Watts Wacker and I worked together at Yankelovich and Partners, the strategic research firm, in the early '90s. I always learn from his understanding of social, political, economic and technological trends that will shape the future marketing landscape.

Wacker is the coauthor of three groundbreaking books that give marketers the tools and language to work on creating a bright future for their organizations: The 500-Year Delta: What Happens After What Happens Next; The Visionary's Handbook: Nine Paradoxes That Will Shape the Future of Your Business; and The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Shape Mass Markets.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with him the role of marketing in organizations today and his perspective on how marketers can earn a seat at the strategy table; the interview was for my upcoming book, Making Marketing Matter: How to Win Respect for Marketing in Your Organization.

Young: How do you work with marketers now?

Wacker: I'm a professional Fool. Think of Tom Hanks in the movie Big. The marketing guy is making the big presentation of all the trends and all the cycles and all of the sales data, and, of course, it's Tom Hanks who says I don't get it. That was very much the role the [archetypal] Fool plays. When I work for a corporation, that's usually what I do. The majority of my work is to offer my vision of the future. Futuring is about looking at the issues that could influence or shape your future. And visioning is about making the future you want to pursue. I'm a little wizard in a little Victorian home with a couple of employees that think for a living.

Young: Do you believe marketing lacks respect in organizations today?

Wacker: I concur with your premise that the marketing function has been clichéd a great deal and suffers on a couple of fronts. One is that it's easy to make fun of. You know, as the cartoon from Dilbert said when Dilbert was sent to marketing, like it was purgatory, and over the door a sign reads: “Marketing, 2 Drink Minimum.” And so marketing has been easily made fun of because the value-add has been harder to see in certain cases. Secondly, anything that makes it to social convention, the next stop after that is cliché and to have fun poked at it. But marketing has been a big target because a spouting whale gets harpooned. And nothing spouts more than the marketing function.

Young: In the work that you do in helping companies to think, how do you help marketers to think?

Wacker: Well, you know, I'll give you a wonderful quote from Count Basie. I tend to speak in metaphor a lot, and I wish more marketers would learn to understand and appreciate the power of metaphor. Basie, before he died, had this incredible renewal of his music on college campuses, and instead of doing the 20,000-seat arena he was doing the student union buildings with 3,000 students for a dance. And I'll never forget when an interviewer asked him how he accounted for the revival of his old music. Basie said, “Young lady, it's not the difference between old music and new music, it's the difference between good music and bad music.” And, I think a problem with marketing is understanding the difference between good marketing and bad marketing. Too much of marketing is mediocre, at best.

I would also indict the marketing function of looking at too many of its components individually as opposed to the Gestalt of it all put together. For example, the whole concept of positioning [as written in the book of that title by Trout and Ries] was based on belief in the unique selling proposition and the advantages of being first to market. But after that, you had to segment the market in some way to give you a unique selling proposition. And, interestingly, we've gotten to such tertiary levels of uniqueness that it's unique, but it's not motivating. For example, think of Pringles, the potato chips that make your hands less greasy. Well, I don't know about you, but I wash my hands after I eat any potato chip.

Young: Not a benefit you care about.

Wacker: Right. I can find you all sorts of ways to position a product uniquely, but there's a difference between unique and compelling. And secondly, Positioning talks about how you can't be first in pickles and first in ketchup.

Young: But we know that's not true.

Wacker: Today, if you're good at something, consumers say, “What else can you do for me?”

Young: You develop that relationship and it goes deep.

Wacker: One of the better marketing things I've seen in my career was when Tide came out with regenerative formula Tide. You take your favorite clothes and when you wash them, they keep the nuance of fitting every contour of your body, but the fabric gets stronger when you wash it. I said, what a great idea that is. Just brilliant. Well, it was literally a month until Wisk had the same product on the shelf. And so, any great idea you have gets copied at the speed of sound. And the better your idea, the faster it gets copied. And that's part of the age of access, right? Well, if that's the case, you can no longer differentiate yourself on what you do. You can only differentiate yourself on what you “be.” And so you've got to deconstruct your do from your be and look at them separately. And then, of course, you've got to put them back together. What you do changes pretty dramatically, but what you “be” does not. And so great marketing is built on the do.

Young: So, give me an example of being.

Wacker: Well, when I helped Gateway originally, the do of Gateway was making computers. The be was to be the wagon master across the Silicon prairie. You're on a perilous journey; I can help you get there. It's a metaphor that shows in every culture that's ever existed: the quest for the Holy Grail. The first journey was to learn how to use the computer. And the second journey was to make sure you knew how to connect it to the Internet. And the third journey was to make sure it wasn't obsolete.

Now we live in an age where when you buy a new computer, it's already too slow before you get it out of the box. It's what I call “inherent obsolescence.” Pardon the pun—there's no sacred cows at Gateway. They knew that their job was to identify the next step in the journey. Gateway, by the way, before they started coming unglued, started making more money from leasing than they made from Internet service provisioning, and they made more money from Internet service than they made from selling boxes. That's great marketing. Unfortunately, companies, like people, go into denial. You start believing your press clippings, and then you do something stupid, like move the company to San Diego. Well, you can't be the wagon master across the Silicon prairie from San Diego. You can move to Minneapolis or Chicago; I can fully appreciate you don't want to be in North Sioux City any more. But the next thing you know, the biggest issue in the company is who's got a tan at the meeting. Your marketing meetings aren't going to go well if that's the biggest subtext of the meeting.

Young: So how does the marketing at the highest level keep focused on the “be” aspect, or is that strictly the domain of the CEO and the Board of Directors?

Wacker: Not in the least. If anything, the ombudsman of that is the Chief Marketing Officer. There are several ways you can do it. One is, obviously, corporate mythos. You know, myths are truth stories that are not about the truth. For example, when I worked for Krispy Kreme, every store in the South would tell you that theirs was the first store ever built. Well, actually, only one can be. But that's the mythos about their involvement with local communities. So, where are your corporate myths? There's the story finder, a story teller, a story seller, and a story storer. And you have to have all of those clicking. You know, most people look at marketing as the story seller. But I think marketing has a role in all four of those.

Young: From what I understand, there seems to be a move for making marketing more of a science than an art, but what you're saying is really the art is where the power is.

Wacker: I'm not devoid of fact. But I've never met a database I couldn't make say whatever I wanted. The problem with the science is that most research is done to prove someone's point of view, not to get new learning.

Young: You have a nice testimonial quote for Phil Kotler's book, Marketing Insights From A-Z. There's a quote in the book that's really quite startling, under L for leadership. He says, “There are two types of CEOs: Those who know that they don't understand marketing and those who don't know that they don't understand marketing.” Is it the job of the highest-level marketer to educate the CEO in this regard?

Wacker: You can't look at marketing as a discipline in a vacuum. You've got to put it in the context of the corporate culture and to the individual relationship of the CMO to the CEO. And it would take years to get the whole program to where everybody is marching in the same direction, to the same beat. And I think most great marketing begins in the organization, not out.

Young: It's critical to recognize the job of managing internally, but can you change culture as a marketer?

Wacker: Definitely. In fact, until you do that, your marketing programs are never going to fly.

Young: What would you focus on first internally to change culture?

Wacker: The first thing I'd do is put marketing in a Gestalt. You can be product focused, you can be marketing focused or you can be consumer focused, you know? “Quality is Job 1” is a product-focused message. “We Build Excitement” is a marketing focused message. “Built for the Human Race” is a consumer-focused message. All of those come under the purview of marketing. But you've got to get some sense of the culture's willingness to pick which kinds of dimensions before you even begin. And so, when you say, who in the organization, you start with the top and you go all the way to the bottom. I was once hired by Leo Burnett to figure out what was wrong with the agency. And the first thing I did was to invite the 30 oldest secretaries there to dinner.

Young: So, we've covered the importance of managing internally or inward. We've covered a bit of managing outward, with good and bad marketing. What about managing forward? What does a marketer have to do to manage forward effectively?

Wacker: Well, a good futurist is usually a better historian. And, you know, there are only two things you can't promise. One is trust, and the other is authenticity. Those are the two things your customer gets to give you back. Your customers get to say you're the real deal, not you. You know, Levi's fell apart when they started to say we're the real, authentic jean. Come on! Herman Hesse said when a man speaks of his honor, make him pay cash.

So, interestingly, you have to take your vision of the future along with your authentic claim and put them together in the context of the here and now. For example, the authentic claims of Ritz [crackers], besides the name, were the taste and the texture. But the context of stacking had gone from spreading on a cracker to what I affectionately call hand, bag, mouth. So, the way you took your past into your future was called Ritz Bits. And of course, then you put cheese in them, peanut butter in them, marshmallow and chocolate over them, and now you'd be stunned at what percentage of the total sales of the line Ritz Bits is. So, again, it's taking your mythos and putting it against the context of what's changed in the environment.

Young: How will marketing change in the next five to ten years?

Wacker: Well, I think it will become even more important. As the world becomes more uncertain, we tend to go to find those things to which we truly can have a real sentiment for. You know, I'm really interested in tribal-ness lately and I see that we're probably in as many as a dozen tribes at a time. Like I'm in the Hartman Leather tribe. My most important tribe is the Absolute Vodka tribe—the search for things that you can feel affinity to.

Young: It's part of your personal brand, or personal uniqueness?

Wacker: Part of your personage, would be the way I'd say that. And that will only put even a greater premium on better marketing.

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.