. Or start to overinvest in tactics that bring in short term wins at the expense of long term branding. Or even worse, get canned.

Marketing is an investment. It’s the equivalent of buying Microsoft in 1986 and waiting until 2000 to sell. Yes, companies can’t wait that long but the point I’m making is that patience needs to be baked into marketing. 

Stakeholders need to see marketing as a long-term investment – not a switch that’s turned on and off. And it’s our job as marketers to teach them this.

So before your next campaign or big strategic initiative, take some time to align on the time horizon and instead of fighting for more money – fight for more time.





Picture of Guy bauer, founder of umault

Guy has been making commercial videos for over 20 years and is the author of “Death to the Corporate Video: A Modern Approach that Works.” He started the agency in 2010 after a decade of working in TV, film and radio. He’s been losing hair and gaining weight ever since.

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