The New Definition of “Personal” Marketing

What does marketing personalization mean to you? It is stunning how the concept has changed over a generation.The fact is that relationships, nearly all relationships, start differently now. The old boy’s network certainly still exists, but business services are just as likely to emanate from digital lead generation efforts. And while personal introductions through friends is still the most common method for people to meet their future spouses, online dating apps are running a strong second and gaining ground exponentially.

A generation ago, no one could imagine a national brand having a personal relationship with its consumers. Mass marketers were aptly named. They had limited media options that required them to blast out broad messages that were wasted on the majority of the people they reached. It was the retailer and marketing pioneer John Wanamaker who aptly observed back in the early part of 20th century that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Prior to the onset of the digital age, it was simply a given that all advertising spending encompassed some degree of waste. The demographically driven media plans of the day were relatively crude, relying on the prevailing wisdom that moms (since all were considered “housewives”) were reached through daytime TV, kids after school and on Saturdays, and men during prime time or sports.

Now that Google and Apple know our every click and movement, big companies are able to define targets far more narrowly, sometimes in the actual moment moment of brand consideration or purchase.

The ability to slice and dice in order to reach just the right person with the right message has its origins in the direct marketing business, which also worked on a less refined, more “mass mailing” basis pre-Internet. But technology now enables everyone from the the local pizza joint to the small, regional accounting firm to target outreach with precision and measure results.

There’s the wonderful old proverb about the “shoemaker’s kids going barefoot.” Someone so wrapped up in his profession that he neglects himself and the ones closet to him. This is the first of two observations about those of us in marketing services. We’re frequently late to the party when it comes to marketing ourselves.

I run a run a marketing service business that initially blossomed through a very different model of personalization.

When I went out on my own in 1985, I thought about the kinds of clients I wanted and how I could leverage my connections to reach them. Beer was at the top of my list. I loved drinking it and found the cutthroat category irresistible from a marketing perspective.

This had its origins from my time in graduate school several years earlier, which coincided with the launch of Lite Beer from. Everyone in my class seemed to understand that Lite was making product and advertising history. As budding ad men and women, we couldn’t stop talking about the fabulous campaign that transformed “diet beer” into a product for macho tough guys. On a personal level, I was a runner and always watching my weight, even back then. The idea of enjoying three beers for the caloric price of two provided an easy to understand, motivating rationale. The fact that it I believed that it carried a cool, edgy, manly aura didn’t hurt either. None of us seemed to mind that the beer itself, to quote a British acquaintance at the time, tasted like “dog piss.” We were young and impressionable.

The experience put the beer category at the top of my list when I was looking for my first clients. Leafing through the pages of my address book in search of connections, I remembered my grad school classmate Grant was in Account Management at an ad agency that worked on new products for Anheuser-Busch. So I called him. Foreign as this seems now, these were the days when people had assistants (called “secretaries”) who screened calls. The old school connection got me right through. As soon as his secretary told him his friend Jeff was on the line, he picked up without delay.

“Hey Grant, I just started a business running focus groups. Know anyone at A-B I could call?” “Sure,” he replies. “Call my friend John. He’s the number two guy in research there.”

Immediately after thanking him and hanging up, I called John in St. Louis. He picked up his own phone before the second ring. (Communications options at the time were essentially snail mail and phone calls. There was no caller ID and no voice mail. Even when people had secretaries, many still answered their own phones as they could not afford to miss important calls.) “Hi John, I’m a friend of Grant’s and I’m starting a research business. Think we could meet sometime?” “Oh, yeah, Grant. Great guy! Of course, if he’s your friend I’d love to meet you. How about next week?”

I rearranged an already planned trip so that I could stop off in St. Louis for a 4PM meeting the next Friday with John. He kept me sitting in the lobby for 45 minutes, but finally showed up, and before even saying hello, he says, “Too late for a meeting. Let’s go get a beer.” We hop in his car and go to a great local dive in the South End of St. Louis, where about an hour later, he let me know, “You’re just the kind of guy I’d like to work with.” I got a project on the spot.

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear this kind of story again.

Here’s the second major observation about those of us in marketing services. Our favorite activity, bar none, is complaining about the new business struggle. Get two or more of us together in a room – people from huge agencies, one-person shops or everyone in between – and the topic of conversation will always come around to how tough it is out there and the level of abuse we endure. No one answers our calls or emails. When they do, it takes weeks or months or even over a year to get a meeting. If all goes well, it might be another year before a project comes through. This includes instances where one is highly recommended by the prospective client’s current or former boss, best friend, or other influential source. We write proposals only to be ghosted. Not a thank you, not even an acknowledgement. Woe is us.

I have been very fortunate in my career to have built and maintained some very strong personal relationships. Until recently, most of these have grown from the kind of networking described earlier. This kept me nostalgic, stuck in the past, still thinking that personal recommendations earned by a reputation for creativity, passion and reliably great work would be all the business needed for healthy, sustained growth.

Of course, this is more of a fantasy than millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs coming back to the U.S. We don’t live in that world anymore. Business is more competitive for everyone, not just those of us in marketing services, but for all of our clients as well. Cost cutting and “enhanced productivity” have decimated the ranks of marketing executives and their support staffs. There is precious little time for speculative meetings, onboarding new marketing partners (or “vendors” as we are so affectionately called), or even to read a three paragraph introductory email.

Even your “friends” don’t have time for you anymore. People are so crunched that they need to schedule 10-minute phone calls weeks or months in advance. They constantly fear for their jobs. No doubt they appreciate the concept of loyalty, but only in the abstract. Even if you’re absolutely the right “vendor” for the job, they will always take the path of least resistance so as not to upset the apple cart.

I have a spreadsheet of several hundred contacts, people I know personally. Every month or so, I used to sit down and write most of them detailed personal notes, reaffirming my interest in working with them. But those emails were not all about business. I asked specific questions or cited key issues concerning their business. I asked about their families, by name. And I told them, briefly, about what was going on in my business and personal worlds. These emails took days to write, yet sadly and predictably, there were very few responses.

Why it took me so long to realize that this old school practice, noble as it may be, was an exercise in futility, is shocking. The shoemaker’s kids going barefoot. This just isn’t what “personalization” means anymore.

We’ve started to play a different kind of personalization game, the one Amazon was on to a long time ago, and that nearly any business, regardless of category, needs to play now.

You know the model. Create content, engage prospects in social media, build an ever-growing data base of contacts that can be sliced and diced by industry, position, geography, persona, contact vs. lead vs. current client vs. lapsed client and on and on. This customization is the new personal.

Of course, the change in tactics is working. And that makes me sad on many levels.

For me, it’s a major, positive, step that accentuates a move from what was essentially a one-person operation to an expanded business, one where the company is now the brand, not me personally.

But there’s nothing personal in sending out email blasts. It feels so…commercial, so cold, so calculating. It’s just a numbers game. Get the eyeballs and move ‘em through the funnel, converting website visits into contacts, leads, proposals and ultimately revenue.

I always loved marketing because it was based on understanding human emotions, people’s aspirations, what makes them happy, their pains and their fears. To this day, I am always personally grateful for new client engagements, first time projects or repeat assignments. I am deeply concerned that we provide recommendations that lead to good business outcomes, but even more so for the success of the people we work with.

Our focus on qualitative research reflects our passion for the personal as well. We thrive on talking to people face-to-face, asking our therapy-like questions to dig deep and understand their lives and their motivations.

But it’s foolish to revel in nostalgia. Things weren’t necessarily better back in the past. Just different. Automating certain new business tasks may not have the warm and fuzzy feel of networking the old days, but to me, the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks.

Most importantly, it elevates the importance of the work. Your college roommate can’t afford to award you the business simply based on your relationship. In an age where everything is measured, she’s going to be held accountable. While not completely leveling the playing field, this creates more of a meritocracy where the cream will rise to the top.

On a very personal level, changes in the business have forced me to up my game on many levels, with the most important being my prolific writing on marketing, speaking every chance I get and securing a teaching position in the Communications Management graduate program of a prestigious university. You can’t be phoning in your performance when illuminating, persuading, and ultimately trying to make a lasting impression on people. In turn, this work encouraged me to embrace a far more proactive, leadership, teaching-type role. Not just with students, but with my younger colleagues, employees, suppliers and clients.

Ironically, the quantification of our new business process has not in any way affected the quality of the personal relationships that really matter. But it did significantly enhance relationships with many people who are important to me.

There’s personalization and personalization. One kind is intrusive, relying on Big Brother-ish algorithms and companies keeping track of your every click. You didn’t ask for it, and the notion that the ads you see “better serve your needs” is questionable, at best. Sophisticated, digital advertising placement surely wasn’t created with consumers in mind. It’s for the marketers.

While part of me is extremely uncomfortable sending out what many might call spam, it’s what we have to do. The good news is that, unlike mass marketers, we leverage personalization to deliver what we hope to be a delightful experience, not simply for selling purposes. Their outreach may be personal, but the same can’t be said for the product experience, which is, essentially the same for everyone.

Our personalization process starts after the sale is made. We will always have bright, mindful, fully engaged humans providing high quality, customized service and solutions. No automated phone menus, no scripts, no algorithms. Real people, real thinking, real service.

  • Freddy
    Posted at 10:52h, 27 February Reply


    You’ve written a lot of great articles, and this is by far my favorite. As the title promises, it’s highly personal and at the same time sharply analytical about the current state of our business.

    The article also solaces me to know that I’m not alone in my frustration. Ten years ago a chance meeting at a conference could lead to a small project that would grow into an ongoing account. Now I spend months cultivating business relationships that usually go nowhere or, at best, result in an “offer” that’s a fraction of my asking price. I even had one prospective client tell me they were “offended” that I counter-offered instead of accepting their low-ball bid.

    I still love the practice of marketing, and I particularly enjoy discussing it and teaching it, but I can’t say I enjoy what it’s become as a business. (I’m guessing a lot of people are feeling that way about their “passion” professions.)

    Keep writing, Jeffrey. You definitely understand “human emotions, people’s aspirations, what makes them happy, their pains and their fears.”


    • jbhirsch
      Posted at 11:04h, 27 February Reply

      Thanks for your insights and very kind words, Freddy!

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