#TBT: Math Phobia Is for Losers

You're not one of these men, nor do you want to be. Photo credit: AMC

You’re not one of these men, nor do you want to be. Photo Credit: AMC

Happy #TBT! Piggybacking on a previous post about math being a crucial part of marketing and selling out — Stat Concepts You Should Know (Even if You Hate Math), we thought we’d share this oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Math Phobia Is for Losers. This is one idea that Jim expands on, which he originally wrote about in 15 thoughts about pricing for the new year.

You’re not Mad Men. Neither am I.

Marketing today combines right brain and left brain thinking in a way that few other professions do and in a way that marketing never used to. Marketing has always been about results, of course, but if you flash back to the Don Draper era, information was pretty scarce. It came in slowly, was very broad, expensive to gather, and still came with a lot of question marks.

Here’s a quote about marketing that you’ve probably heard: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” This quote has been attributed to all kinds of people, but it probably comes from 19th-century Philadelphia retailer and marketing pioneer John Wanamaker. Any marketer still in thrall to that quote today is quite literally living in the past.

That’s not to say that we know exactly how every piece of marketing works, but we do have massively more information than the team at Sterling Cooper Draper and Price had, nevermind Wanamaker’s Department Store.

But to understand it, or even just to know it, requires a modicum of quantitative thinking. Thinking in numbers.

I know that some people who find themselves in marketing roles in live entertainment and, especially, arts organizations may have little or no background in marketing. There’s also a good chance that if you’re one of those people, I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of you weren’t first in line to sign up for math electives. I hear ya. My degree is in English!

Photo Credit: Volkan Olmez via Unsplash

Today, you aren’t going to be successful as a marketer if you can’t think in both numbers and words. Information about how marketing campaigns and tools are working is readily available, cheap, fast and abundant. Here’s a little story from my first job working in the internet, back in the grand old 20th century.

Monday, I started my job at GeoCities. I was tasked with getting GeoCities’ hundreds of millions of users buying stuff online, which was a new thing at the time. My first foray was a banner campaign on behalf of one of our e-commerce partners. I can’t remember anything about the banners, but I’d brainstormed a concept, worked through a couple designs and we had a handful of banners ready to go by Friday of that week.

I submitted the banners to our “traffic” department, which activated all the ads in the system. The traffic manager told me she could put my ad on full blast for a few minutes, which meant that it would get a lot more people looking at it for a short time than it would once it was back on its normal rotation. Excited, I said, “sure!” and she hit the button.

Five minutes later, my banners had been seen by 20,000 people, and we had a click-through rate. I knew how those ads were going to perform five minutes after they launched. What that allowed us to do was to modify the ads, keeping the ones that worked and dumping the ones that didn’t. This is internet advertising at its most fundamental, but it’s all about paying attention to and reacting to numbers.

Simple numbers, but numbers. We had words that turned into banner concepts, but in combination with the numbers, we had a marketing campaign.

Don’t be that person who looks at numbers and mumbles, “uh … math!” like that’s a hilarious, novel joke. Don’t ever say, “I’m not so strong in math” when confronted by multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. You learned that stuff when you were 8 years old.

Today, in a world full of marketing information, math phobia isn’t funny. It’s a little sad. The people who are winning at marketing today, I assure you, are not afraid of numbers. In fact, they’re probably using them as a tool for success in ways that the math-phobic aren’t even contemplating.

Math phobia isn’t a sign of creative genius among marketers. It’s much more likely a sign of being out of touch.

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