Action bias and magpie marketers

23 Nov 2015  |  Richard Shotton 
Action bias and magpie marketers

Why are marketers obsessed with the latest fads at the expense of more established opportunities? Richard Shotton explores.

In a recent talk Mark Ritson described marketers as magpies, flitting from one fad to another. He judged them guilty of spending too much time and budget on emergent opportunities at the expense of established ones. This flightiness leads to media investment out of kilter with customer behaviour and large investments in areas with unproven ROI.

The academic evidence

Why as an industry are we so obsessed with the latest fad?

The answer can be found in the strangest of places: the penalty shoot-out. In 2007 a group of Israeli psychologists, led by Professor Michael Bar-Eli at Ben-Gurion University, analysed the behaviour of goal-keepers facing penalties. They found a striking anomaly.

Despite 29% of the 286 penalty kicks studied being hit down the middle goalkeepers only stood their ground 6% of the time. The academics estimated that diving one way or the other saved one in seven penalties whereas standing still stopped one in three. So why did professionals, players at the top of the game, make the wrong decision?

The study blames the misalignment of interests between the goally and the team. The goalkeeper is interested in making a save but also not looking a fool. They know that most of their fellow goalkeepers dive and that if they concede a goal while following a different set of tactics they'll be culpable in the eyes of the manager. So the keeper, interested in protecting his lucrative career, follows the herd and dives.

As John Maynard Keynes said, albeit with reference to the FTSE not footy: "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."

Are there similarities between marketers and goalkeepers?

The same pressures occur in marketing. Marketers are interested in career progression as well as brand success. If their colleagues are paying disproportionate attention to the latest social medium then it's dangerous not to do so. An unwillingness to follow the herd may be interpreted as being old-fashioned or out of touch.

So what should we do?

First, ignore the herd. Spend less time looking at what peers or competitors do and instead dedicate more time to analysing the brand's own data. Second, Ritson suggests holding every medium up to the same measurement criteria, regardless of whether it's digital or not. If an emergent media is genuinely suitable for a brand it doesn't need separate tracking.

Marketers need to apply the lessons of penalty taking to brands. If we do we'll be in good company. Albert Camus, the French existentialist and goalkeeper, famously said: "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football."


Richard Shotton is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia

Twitter: @rshotton

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