Interview with Mark Stevens, Marketing Guru

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

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Mark Stevens, CEO, leads MSCO, the marketing firm specializing in strategy and integrated marketing solutions. Specialties include digital marketing, social media, business consulting, branding, website design, advertising and product launches. Stevens has advised many of the world’s leading companies including Nike, Siemens, IBM, GE and AIG, having served senior management of a wide range of marketing related issues. A bestselling author and popular media commentator (CNBC and Fox Business), Mark shook the marketing establishment with his Business Week bestseller, “Your Marketing Sucks.” and more than twenty additional business books including “Your Company Sucks.” which identifies the four major reasons why companies fail, and King Icahn, the only biography of the legendary financier. Stevens is also a popular and compelling speaker. Among his major presentations, he has served as a featured presenter at The Wharton School of Business, Siemens Global CEO Conference and The Heritage Foundation.

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Your Marketing Sucks, the Businessweek bestseller by author and MSCO CEO Mark Stevens, has been updated and is being re-released in honor of the book’s tenth anniversary. In the new edition, Stevens addresses changes in business and marketing over the past decade, updating his marketing blueprint with fresh new content focused on state of the art guidance for building a “wired brand” designed to thrive in the viral era.

“Marketing is always the primary force–the catalyst, driver, tsunami–for propelling the growth of a business,” says Stevens. “The problem is, the art and science of marketing is often poorly designed and terribly executed to the point that it just plain sucks. It fails to achieve the only legitimate goal for marketing: to drive a company’s growth.”

In the latest edition, Stevens guides the reader through the principles of successful, business-building marketing. He exposes one of the great illusions in the business world: spending camouflaged as marketing. In this bold, contrarian’s guide, Stevens declares that most marketing is the equivalent of throwing $1,000 bills out the window. It is a wake-up call for managers, executives, entrepreneurs, and business owners in all industries, from insurance to retail, to the harsh realities of how most marketing is done.

Within the book’s pages, bedrock principles of extreme marketing are fused with the power of the Internet/social media to deliver exponential results. Stevens presents real-life examples, compelling case studies illustrating the marketing successes and failures of companies such as Ford Motors, Neiman Marcus, CVS, and more.

“Your Marketing Sucks” forces CEOs, boards, directors and managers to take a good look at how the marketing of their companies directly relates to the greatest measure of the business’ success: the bottom line.

Faktorovich: You have published a series of books with the word “Sucks” at the end: Your Marketing Sucks (first edition released with Crown Business 2003, and re-released in its 10th edition with CreateSpace in 2014), Your Company Sucks, and Your Management Sucks. You are not alone in this name-calling as some of the top bestsellers in the business category have “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” in their titles. Do these denigrating words help sell Self-Help products by criticizing the assumed flaws of the purchaser, making them feel inadequate and in need of the help? Why did you insert “sucks” into the title to begin with? Have you seen any negatives from the use of the word, such as book reviews that say, “No, Your Marketing Book Sucks!” or “No, Your Marketing Business Sucks”? Is this the reason a blurb for the book reads, “Your marketing may suck, but this book doesn’t” (Seth Godin)?

Stevens: These are not denigrating words per se but I view them instead as catalysts for action. Let’s take the “Your Marketing Sucks.” Millions of business people waste billions of dollars on marketing that is thoughtless, lacks strategy and fails to deliver a return on investment. Before I started my own marketing firm, I was victimized by this as well in my other businesses. As the reception of the book reveals, the term in question acts as a “call to action” as opposed to an insult to anyone. After all, my marketing sucked so I was talking to myself as well as to my readers.

Furthermore, it’s possible to make language politically correct but that’s not the goal of a good business book. Instead it is to help the readers grow their businesses. There’s a sense of urgency here that must be dealt with by a splash of cold water to the face. Sometimes we all need to stop, rethink what we are doing and consider a new approach. That’s what my books are intended to do.

Faktorovich: In the “Welcome to Extreme Marketing” section of your Marketing book, you introduce an example of a dog called Blue, and a UPS deliveryman. You explain that a dog fails to react to an approaching delivery until the UPS guy is at the door and then it puts him in “danger of being licked to death.” In criticism, you propose that Blue should be “grabbing hold of prospects and doing everything possible to sell to them?” You conclude, “Most important, is it making you any money?” Then you go on to insist that the dog has to be a “bulldog” that knows when the UPS guy will come and is waiting in the street for him, and then “grabs his leg and does whatever is necessary to take hold of him and make a sale” (44-6). There are many cases of people suing owners of bulldogs in particular that bite people. Aren’t you suggesting using the dog for thieving purposes, or to extract money from the unsuspecting UPS guy instead of convincing him to buy a product? There is a debate nowadays about the intrusiveness of marketers that obtain information about online customers to sell what they anticipate they want because they are tracking their online activities. Are you heavily on the side of intrusion as the solution to exploding sales rates? Isn’t overly aggressive marketing, such as a biting bulldog, a bit too extreme and more likely to lead to a lawsuit than to a willing purchase of your umbrella, knife set, or another product you might be attempting to pitch from your home office?

Stevens: The case of the Golden Retriever vs. a Bulldog is simply a metaphor. It has nothing to do with manipulating people, grabbing money, being manipulative or crossing the line legally in any way. What I am saying instead is that marketing has to fight for attention (ie: the Bulldog metaphor) rather than sleeping in the corner like a “friendly” Golden Retriever. “Friendly” is always a nice attribute, but when you are building a business, you need to fight for success in a competitive marketplace. Always legally. Always ethically.

Faktorovich: Your marketing book is very frustrating to read because it uses the easy to read style and suspense strategies of a romance novel. You only start giving advice on what businesses should do, instead of what they are doing wrong, on page 62. You precede this section with one where you explain that when you moved into a new office in New York, you received 50 introductory letters and booklets from local accountants that failed to convince you because they did not specify they offered exactly what you were looking for, and failed to follow-up with phone calls, instead only inviting you to contact them if you were interested. I believe there are laws that prevent marketers from cold-calling numerous times and also sending materials, as these can become harassing. I personally receive hundreds of unwanted marketing calls. I also received 24,000 junk marketing emails in my website’s account in one month. Printers have called in addition to sending emails with offers, and when I asked them to give me the price breakdown, they simply sent their standard brochure without this breakdown, which was the only thing I needed to have switched printers. So, your suggestion to these guys would be that they should keep calling me until I give up and switch to printing with them simply because they keep calling? You point out on page 73 this exact problem and say that if the subject line is from a brand-name company such as Ralph Lauren or says “Does Your Marketing Suck?” instead of “Are you risking an SEC investigation?” readers are more likely to open these emails and not perceive them as spam. What are you basing these conclusions on? Why would brand names be going into the Inbox, while the new firms be going into the Spam folder? If readers respond better to “sucks” than to “SEC,” does this mean that you are going after semi-illiterate readers who are more likely to buy if the title gives them a giggle rather than helpful information?

Stevens: I take it as a compliment that you say my book is easy to read and takes on some of the properties of a romance novel. All too often, business books take themselves too seriously and fail to entertain as well as educate their readers. I always want to do both.

I think you are indulging in conspiracy theories and other extreme issues such as SEC investigations. The book is simply a guide, and a highly successful one, on how to improve your marketing so that your business can grow. The difference between “like” and “love” is critical. It all boils down to this: people often walk away from things they “like,” but they make every effort to buy from things they “love.” PS: I am not sure where you get your numbers from regarding my social media followers but I have more than 60,000 on Twitter, more than 13,000 on Linkedin and just one of my Linkedin posts was viewed by more than 800,000 people in a timeframe of less than 48 hours.

Faktorovich: You offer a few rules for aggressive marketing: “1. First you develop a strategy for winning new business based on the value proposition of your products or services,” “2. Communicate the value proposition every way you can,” and “3. The customer must fall in love.” Love is a vague term. Unless you are suggesting flirting with customers, it’s unclear what the difference between like and love is. You explain that customers should feel that your product is by far superior to all other offers. When you are marketing your own marketing services, how can you really sell them as superior if in truth your offerings are similar to most other marketing firms in this market. You offer some of the following on your website, http://www.msco.com/services: branding, business strategy, product launches (“announce your new product to the world”), “logo creation to web design and advertising,” “advertising,” “public relations,” “internet marketing,” “web design/ development,” and “social media.” I have researched numerous other marketing firms and similar wording appears on most of them. Are you really following your own advice by making customers fall in love with your superior offerings? Everybody else also offers to help with newsletters and social media. You have 500+ contacts on LinkedIn, and I’ve reached a similar amount without using a marketing firm. Why aren’t you listing your bulldog strategies on your website? I have been contacted by book marketers and PR reps that have proposed I pay them $10,000+ to send out review copies for a book… Why has advertising and marketing become a giant scam? Don’t you feel a responsibility to deflate your language and to explain exactly what you will do for your client, so that they can properly estimate how much what you propose to do is worth in terms of man-hours and market reach?

Stevens: The only marketing that really works is marketing that can demonstrate a “return on investment.”

Faktorovich: You sent “Mark Stevens’ Marketing Manifesto” with your press packet. The first rule is, “Stop thinking that marketing has to be creative. It has to sell goods and services. Sometimes the least creative marketing – Wal-Mart’s advertising – is the most effective.” Wal-Mart mostly sells because they have lower prices than competitors whenever I search for urgent items to buy. For example, I just purchased two sweatshirts for $8 from their website, and two more for $5 each. Competitors can barely sell these for $20. Your second rule is that marketing should not be “entertaining.” Then, you advise folks to avoid all advertising agencies that win Clio Awards because they are based on “Hollywood entertainment standards.” Then, you have several rules about minimizing a marketing budget only to tested and proved methods. Are you really saying that you do not offer superior design and art services that your award-winning competitors offer? I have seen some amazing ads that are as sophisticating as feature-film special effects. Recently, I saw an ad from Geico of a Sumo wrestler dancing in an ice skating competition and this cheered me up, while some of the uncreative ads were putting me to sleep at the dentist’s office. I have been with Geico for a few years, so it did not convince me to switch, but why should advertising be painful infomercials, as you suggest – simply because they are cheaper and easier to make? Aren’t you selling to your strength rather than to your customers’ needs?

Faktorovich: In the introduction to one of your other successful books, King Icahn: The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist, you explain in the “Forward” that you met Carl Celian Icahn in 1992 when you ran into him by accident, and then started stalking him, waiting outside his “imposing iron gate” and reading everything you could dig up about him. Then, you finally “managed to secure his home telephone number” and called him. During this call, you said that you were planning a book about him, and would proceed with or without him. His response was, “If you as much as write a single sentence, I will sue you so mercilessly, so extensively, that you’ll be forced to turn to soup kitchens for your meals.” Then, he kept calling you with new “threats” until he finally called at 2:43am, offering to write the book “as partners” with a 70/30 royalty split that you negotiated down to 50/50. But then, after his legal firm wrote up a lengthy contract, you refused to write it with him and insisted on making 100% of the profits and only using him as a source, rather than as a co-writer. I’ve been doing interviews with award-winning etc. people for many years now, and I’ve never had an interaction like this. At one point, I queried Barbara Walters about doing an authorized biography of her life, and she simply did not respond, and publishers told me that they wouldn’t be interested unless Walters was actively cooperating in the project. I’m pretty sure that if I waited by her gate and called her at home, she would press stalking charges… And if she threatened to sue me, I’d simply tell her that I did not plan on writing anything untrue and malicious, so there couldn’t be any grounds for such a frivolous lawsuit, and if such a lawsuit occurred it would be fantastic publicity for the book… Though obviously, I’d have to self-publish it because the big publishers would count my research as insufficient and only Walter’s cooperation as news-worthy enough for the Big Five to invest in it, as happened with your book, which was picked up by Penguin Group. Do you think that if you wrote this book with blatant honesty, digging up dirt with the same determination you went after Icahn to collaborate with you, the book would be a much more inciteful and revealing account about the corruption of the American business world? After all, how can we trust somebody that lies for a living, such as Icahn, to be truthful about their shady business dealings? Have you thought about attempting a new biography, or did this one convince you not to venture into the genre again? What advice do you have for somebody who wants to write an authorized or un-authorized biography? In what way(s) could you have been sued on this occasion? Is it best to answer with hostility or civility to lawsuit, death and other threats from potential business partners?

Stevens: I wrote the Icahn book with the highest levels of independence and based it strictly on the facts gleaned from extensive research and personal discussions with Icahn. I wrote about a highly successful financier but never minced words about his worth nor his smarts.

Faktorovich: In the second half of this biography, you narrate how Icahn raided and became the chairman of TWA, in 1986, just before “Arab terrorists hijacked a TWA jumbo jet” and he had to deal with a crisis the likes of which he never saw before. You then quote from an interview you did with Edward Gehrlein, TWA’s former vice president of sales, who says that Icahn was eating up flattery and aviator gifts from co-workers, while failing to “understand the leverage in the business,” so that he could not understand the impact small changes in fuel prices or passenger numbers had on the bottom line. “Still, he was cocky. He believed his own gospel that the only problem with airlines was that they were run by stupid managers” (164-5). The same cockiness is characteristic of both Icahn’s behavior and many of your own criticisms of how other peoples’ marketing strategies “suck.” In fact, the bulk of the self-help business and marketing releases that win Library Journal’s and other awards have this cocky attitude instead of offering practical advice about the relationship between oil prices and profits, or other tips that might actually help to resolve a terrorist attack crisis or a drop in sales. What are the benefits for you or for Icahn of such cockiness? Does cockiness sell better than a deep scholarly understanding of problems in today’s market? Why, if so? Have you faced problems when you have been marketing other peoples’ businesses similar to the challenges Icahn faced at TWA, and can you describe how you handled an extreme problem (with cockiness or with wisdom)? Does Icahn represent the type of aggressive, extreme self-marketing that you promote in your business books? Do you object to or applaud his cutthroat business practices?

Faktorovich: If you met yourself today at the point when you were just leaving school or preparing to enter the business world, what advice would you give yourself? Are there any major mistakes you wish you had avoided? Are there opportunities you should have taken? Are there books you should have written, but did not write?

Stevens: I would advise myself the following: life is always a work in progress; never look back; always try to find a way to avoid conventional wisdom and cookie cutter approaches to life and work.

I am now writing a new book – maybe it’s the one I should have written earlier – but I am not done yet.

Faktorovich: What advice can you give somebody who is planning to start their own marketing firm (other than “don’t”)?

Stevens: Develop a unique methodology and live by it. If you are going to do marketing the way everyone else does it, there is no reason to turn on the lights.

Faktorovich: What is the best practical advice you have for business owners reading this who want to know what they should do tomorrow to fix the suckiness of their marketing (other than hiring your marketing firm)? Feel free to use my own Anaphora publishing business as an example. What should I do to fix my lack of market reach?

Stevens: This kind of question cannot be answered on a superficial basis. One has to know the following: What does the company do? What are the management’s goals? Where does the company generate its highest and lowest ROI, etc., etc. Anyone who tries to answer complex questions like this about any business on the basis of stock answers does a disservice to all involved. You have to analyze everything at both 40,000 feet and on the ground. It’s the macro and the micro that combine to make the company what it is and what it can be.

Faktorovich: Thanks for doing this interview with me.

Stevens: My pleasure. For further information contact:

www.YourMarketingSucks.com

www.MSCO.com

https://www.linkedin.com/in/markstevensmsco

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