The Contrarian Marketing Manifesto

By Peter Weinberg – Head of Development, The B2B Institute @ LinkedIn

Three years ago, I fell madly in love with an idea.

I remember the first time we met. I was sitting in a swivel chair in a conference room, sipping on a green tea, when the idea appeared on Slide 2 of a PowerPoint presentation. That’s it, I thought to myself. That’s the one. The most brilliant, beautiful concept in all of business. Let me introduce you to the concept that stole my heart: the “Contrarian Matrix.”
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In any decision you make in life, you can be right or wrong, and you can be contrarian or consensus. In other words, you can do what everyone is doing, or you can do what no one is doing. Now if you’re wrong, it doesn’t really matter if you’re with the crowd or against the crowd. In fact, it’s particularly awkward to be contrarian and wrong, because everyone hates you, and you’re wrong. But the quadrants on the right are where it gets interesting…

We often assume that making the right decisions will guarantee us success. But if all of your competitors make the same exact decision, then you wind up with no competitive advantage, and at that point, you might as well be wrong. So you don’t just want to be right. You want to be the only one who’s right, so that you alone capture all the upside of the decision.

No one understands this idea better than the financiers, who invented the Contrarian Matrix. “Buy when there’s blood in the streets,” says Warren Buffet, perhaps the most successful contrarian of all time. From Buffet to the bankers in “The Big Short,” all the best investors get rich by making big bets that defy conventional wisdom. It’s risky, but rewarding.

And it’s not just finance. If you look around, you’ll find that contrarian ideas are the most valuable ideas in every industry. In the mid 2000s, most studios in Hollywood thought the real money was in the “long-tail” — lots of little films for little audience segments. Except for Warner Brothers, which spent enormous sums on blockbuster films like Batman and Harry Potter, a model that has since taken over the entire entertainment industry. In the technology industry, you have Peter Thiel, the contrarian co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, who famously asks in every interview: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

We could go all the way back to Galileo, but I’ve probably beaten this point to death by now. So instead, let’s shift our attention to the marketing industry. The marketing industry is a contrarian fantasyland. You see, in most industries, it’s pretty hard to find ideas that are contrarian and right. Bankers scour the earth in search of alpha, but it’s devilishly difficult to beat the average, since the market weeds out bad ideas over time. And good luck finding arbitrage opportunities in particle physics, where experimental results are only considered legitimate if there is a one-in-two-million chance that the findings are flukes.

What makes marketing so unique is that almost all of the consensus opinions in the industry are wrong, and almost all of the contrarian opinions are right. It’s an upside-down world, overflowing with “big short” opportunities. The most popular ideas in marketing are mostly based on rumor and habit, not evidence and critical thinking. I realize that may sound extreme, but please hear me out. What are the biggest trends in marketing today? Brand purpose? Real-time content? Loyalty marketing? Personalization? Click-through rate optimization?

If these ideas were stocks, I would pour my life savings into shorting each and every one.

Brand purpose? The purpose of a brand is to help consumers make fast and easy decisions. Brands are mental short-cuts, not earth-shaking social movements. Every brand has the same purpose, which is not a promising jumping-off point for differentiated creative. That’s why almost all purpose-based advertising is so eye-rollingly similar.

Real-time content? The most profitable movies are sequels and remakes, not one-offs. The most profitable brands stick with the same creative concepts for decades (see: Just Do It, Priceless, Diamonds Are Forever). Valuable creative is durable, not ephemeral. An idea that only works at one specific moment in time is a bad idea.

Loyalty marketing? The overwhelming weight of empirical evidence suggests that brands grow by acquiring new customers, not by increasing loyalty among existing customers. 65% of B2B marketers disagree, despite decades of hard data from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, whose findings have been replicated by Binet and Field in our own recent report.

Personalization? 12% of marketers have confidence in the quality of their data, according to Forrester. The same marketers who can’t get our names right 99% of the time now intend to tailor specific messages to specific individuals. Meanwhile, 40 years of research shows that reach, not micro-targeting, is the single biggest predictor of advertising success.

Click-through rates? The most commonly used KPI in marketing is essentially worthless. Click-through rates don’t correlate with any meaningful brand metrics, or any meaningful lead-gen metrics for that matter. Billions of dollars are “optimized” based on nothing but noise. Meanwhile, you are more likely to complete Navy SEAL training than to ever click on a banner ad.

These are just my own personal opinions, of course, and you are more than welcome to disagree with every single one (in fact, our own team doesn’t fully agree with me). There are bound to be some isolated exceptions, which the “Nuance Police” will be quick to flag. But as far as I’m concerned, what ails marketing isn’t too little nuance. It’s too few broad, generalizable principles. We need more laws, and fewer loopholes.

But most of all, we need to challenge all the conventional thinking in marketing.

Unfortunately, that’s not an easy or pleasant task. I’ve come to learn that no one really likes contrarians, and no one really likes being called a contrarian as a consequence. It is the height of arrogance to believe that you are right and everyone else is wrong. And being disagreeable is an evolutionary maladaptation — no hunter-gatherer wanted to share their food with the obnoxious caveman-next-door. Big organizations converge on consensus ideas. If you present a contrarian idea, you’ll often be asked for a million examples of brands who are already doing it (an oxymoron). Or you’ll hear a million reasons why it’s impossible to implement.

But that is exactly why contrarian ideas are so valuable. If being contrarian was easy, everyone would do it already, and there wouldn’t be any competitive advantage left for you. The all-pervasive wrongness of the marketing industry is precisely what makes it the most interesting sector of the economy. There is no other business discipline with so many upside opportunities.

My advice: search far and wide for ideas that are contrarian and right.

Those are the only ideas that matter.

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