Clearworks Conversations: Avoiding the Dangers of Assumptions

Our Clearworks Conversations Blog Series features interviews with leaders who we feel have a unique perspective to share. In this blog post, Clearworks’ Noël Adams interviews Hugh Kennedy, EVP Planning and Partner at PJA Advertising + Marketing. In the interview Hugh shares why it is important to avoid the dangers of assumptions and to push teams to go deeper when gathering insights. He notes that ‘the foundation of a great marketing engagement and great marketing experiences is built on the truth of the insights that you gather.”

Noël: You were talking with my colleague Sara the other day about how you are passionate about the dangers of making assumptions about certain audiences and what they feel or think. Tell me more about why that is something you care about.

Hugh: As you know, the mission of our agency is about reaching what we call the world’s most difficult buyers; they are people who are buying complex products and services, they tend to be part of a network of buyers, and it tends to be really high-stakes decisions. That’s what we try to capture in our mission: We help sell amazing things to the world’s toughest buyers.
In these scenarios it can be too easy to fall back on assumptions about these audiences and what they really believe in and what makes them tick.  The danger of doing that is that you hit them with a very flat, expected message that shows that you really haven’t done your homework.  You don’t know what they really value and as a result you miss the mark.  So, especially in B2B marketing, although I think it is also true in B2C, you should never make assumptions about what your audience really values and how they think about making a particular kind of purchase because, if you do, it will almost certainly backfire.  We have to challenge those marketing assumptions that are a very surface-level view of a person and force the teams to go deeper.

Noël: You talked about “difficult buyers.”  Is there a particular audience or example where you feel people are making the wrong assumptions?

Hugh: It seems to run throughout B2B.  A few recent examples that I can bring up are scientists and people who work in life science companies.  The assumption, especially about scientists, is that they are logical, left-brained thinking, and very rational in their decision-making.  But when I had my own blog about marketing to life scientists about ten years ago and I interviewed a lot of scientists at length, what I uncovered is that a lot of them think of themselves more as artists, and that there is a great deal of creative thinking that goes on.

I have a friend who is a veteran biotech scientist and now is an executive, but his wife often catches him when she is driving looking like he is making sketches in the air with his fingers. He’s actually building an experiment or thinking about how to build an experiment and it looks like he is sketching or planning something out the way that an artist might take a new perspective on something that they are seeing.

He also told me that major six-figure purchases in labs when he was in academia were made not based on a very rigorous RFP process, but also based on the envy that was generated when somebody else in a prestigious lab down the hall bought a particular system and suddenly that was the only system that really mattered. I’d call that Keeping Up with the Joneses behavior from a very seemingly left-brained audience.

More recently, a project I’m working on right now is about marketing to start-ups and small biotechs.  These are companies, especially in the Bay Area and in Boston and Cambridge, that can bring an idea to a funder and suddenly end up with 30, 40, 50 and in one case I know even 90 million dollars in funding.  It’s very easy to assume that all they are thinking about is getting their drug to market. In fact, if you probe beneath the surface and the assumption, they’re only thinking maybe 12 months out because that is really as far as their horizon goes. Getting to market for a new kind of cell or gene therapy could be five to seven years away and that is an eternity.  Your molecule, your program could have been bought and rebought or out-licensed a couple of times over in that span of time.  In this case, we worked with a client around positioning and marketing messages.  The messages we landed on were much more about helping you make good decisions very quickly in a very high-stress, financially charged environment – just to get you to that next milestone, whether that is the next set of data you need, getting to a filing for an investigational new drug; just getting something over the line so that you can then take the next major step.  If we had gone out with the message that was about “we can take you to market” or “we know all you think about is getting your drug into the hands of patients,” that just would have looked naive.

Noël: What do you do to make sure that your teams are not working under the incorrect assumptions?

Hugh: Part of it is that it is less about insisting on a lengthy and expensive discovery process with the client that involves looking into their past marketing materials and looking at what competitors are doing with their marketing materials.  It is more about “get us conversations.” Help us speak to your customers, your lost bids, your prospects, your board members if you have a board that has practitioners in the space, and your real thought leaders, especially people who maybe have at one time or another sat in the customers’ shoes. Let us talk to them in depth and ask counter-intuitive questions and get them to reveal what drives them, what’s important to them, what makes them tick, and in that way come back with a kind of strategy and messaging that will move the needle for them, that will help us put forward the right facet of the customer’s offering so the buyer realizes, “Okay, they understand what makes me tick; they understand what is important to me.”  I would always value 30 to 45 minutes with one of those people asking probing questions rather than reading through “okay here’s the marketing campaigns we have done in the past, here is our last annual report; here’s a quick audit of five competitors we did; here is the results of a persona session that we did with an industry sponsor.”  Because those things are sort of inert in comparison to where those fields are going and if you’re talking to the practitioners you really get a sense of what is meaningful right now.

Noël: If you think about this whole danger of making assumptions, how do you think that has impacted your clients?  What have you been able to do for them based on this new way of looking at things?

Hugh: I work a lot in positioning and we get a lot of feedback from venture capitalists from our smaller companies or executives from larger companies who say that the results of our positioning have struck a chord in a way that they haven’t really felt before.  I remember one venture funder saying how challenging it had been to get the CEO to describe the company in a way that was clear but also compelling, and we had been able to do it.  I think a key part of our mission is simplifying, and if we can help people to understand the simple truth of something even if it is in a very complex market or complex environment then we see the results in everything from downloads to engagement of voices to qualified leads and then sales, all based on conversations that are started as a result of our programs.

Noël: You know we are an insights company and we do a lot of research.  What do you think this means for us?

Hugh: I think it means that the onus is on you as it is on us.  As budgets get tighter and maybe people are less willing to spend the dollars for more traditional in person focus group settings and so on, we have to find ways to get that insight faster and more cost efficiently.  But I would also say we should never pull back on insisting on the need to get that insight, because it’s going to make all the difference and it’s going to make something really shine in the market. The foundation of a great marketing engagement and great marketing experiences is built on the truth of the insights that you gather.

Noël: Any other advice to our readers about avoiding the dangers of assumptions?

Hugh: Look inward.  I think when you are an attuned kind of marketer and an attuned leader you will feel it if you really do uncover something fresh or get to the nub of what really is going to move somebody or what’s important to them.  In the same way, you can glance at a presentation before going into a client call or you can spend an hour and a half and really go through it and feel like you have mastered the content.  I myself get guilty conscience when I feel I’m just skating on thin ice in terms of what an audience is really thinking about. It’s easy to fall into those patterns, but I think if you do the hard work that really builds your confidence, and that kind of confidence is infectious in terms of getting people on board with your ideas. In the end when you convey them those insights to the market in the right way, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the uptake you get.

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Hugh’s charter is to link what’s on the minds of his clients’ buyers to the way creative teams develop work. In his 27 years at PJA, Hugh has overseen creative, and planning and research and has worked extensively with Red Hat, Boston Scientific, TE Connectivity, Trend Micro, IBM, EMC, GE Healthcare Life Sciences, WEX, Cambridge Trust among many others. Hugh’s latest book, with PJA President Mike O’Toole, is The Unconventionals: How Rebel Companies Are Changing Markets, Hearts, and Minds-and How You Can, Too.
Also, we love chatting about the importance of customer insights. Reach out if you want to chat about how you can dig deeper with your customers and avoid the dangers of assumptions.

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