An Interview With "Built to Suck" Author Joseph Jaffe

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Cover image for  article: An Interview With "Built to Suck" Author Joseph Jaffe

Joseph Jaffe has fervent opinions on the inevitable demise of the corporation and how to save it. Jaffe, who runs strategic consultancy HMS Beagle, shares his insight on those topics in his recently released book, Built to Suck. He'll be speaking at the Association of National Advertisers' (ANA) annual Masters of Marketing Conference in October.

ANA group executive vice president Bill Duggan recently interviewed Jaffe to get a sneak peek into the wisdom he'll be imparting at the conference.

Bill Duggan: A fundamental premise in your book is that size, ultimately, leads to the downfall of most corporations because size is no longer a growth enabler, but, instead, is a growth inhibitor. You call it "death by suckage." Please explain.

Joe Jaffe: The [old] model of big business is broken. The very thing that led to the growth of the multinational or blue-chip brand, namely scale — economies of scale and efficiencies of scale — has been replaced with cost-cutting, risk aversion, political hierarchies, and silos, [which create] a competitive disadvantage relative to a technology-infused slew of startups and scale-ups.

Duggan: You also question the enduring longevity of advertising.  What forms of advertising can work best today, in your opinion?

Jaffe: Rule number one: If given the choice, 100 out of 100 people would choose to ignore, avoid, or obliterate advertising. Rule number two: Advertising isn't going away, but please refer to rule number one.

I wrote about outdated roles for advertising in my first book, Life After the 30-Second Spot, in 2004: informing, persuading, and reminding. We haven't really made much progress since. The 30-second cash cow is deathly ill and begging either to be put out of its misery or to inject the power of digital in terms of better targeting, better functionality, and better measurement. And, oh yes, creativity sucks … so we need to fix that, too. For what it's worth, I'm incredibly excited about radio and out-of-home and predict massive growth in both of these channels.

Duggan: You identify the importance of four pillars as ways to prevent, or at least slow down, the demise of the corporation. Those four pillars are digital disruption, winning the talent war, customer obsession, and corporate citizenship. Is one of these pillars more important than the others?

Jaffe: Each pillar may sound familiar, but the problem is that most companies are just paying lip service and looking at them incredibly superficially. All four pillars are beyond important, but one is mandatory and that is customer obsession. Brands that continue to drink from the swill that is acquisition marketing will eventually be met with a dry pipeline and a painful death. Under-deliver at this pillar at your peril.

I want brands to take away two things with this particular pillar. First, no more customer service, customer experience, or even customer-centricity; you need to be obsessed. Just ask Jeff Bezos. Second, this pillar can easily be measured and benchmarked, and it begins with a transparent audit and introspection of the chasm that exists between how much money you make from acquisition — first-time buyers equal strangers; switchers equal prostitutes — versus retention — advocates, zealots, promoters — compared with how much money you spend on both buckets, respectively.

Duggan: Digital now represents more than half of all ad spending. You write that the role of digital in an organization needs to provide an unfair advantage. Please elaborate.

Jaffe: Imagine you could go back in time to around the turn of the century and were contemplating "testing and learning" with this fringe gimmick callede-commerce. Imagine selling stuff online to late-night, bathrobe-wearing shoppers. That's what I'm talking about. Digital changes everything. It did then, it does now, [and] it will in the future. Yes, there are far more toys and shiny objects now. Some are real and some are fake. Don't be fooled by fads. Instead, focus on one single question: Are you changing the game? If not, you're just another lemming waiting to fall off the cliff.

Duggan: You write that the single contributor to corporate decay is the lack of talent-centricity and that companies will live and die based on how they attract and retain talent. What are some key talent retention strategies?

Jaffe: There are many, but the one I'll focus on in this interview is the ability to turn employees into entrepreneurs. Harness their incredible entrepreneurial talents and potential. Empower them to pursue their passions. Instead of controlling, litigating, or repressing them, fund them. Liberate them. Give them the freedom to develop ideas that could be game-changers for the company and the brand. Yes, even on company time.

Duggan: What do corporations need to do to be good citizens, and is corporate citizenship the same as brand purpose or something different?

Jaffe: Companies talk about corporate social responsibility or purpose marketing, but it's just PR spin. They are bad actors — irresponsible denizens that turn a blind eye as the planet continues to spin out of control, the Amazon burns, and humans suffer. Step up. Be a corporate citizen. To do good, you have to be good. And one more thing: Any company that has to discover its purpose is beyond help. These companies forgot their purpose … they need to rediscover their purpose. Go back to the beginning — [to] day one.

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