What makes a great marketer?

IPG Emerging Media Lab President John RossMy answer to the question of what makes a great marketer is simple: Being a great listener. Yeah, that’s right, listening.

The answer is simple because marketing is simple. If you know what your customers really want and give it to them, magic happens. Easy, right?

Most businesses start off as great listeners. Bernie and Arthur, two leaders I was fortunate to work for when I first joined Home Depot knew how to listen to customers. Their entire business was built around listening.

Unlike other big box retailers, where management made decisions and stores followed orders, they built an upside down company. The young guy on the aisle was closest to what customers were buying, and asking for each day, so they pushed ordering all the way down to the lowest level of the company, empowered him to chose what to sell, and how much to stock. No centralized buying, no complicated logistics systems or fancy IS technology required. Just listen, give em’ what they want, and magic will happen.

And of course, it did. An American success story followed, and in the fastest growth trajectory in the history of retail, they grew from nothing to become the second largest retailer in the country.

If it is so simple – this listening thing – then how come more companies don’t do it? It can’t be that easy, right? My theory is that listening, while simple, is incredibly hard. And inherently, not very fun. It puts others in charge of our actions, makes us subservient to the marketplace instead of directing it. Where’s the grand strategy in that?

So we invent things –programs, MARCOM’s, business plans, campaigns – all designed to control our destiny: to force the marketplace to act the way we need it to act. We do this stuff called “advertising,” which of course, is chock full of manipulative devices like coupons, sales, and “for a limited time only” mania, all designed to force the consumer the behave the way we want them to behave. And when they don’t behave – when they don’t shop – we blame them. Ok, we usually blame the weather first, but we eventually get around to those ungrateful consumers who just don’t jump like what they used to when we say “buy one get one free.”  Really, they want low prices AND great service AND a liberal return policy AND free delivery? What, do they expect us to do, go out of business? And when we do try and talk to them – through focus groups and customer service surveys, all they want to do is complain. The nerve of them!

The funny thing is, listening has never been easier. Or less expensive. Our customers are talking to us, loudly and prolifically. They blog about our products and services; they Twitter about us. They email and post and electronically debate about our brands. They even go to our own Websites and give reviews of our wares, like mini brand-evangelists. All for free.

This new technology requires a different set of listening skills for us to hear them. We need to harness these new tools, to dig down into the social landscape. We need new kinds of skills and frameworks to enter their dialog. But at the speed of light we can now listen to our global customer set like never before. And when we dialog with them, they respond.
If I am right, and great marketing is really just effective listening, then emerging technology is giving us the best way to engage our customers, and grow our business our craft has ever seen.

All we have to do is listen.

John Ross is President of the IPG Emerging Media Lab and Executive Vice President of Mediabrands’ Retail 3.0 Practice. Leave a comment for John, or email him here.