The art of noise

Stefan Stern
9 December 2014

Stefan SternPay attention. go on, puh-leeze.

This is what runs through the heads of marketing executives as they contemplate their next attempt to segment their customer base. From the moment we wake up, we are assailed by a never-ending torrent of marketing messages and distracting noise.

How to get a hearing? That is what marketing experts are supposed to know about. And that’s why there must be, on the face of it, a pretty good case for procuring marketing expertise from outside the business. It is hard for the lay person to keep up with the new and developing disciplines of marketing. Send for the specialists.

But when they arrive what language are they speaking? What is a “page impression”? What are “unique users”? What is a click worth? How do you know if someone has seen (or read) your online marketing material? And so on.

Trying to measure a return on investment in this context will test any purchaser’s skills. And in truth there may not be much useful and objective data to work with. I am reminded of Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman, who was asked which movie moguls had the magic touch when it came to backing new projects: “Nobody knows anything,” he said.

Potential partners will all make great claims, but no-one has summed up this world better than the US retailer John Wanamaker many decades ago: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

• It’s Christmas time and there are quite a lot of reasons to be afraid, if you think about it.

And I am not just talking about karaoke at the Christmas party. As the shut-down/slowdown approaches, purchasers are once again at the heart of things. Will economic recovery continue into the new year, or are the red warning lights on the dashboard flashing, as the UK prime minister David Cameron said recently?

Decisions taken by procurement teams will affect which way things turn. What is the right choice as far as stock levels are concerned, for example? If we are in for further falls in inflation, and possibly even deflation, then delaying purchasing decisions further into spring might make sense. On the other hand, if Mr Cameron’s fears are overdone and the UK will keep ticking over quite nicely in the new year, you do not want to be caught out by disappointing the demand for your goods and services.

While the office parties are still raging and the hangovers throbbing, procurement staff will need to keep a clear head as we move into 2015 (Yes, 2015!). The continued healthy recovery of the UK economy will depend to a large extent on the choices you make. So no pressure! And do try to have a happy Christmas and at least some time off.

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School

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