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What we can learn from BP and Bear Stearns

July 4, 2010

Marketers aren’t immune to making monumental screw ups, although they might not be as notorious or colossal as those made recently by BP and a band of financial institutions. When people overlook or downplay risk, things often blow up.

In the late 2000s major financial institutions nearly cratered the entire U.S. economy as a result of their activity in the sub-prime loan market. A herd mentality created this crisis as an overwhelming number of bankers mistakenly believed housing prices would rise in perpetuity, and at exceptional rates.  A decline in home prices was simply unthinkable.

The exact cause of the BP oil spill might not be known for years, but most believe it was the result of an equipment failure that went unaddressed, reckless engineering decisions, and poor disaster planning. In the context of BP’s global operations, these probably seemed like small tactical issues to BP executives. Certainly nothing that could cost BP billions.

When a marketing communications strategy goes wrong, the fallout is rarely as obvious as an oil spill or financial collapse. Our methods of measuring success and failure often aren’t sophisticated enough to tell us exactly how poorly an ad campaign or marketing activity performed.

Our industry demands we take on risk. However, there are a couple lessons we can learn about risk from both BP and Bear Stearns .

  1. Be wary of group-think. Marketing people are huge suckers for Bright Shiny Objects: the latest fad, a new technology, a buzzword – hype that can distort our expectation as to how something will work in the real world. Experimentation is one thing, but making a big roll of the dice based on a mistaken belief can end badly.
  2. Execution matters more than you think. Agency leadership and brand marketers like to think big picture and often can’t be bothered with the icky, tactical stuff. Execution is almost always the first thing to get short-changed, from budgets to timelines. When implementation fails, the best idea in the world is worthless.
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