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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Absurd Fiction of Objectives

I teach a class at a local university in Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC). Most of the students are pretty good kids and I had a real problem the other night. My topic for much of the evening was to discuss objectives and how they fit in to the IMC process. The textbook, a fine one, gave a long and even impassioned explanation about how vital the objectives process was in advertising and marketing and why great pains should be taken to hammer out tight objectives across every discipline.

After a bit of soul searching, I conjured up the famous quote from Mark Twain—“When in doubt, tell the truth.”

Objectives should help you clarify what you hope to accomplish in your marketing communications program. They are goals that you set for the coming year but there is no certainty going in that you will meet them. Ideally, they should be brief and clear-cut. For example, in your personal life your doctor tells you to lose 10 lbs. by Christmas. That is a clear and measurable goal. Allegedly, our marketing objectives should be similar. Sadly, in my experience, they are not even close.

Over the last several decades, I can count on one hand the times where I was locked in a conference room with a client and we actually hammered out real objectives in a four or five hour session. There was no puffery. We sat and argued and set realistic goals but always knew that we might not reach the objectives no matter how well we performed.

The reality is that almost always, they are not real. In most cases, people set objectives that they are sure that they can meet. Then they go to management and show how they have blown away the straw men and hit their objectives with ease. It has become a game rather than a way to measure performance and be a reminder of what you are aiming at each day.

There are four basis types of objectives that most of us have come across in our careers:

Media—these are easily the most absurd. Mostly, agencies provide vapid objectives that are all slam dunks. Two of the most prevalent are:

1) Chose media that are a good match to creative executions.
2) Schedule media in line with seasonal sales trends.

Duh! Wouldn’t anyone do these anyway?

Marketing—these are probably the most successful when people stick to distribution goals, pricing strategies, and promotional ideas. If they veer off too far, they bump up against other types of objectives.

Communications—these to me, are the trickiest of them all. Can a goal of 5% increase in sales be translated into specific communications objectives? It is a machine with lots of moving parts. Most start with some level of advertising delivery (usually the increasingly obsolete Reach & Frequency metric), then awareness, then Share of Advertising Voice (SOV), and finally move on to consumer preference and trial. It is a very slippery slope but when done well can be illuminating and set a real target.

Sales—one would think that this is an area that is definable. “We want a 6% increase in unit volume for 2011” seems concrete. They are hard to meet sometimes because the economy was weak (think 2008-2009), or the competition outspends you, lowers pricing or builds a better product. Also, advertising often has a carryover effect. An increase in expenditure does not always translate to an immediate increase in sales.

Sometimes, people even set phony sales objectives. Impossible, you might think? Not at all, my friends! Over the years, I have heard many executives say that they give their employees an exaggerated sales goal in the hopes of “laying down a challenge for my team.” If people come close, they are pleased and the CEO meets private profit goals.

In broadcast, it often takes unusual forms. Years ago, I knew a Midwestern radio broadcaster quite well. Each year, he would up sales quotas, sometimes dramatically higher regardless of the economy. One star player always exceeded the lofty goals and it endlessly annoyed the owner. I told him to relax but his retort was “that sales guy made more money than I did last year.” Well, he owned the stations so he could have given himself a raise or been thrilled that his #1 salesman enhanced the value of the properties so much. Finally, in exasperation, he raised the bar to an 18% increase in a moribund economy. The tireless salesman delivered 22%. The next year he cut the sales pro’s account list substantially and raised goals even higher. The sales star brought two big local TV advertisers in to radio for the first time in 20 years and also made the exaggerated quota. The owner asked me what he should do and I suggested that he give the sales guy 5% of the stations which would keep the superstar motivated and help him build equity and perhaps stay for life. My friend could not allow himself to do that and soon the star moved to another market where he thrived. Moral—don’t be jealous of people who are making you rich.

The whole concept of objectives is something of a sham. I see no easy way out but with a little bit of healthy cynicism most of us can learn to deal with them pretty well. In a perfect world, they would be real. Our world is nowhere near that.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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