Strategy, Tactics and Execution:

General von Clausewitz on Marketing

by Mordechai (Morty) Schiller


Are you "creative"?

David Ogilvy said "I occasionally use the hideous word 'creative' myself, for lack of a better."

Too much of what passes for marketing is based on creative whim. General advertisers often shoot blind, trying to make "impressions" instead of targeting sales.


As they used to say at Benton & Bowles Advertising agency way back in the 1930s: "If it doesn't sell, it's not creative."


Unlike image advertising, direct marketing is more of a science. But a "science" is no more than a pile of information. And information is only as valuable as how it's interpreted -- and how it's used. Even the most sophisticated database marketing cannot guarantee results. Otherwise, direct mail campaigns would bring in closer to a 98% response, instead of the 2% that is usually considered a "successful" prospect mailing.

Like creativity, the importance of technology is overrated. In marketing decisions -- as in all decisions in life -- computers can't replace judgment. They can only inform the decision-makers. No technological edge -- no creative inspiration -- can make up for a poorly conceived marketing strategy No creative genius can redeem bad timing, bad positioning... or a bad product.

Too many advertisers follow a creative flash inspired by a breakthrough in technique. And (I hate to admit this) direct marketers can all fall into the same trap. Instead of a strategy firmly grounded in a master plan, we often get "Hey, let's try a podcast," or a pop-up, or a video contest, or a gift-box with bronze barbells...or some other innovative attention-grabbing gimmick. In the rush of the creative excitement, we lose sight of what to do with the attention once we grab it.

Confession: I saw an article in the
Book Standard that said 40% of kids use some kind of technology, like a computer or iPod, to read or listen to books. According to the survey, 34% of those technology-savvy kids are high-frequency readers, while only 25% of kids of who not use technology are high-frequency readers.

I immediately suggested to
Robert Avrech that he do a podcast series based on The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden. I thought it would be a great idea, like the old Lone Ranger radio shows. But sanity ruled. Avrech knows his audience better. He said, "Jewish kids read books. They do not listen to books. This I know for a fact." Podcasting would have been a wasted effort.

Perhaps the best model for this type of flawed thinking is a military one. We confuse execution with tactics. "Positioning" strategists Jack Trout and Al Ries (now gone their separate ways) wrote a book called
Marketing Warfare, based on the classic text On War by the 18th-century Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz.

In the chapter on strategy, Clausewitz writes: "The effects of genius show not so much in novel forms of action as in the ultimate success of the whole." OK, that sounds obvious. But all too often in war as in marketing it's not. Yes, high-tech weapons have changed the way we make war. But sophisticated weapons are no more than precision tools. In the hands of a fool or at the hands of a foolish strategy they can only destroy.

Some of our own obsession with technological gimmickry today is also grabbing at straws, instead of thinking through a problem. True, online marketing has changed the way we do business. But even the most sophisticated techniques are tools not ideas.

Clausewitz talks of focusing on the "smooth harmony" of the total campaign, instead of minor details of execution: "The student who cannot discover this harmony in actions that lead up to a final success may be tempted to look for genius in places where it does not and cannot exist."

The highest level of strategy he says, is a matter of intellect, not materials. "At that level, there is little or no difference between strategy, policy and statesmanship.... Where execution is dominant.... intellectual factors are reduced to a minimum." We might say the same thing about where "creativity" is dominant, instead of strategy.

Then Clausewitz says something we should all frame and hang up right next to Murphy's Law:
"Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy."

That sums up the contrast between strategy and execution. But where do tactics fit in? As Trout and Ries point out, strategy that comes from the ivory tower instead of the tactical realities of the battlefield is bound to fail. Napoleon and Patton were great strategists because they knew the realities of the battlefield firsthand. As Patton put it "One does not plan and then try to make the circumstances fit those plans. One tries to make the plans fit the circumstances."

That's precisely the point. Strategy and tactics are two parts of greater whole. They are both "matters of the intellect." On the other hand, even the most stunning execution can only be as successful as the idea behind it.

So what's your own "Big Idea"? What's the strategy behind your use of a blog, or a webcast, or streaming video?

Just remember, any creative technique should only be used to gain a tactical advantage: to attract and bold attention long enough to make a conquest.

Otherwise you're fighting a losing battle.


© 2001-2008 Mordechai (Morty) Schiller

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