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Our brand of talent

Any fool can ask 'What if...?' but gifted marketers provide answers that give their ideas substance
Marketing talent imagines not just the idea, but the consequences that ensue from it
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Start with ability, add application, and what do you get? Competence. Maybe, with enough time as skills become ever more practised and honed, you get super-competence.

This is what the formula yields, irrespective of the human endeavour to which it is fused. It can carry you a long way, close to the top of your chosen sphere, up to a height where it can seem that your craft is a match for the best.

Then along comes something different. Along comes a sublime gift that takes those same skills and ignites them with seemingly effortless grace to create something wonderful, something that you could never have conjured, for all your experience and toil. Along comes talent.

What is talent in marketing? What is this elusive ‘something’ that cannot be acquired from study, drill, or 1000 sights-raising sessions?

We could turn to the father of modern marketing for the answer. In 1960, Harvard’s Theodore Levitt had laid down the foundations of our discipline, with his paper, ‘Marketing Myopia’. From this seminal work, the student of marketing can imbibe the basics: how to work backwards from customer need, how to reframe the organisation’s purpose in consumer terms and how to avoid the trap of just selling. So far, so competent.

It was in a later work that Levitt touched on that quality that separates the gifted from the merely good. His 240-page bestseller, published in 1983, was called The Marketing Imagination.

Imagination is that ‘something’. Yet, to achieve it in business, as Levitt observed, calls for ‘shedding constraints… but also discipline’.

That is the caveat. In marketing, imagination must run a complete course, blasting away from the status quo, soaring up to achieve originality, then arcing back to embrace everything that happens next. Marketing talent imagines not just the idea, but also the cascade of consequences that ensue from it. It imagines the means, not just the end. It is, therefore, as far from those blue-sky, off-the-wall, anything­goes sessions as you can get. Any fool can ask ‘What if..?’ – and many fools do, without troubling themselves to provide the answer.

Talent asks ‘What if…?’, then summons up the implications for logistics, pricing, communications, segmentation and shareholder risk, often in a single, sweeping phase.

‘What if we build a hotel where the bedrooms don’t even have closets, but just a pole in the corner to hang clothes? What if there is no reception? What if we put the money saved into more comfortable beds and better soundproofing?’

Accor Hotels asked the questions, and gave the answers, for its Formule 1 concept: modular construction, secondary locations, near-bottom pricing, catchy sub-branding, new market space. This is the breathtaking force of marketing imagination in action.

Marketers can be divided roughly into three types: the journeymen who work hard to achieve high standards; the dangerous ones with big ideas and no discipline; and the bare few with true marketing imagination – that unlikely mix of intuition, empathy, rigour and sheer, applied originality. In a word, talent.

The Marketing Imagination by Theodore Levitt

‘To “think straight” successfully in a world full of smart, straight-thinking people requires thinking with a special quality, transcending the ordinary and thus reaching imaginatively beyond the obvious or merely deductive.’

A strong supporter of differentiation, Levitt felt that searching for and defining your ‘meaningful distinction’ was at the heart of marketing practice – in his view ‘all else is derivative of that and only that’.

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School Levitt joined faculty in 1959

Creating a pool of viable possibilities and making choices is something that Levitt also felt was a key part of applied marketing imagination. It gives credence to those who believe there is always more than one ‘right answer’ in marketing, and that, too often, the focus is put on the argument for a single strategy rather than encouraging full and open exploration.

‘Though progress starts with the imagination, only work can make things happen. And work itself works best when fuelled, again, by imagination.’

Marketing imagination involves a firm grasp of the numbers. As Levitt points out. ‘fiscal failure originates in the market place’.