Why is it so hard to kick short-termism?

Eaon Pritchard
By Eaon Pritchard | 1 May 2023
Eaon Pritchard.

‘We open on a beach; it’s a remote tropical island off of Thailand.’

How to strike fear into the heart of a FMCG marketer.

Never mind the AI, it’s marketing’s own alignment problem.

Picture the tissue session with the client. The creative agency team have Lions in their sights (not to mention two weeks in the sun chugging cheap rice beer), and the brow-beaten marketer’s only concern is how she will shift half a million units of instant mac’n’cheese next quarter.

To be fair, a reflexive 60-second spot featuring a bunch of half-naked tanned Instagrammers tucking into mac’n’cheese on a Thai beach is not as crazy as it sounds. It’s just the kind of postmodern Super Bowl juxtaposition jape that gets noticed these days.

(Any FMCG brand wanting to hear the rest of the script should feel free to call me. I’ll happily let you have it. In exchange for money.)

Joking aside, this conundrum highlights the perennial challenge for marketers.

Many would love to oversee big spectacular brand advertising but are stuck in the short-term weeds of generating sales next week without the headspace or budget to entertain these fanciful brand-building activities of yore.

Despite being just your humble planner, I can totally empathise with the panic-stricken CMO, having done that exact role myself for a while before scurrying back to the agency world. That’s a story for another day, but the one big lesson I learned as CMO was this.

The Golden rule.

Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

And in most companies these days, that’s your CFO.

The chattering classes on LinkedIn have been excitable this week over the alleged uptick in 24-month financials over at AirBnB since they apparently ‘shifted’ strategy from performance-driven to brand-driven comms. To be honest I’m pretty sure that AirBnB did a fair bit of brand advertising prior to two years ago. And 24 months is a short time in marketing to be making extraordinary claims.

Either way the biggest story is that some quarters of the marketing community are wetting themselves over THE CFO STATEMENT to shareholders. The CFO took a script from the marketing department is probably the most surprising shift.

But here’s the double jeopardy kick. Over the last fifteen years or so, marketers have let go of control over the product, pricing, and placement - three of the four marketing P’s - and have been distracted (or marginalised, depending on your point of view) into attending only to the promotion bit. Marketers took their eye off the ball to focus myopically on comms and got distracted by the fragmentation caused by digital channels. So, the CFO is all over the data, analytics, strategy and pricing.

Here’s one weird trick.

You’ll get nowhere explaining the brand value to a CFO unless it involves conveying the brand’s importance in terms of financial performance. So chuck in a bit of risk management and quantifiable long-term growth, and then you may even get their attention.

If agencies want to sell in your enormous brand efforts, then help the CMO sell to the CFO. To be honest, plenty has been written on this subject (much of it plundering Tim Ambler’s seminal 1999 book, The Bottom Line), so I won’t go into it here too much. But suffice to say; a well-established brand allows a company to command more premium pricing, reduce CPAs, and positively impact company valuation. If you are prepared to dig, you can back this up with numbers (the CFO language).

The thing is, Simon Sinek's fortune cookie platitudes can be all fluffy at the agency town hall (or as my granny used to say, ‘it’s all good fun until somebody loses an eye’), but it sure as hell won’t land with any hard-nosed CFO.

Creating an evidence-based mindset with the odd Warren Buffett soundbite about profitability will work much harder than an inspirational quote about saving the world.

Taking a long-game approach to brand building is more important than ever, but technology has made this more challenging. The likes of Buffett have warned about the dangers of short-termism for decades, but in adland, it’s fallen on deaf ears, so advocating for playing the long game isn’t easy.

One of our big problems is not a lack of data but the deluge of it. Each source – and there are multitudes - is battling for our limited attention and often tricks our brains.

The answers to this particular ‘why’ will be found in human psychology, not the spreadsheet.

For the last million years or so, and until relatively recently, short-term thinking - acting in the moment - has served us humans pretty well from an evolutionary standpoint.

The current human mind developed in an environment where people lived in small groups and had only a few choices to make. The instinct to focus on the here and now was useful when all we were doing was finding food and avoiding predators, but it is ineffective when making brand investment decisions. Because the minds we use to navigate the modern world were shaped - for the most part - around 200,000 years ago when a trait like the short-term focus was adaptive. It’s one of the main reasons you and I are even here. Our ancestors survived.

Here is the paradox of short-term thinking.

We have to fight our instincts.

The reality (and evolutionary mismatch) in life and business is that long-term planning is vital for a successful and sustainable future in the modern world.

Meanwhile, for our Silicon Valley overlords - and others who mediate our experience - the exploitation of the human mind's hard-wired short-term tendencies and manipulating our biases to make us more short-term focused is their business model.

Just spend five minutes on TikTok and watch it turn into two hours.

There’s only one path to simultaneously beat your genes (and appease the CFO) for agency planners and their CMO partners.

Force yourself to set clear long-term goals, define them and make them concrete with evidence and clear metrics. Then appease the short-term monkey on your back by breaking them up into smaller measurable milestones so you can track progress towards the bigger prize.

And with this knowledge, build and train your teams to know when to run with instinct and when not to. Finally, surround yourself with other long-term thinkers. Connect with people who share your long-term mindset. Maybe it’s a support group of other recovering instant gratification addicts. Their influence and support can help reinforce your commitment to thinking long-term.

It’s not easy; in fact, it will be difficult.

Everyone could do it if it were easy, but the rewards are all out there.

It might even get you a two-week shoot eating mac’n’cheese on a beach in Thailand…, and don’t forget to invite the CFO.


 Eaon Pritchard | Consumer Psychologist and Chief Strategy Officer at Bray&Co

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