This week on Marketing Smarts, I talk to Mike Troiano of Holland-Mark, a marketing strategy firm based in Boston, about the crisis in the traditional marketing communications function—which has, in his view, "lost a seat at the grown-up table."

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"Marketers became specialists in a single skill set," he says, and that skill set basically involved (and revolved) around advertising. Through this process of specialization, marketing communications became "insulated from accountability" and, eventually, it became expendable.

The problem is this, according to Mike: Over the last 100 years, we saw the rise of a business culture based on mass production, mass consumption, and mass advertising in print and, especially, on television. As dominant as this setup has been, Mike remarks, "The 20th century was a bit of an anomaly."

That is, after a relatively brief run—given the arc of human history—the media landscape is undergoing an unprecedented technical revolution, and the changes we are seeing highlight a critical weakness at the core of marcom.

That weakness can be summed up in the words of one of Mike's partners, Chris Colbert: "If advertising really worked, spending on it would go up in a bad economy."

"When things contract," Mike points out, "so do marketing budgets. It's almost counter-intuitive when you think about what marketing should be about."

To illustrate what marketing should be about, Mike invokes an earlier time, when modern brands were just emerging (he cites State Street Bank—"one of the first brands created in America"—as an example), a time when "their product was their marketing." 

"There was a sort of purity to that," he adds, "because people were responding to some authentic dimension of a product."

Nevertheless, it's not just a search for purity and authenticity that drives Mike to focus on the product. Rather, it's the insight that, in the final analysis, products create brands—not the other way around

As she puts it, "Products have always been the engines of brand creation."

The good news is that in a world governed by product—and particularly products that have their brand, in the words of Alex Bogusky, "baked in"—marketing communications can regain its relevance by helping shape the brand that products create, specifically by helping companies articulate the "emotional value proposition" of the product: the role it plays "in the emotional life of the consumer" (elsewhere Mike has defined "Brand" as "a collective emotional response to something you can buy"). 

After all, evoking and crafting emotional response is what marketing communicators are supposed to be good at, right?

Let's face it: The product is what the consumer ultimately cares about, not the advertising. Which is why, when advocating product-centricity, Mike insists, "We're getting back to something fundamental and human and real after a 50-year stretch of artificial and contrived and forced."

In the end, the product-centric path is the path to the future; the ad/brand-centric path is part of the past.

"In the 23rd Century," he quips, "they'll look back on that a blip."

If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Mike, you may do so above or download the mp3. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes. If you like what you hear, and even if you don't, feel free to leave us a review!

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