Why Innovation Is More Important Than Expertise In Your Marketing Career

April 23, 2008 at 5:27 am | Posted in Boomers, Communication, Generation X, Generations, Heath, Chip and Dan - Made To Stick, Marketing, Net gens, Online marketing, Tweens, Web 2.0 | 6 Comments
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I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living until I was almost thirty. I knew what I didn’t want to do: the same repetitive tasks day after day, anything that involved lots of numbers, and in a place where I didn’t learn new things.

For me, the answer was marketing. But I can’t help thinking about the college student unsure of how to get paid for their odd smattering of talents.

I imagine that starting a marketing career these days is daunting. I would venture that more has changed about the business in the last 10 years than did in the 50 years proceeding it. How can a college student compete with elders with decades of experience behind them?

The Pitfalls Of Experience

It turns out that years on the job as a single factor might not be as important as we’ve all thought. John Cloud in The Science of Experience in Time magazine wrote that 30 years of study into expert performance “has shown that experience itself – the raw amount of time you spend pursuing any particular activity, from brain surgery to skiing – can actually hinder your ability to deliver reproducibly superior performance.”

And yet, doesn’t experience give us years to hone our skills? The answer is yes and no. Of course, relentless pursuit of a career gives you valuable knowledge – no one would dispute that. However, the temptations of experience are: 1) it frees the mind to think about other things (didn’t I need to pick up milk on the way home from work?) and can produce over-confidence (these kids and their social media – I’ll stick to direct mail, thanks).

Experience Leads To Features

One of my more popular posts deals with the difference between features (what a product does) and benefits (what a product does for the consumer). Chip Heath, author of one of favorite books of the year, Made To Stick, was recently quoted in The New York Times:

“I have a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too,” Mr. Heath says. “People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.” (emphasis mine)

Experience sucks us in with the curse of knowledge. It’s an inevitable tendency, but it’s not inevitable.

Beating Experience At Its Own Game

Cynthia Barton Rabe wrote a book in 2006 named The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It (love the title, Ms Rabe!). She contends that the way to beat the potential stagnation of experience is to slow down and go back to basics. This “forces [the individual] to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.

The Boon Of Innovation

Marketers just starting out can force themselves into a regimen to both gain experience in the craft as well as constantly push and force themselves out of their comfort zone (even if that means a stumble once in a while). John Cloud from Time spoke with Nobel prize winner Anders Ericsson, an expert on expertise (sorry for the long quote but it’s worth it):

“[R]ather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion — repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician — that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving. Ericsson calls this exertion “deliberate practice,” by which he means the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding.”

Luckily, your marketing career is made for just this type of activity. New products and services come on the market every day and we serve as early adopters on behalf of our clients. The best marketers naturally force themselves into exactly the kind of practice of innovation Ericsson and Cloud speak of.

So, Everything That Came Before Is Bunk?

No. Please don’t ascertain from this post that I am in favor of throwing out everyone in an agency with experience – quite the opposite. I strongly believe that humans have been using the same types of communication since our earliest days and it is only the mediums that have changed. You can learn a lot from experienced co-workers – I know I have.

The danger, however, is when experience becomes stagnation. When you stop thinking, stop experimenting, stop failing – that is the death of the marketer.

We all know the guy in the office who poo-poos anything new (or you will soon). Let him be. Hang with the cool kids, the ones who push the limits, even if that means occasional egg on your face. Failing small can lead to succeeding big. How will you be innovative today?



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  1. Hmmm…very thought-provoking. In my search for my next CMO/VPM challenge, I’ve re-oriented how I present myself to focus less on WHO I worked for and more on highlights of WHAT I accomplished and the skills I’ve developed. In interviews, I usually get to explain how I created the solution to a problem that led to the accomplishment and that’s when the real engagement occurs. I’m going to do a little split-testing going forward. Thx.

  2. Experience, although insanely valuable, could be a hindrance at times. Like you said, innovation could be the key to a company. New ideas, new outlooks. Or, more open for change.

  3. I’m often surprised at the ways your posts intersects with my work as an educator/academic. The argument in this post gets at the value of a broad, liberal arts education, the kind of environment that challenges students and teachers to think critically and work across disciplinary boundaries. Unfortunately, most of my students and many academics and university administrators place far too much value on expertise and very little on innovation and critical/creative thinking. I’m curious if the problems you discuss have roots or are manifest in the ways marketting folks are trained.

  4. Great ideas here. Here’s one kicker… What you’ll find in your marketing career may really disappoint you because so many marketing managers, VPs, directors and CEO’s are exposed to so many different competing marketing “messages/ideas/thoughts of the week.” Everybody’s an expert, and the real challenge is to manage expectations and sneak in innovation. Heck, even sneaking in tried and true experience is difficult at times. For example, many companies get hot for AdWords but then ignore direct response fundamentals (even Google’s own content and training for AdWords reads similar to the classics – Caples, Oglivy, etc.). The medium is a little different, but the message is so critical. The tech channels often distract marketers from proven methods. Like Rabe says, one way to innovate is to get back to basics.. which are often fundamentals. That may seem counterintuitive.. but then creativity often shines at that primal/emotional level.

  5. Hey DJ,

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve spoke to a few CEOs and executives of Web 2.0 companies and organizations, and they’ve touched on the same idea. In this type of marketing, it’s passion, not experience that makes you successful.

  6. Wow, thanks for all the great comments everyone!

    Phil, I think you’re totally right on all counts. The mentality for an idea of the week is so frustrating and, frankly, counter-intuitive (why would we go with an unproven method when there are clear-cut proven methods with a history of success). I’ve reading David Ogilvy’s “On Advertising” right now – expect to see in future posts – and it’s amazing how little has changed. Ogilvy says in that book that the only major difference during his career was the advent of television. We may see more fundamental changes (internet, obviously), but not as many as people think. Basics are the new black.

    Matt – that’s exactly why I love your input on the blog. It comes from a vocation I know little about, but the commonalities are amazing (again, speaks to the basics/fundamentals in Phil’s comment).
    I don’t have an answer for your marketer training question. You know better than anyone that I was “trained” more on James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg than on ROI and selling. But yes, I sense that you are correct – as though there is ONE way to do something – which does not work well at all in the current online marketplace.
    I was speaking with BG the other day about the intense frustration I had growing up in Ohio – how I had to ride my bike so far to buy a damn comic book and how customer service sucked because you had no other place to go. I think that’s why I love my job so much. It allows me to think creatively about how to communicate to folks about how to make their life better. Everything is easier. And don’t get me started about how I used to walk to school in the snow uphill both ways… 😉

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