Falling off the Bandwagon

by Chris Kenton on January 22, 2007

My wife is
a librarian. If you don’t know a librarian, you should. They remind us of two critical
things in life: we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know, or should,
and the sources we rely on these days for truth are not nearly as reliable as
we’d like to believe. I met my wife when we were both just starting out. She
was on her first gig as a reference librarian at a public library, and I was on
my first gig as a journalist. I was searching for truth, and she new where to
look it up.

In the
seventeen years that we’ve been together, I’ve developed a profound respect for
the library profession. Librarians as individuals are smart,
inquisitive and very well informed. But as a profession, they transcend. They
know the origins of their profession and its evolution over centuries. They
understand their role in society and their value to the community they serve. They
work hard to face the tremendous challenges that technology brings, and to
constantly maintain relevance in a society that often, perilously, forgets
their worth. 

When I look
at the library profession, exemplified at large by the American Library
Association, I see a profession that is fully engaged with society and with
their peers. They don’t always get everything right, but they’re on the ball. And
when I look around, I see other professions and professional associations that
are similarly dialed in, like the American Medical Association. Again, they’re
not perfect, but they’re fully engaged, with a strong vision of the challenges
and opportunities they face as a group.

I don’t see
the same image with marketers, or with the American Marketing Association. We
are a profession that is fragmented and in disarray. Most
marketers have little or no understanding of our professional history. We don’t
fully understand, or admit, our role in society, or the value we offer to our
community. We do work hard to face new challenges, but almost never as a
cohesive group. Instead, we elevate gurus and trade in buzzwords until a
dominant theme emerges, often simply trading one trend for another.

At the
figurative head of this chaos, the American Marketing Association serves less
as a professional body of leadership, than as the leading beneficiary of our
ignorance. Rather than driving dialog and debate over the right path into the
future, the AMA feeds off the marketing community with endless seminars and classes
promising to enlighten us about the latest buzz trend. I get spam from the AMA
that is indistinguishable from any other guru garage, promising to teach me how
to stay one step ahead of impending doom.

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With all of
the significant challenges marketers face in redefining their role in the
corporation, and their relevance to corporate strategy, you would think an
organization like the AMA would find its voice in leading the way forward. Instead,
they are always leading the bandwagon to the top of the bell curve. That’s not
to say the AMA doesn’t have good people or informative programs. But what
marketing needs today in a professional organization is leadership, not
fast-following. I wish we could find that leadership in the AMA.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Victor Cook, Jr., New Orleans, Louisiana January 22, 2007 at 9:32 am

The Provincialism of Small Functions

This morning, after seeing your post, I happened to read an article by Milan Kundera in the January 8, 2007 issue of The New Yorker titled “Die Weltliteratur.” With a little editorial freedom [reflected in brackets] I drafted this post from the section on “The Provincialism of Small Nations (page 30).” I think it offers some clues to the stubborn provincialism of the AMA.

In this article Kundera asks the question: how do you define provincialism? And answers “the inability (or refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.” He then says there are two kinds of provincialism. Translating the essence of these in the context of business management there are the “large and the small functions.”

The “large functions” like finance and accounting resist the ideas of marketing because “their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere.”

The “small functions” like marketing “are reticent toward the large context for exactly the opposite reason: they hold [the corporate role of marketing] in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their own [provincial] literature.”

Further, a small function “inculcates in its [academics and practitioners] the conviction that he [or she] belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the [suprafunctional territory of the board room] is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people. And since the [small functions] are often in situations where their survival is at stake, they can easily present this attitude as morally justified.”

As you say, it all comes down to leadership. Would the professional orginazation of a “small function” like the AMA allow a visionary leader to rise to the top? Not until the marketing discipline overcomes its inferiority complex.

Chris Kenton January 22, 2007 at 11:34 am

That’s interesting. An ideal reality with little connection to their own…

The only time I see marketing associations facing reality in the larger social context is when the government starts threatening to regulate activities that cause an outcry among consumers, like spam, telemarketing, marketing to children, etc. It’s as if no one could have ever guessed that such aggressive activities would cause a backlash, and when that backlash comes, the focus is more on preventing regulation than creating strong guidelines for the profession.

I’ve got an example that I’ll post this evening…

jens January 22, 2007 at 12:12 pm

no need for overindulging in inferiority complexes here.
provincialism is the nature of all associations. just look at the field of design or – well… the political parties.

Patricia January 22, 2007 at 1:27 pm

Narrowing the discussion to tech marketing, specifically, I think it would be interesting and instructive to apply this discussion to the inferiority complex the marketing dept. often has in IT companies — especially at companies launched by engineers, as is common among dot-coms. These enterprises tend to populate their engineering, operations, finance staffs on the front end and consider marketing an add-on for the future. It’s no secret that many engineers view marketers with scorn. If corporate leaders don’t champion the value of marketing, that scorn becomes the dominant attitude and one that’s hard for marketers to overcome, particularly when they are latecomers to an established culture. Hence, inferiority.

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