For the past decade I have run my European work from a base in Prague where I have also lived. Prague, a blank sheet of parchment, more than ready to absorb the palette of the western world, offers any student of humanity a great position from which to observe life.
You won’t be surprised to hear that one of my fascinations has been to study the never-ending stream of foreign “experts” who have turned up to offload their “advice” to a fledgling economy with loads of EC grant Euros to “invest” in infrastructure and business initiatives. Where business and marketing is concerned this migration of experts appears to have mainly comprised a succession of EasyJet flights from London carrying more arseholes and wash-ups that I would have ever admitted, even to myself, we had in the UK, offering the very “lessons” that had brought them personally to the point where they had to get out of their own town, God help Central Europe!
We always seem to have tackled the induction of emerging economies by giving them basic information on the subjects they need and assuming that when they “catch up” we can go in again and bring them up-to-date. This assumes that they will always lag behind and that their development curve, though steep, would never bring them to the point where they were vying with us for a lead in business ideas. This isn’t necessarily the case of course. As evidence proves, often where emerging countries are given cutting edge thinking and technology their freedom from the compromises of infrastructure and attitudes means that they can sometimes take that a whole lot further and faster than their western counterparts. The Czech national phone company, for example, developed a mobile technology that is now adopted around the world.
However, we still operate the transfer of knowledge in a hand-me-down sort of way – “Here, we’ve done with this old sweater, see if you can get a bit more use out of it”. In my line of work perhaps the most personally irritating example of this has been the way that foreign marketers have introduced bright-eyed young Czechs to the concept of “above” and “below-the-line” marketing”.
I’ve been in the business for more than thirty years and in all that time I don’t recall ever having been given a satisfactory definition of these terms from anybody, anywhere. In the West, we know for sure now that it makes no sense. Its a red herring, an adjunct to what we do yet its one of the first things we introduce to a new situation like Central Europe. In the context that I provided a moment ago its more like “here’s something I bought thinking it looked cool, but realised when I got it home that it was really naff – it might suit you though”! I mean, its one thing to hand over something that was once useful in the hope that it might maintain its usefulness a little longer in a less taxing environment, but to dump your junk like this …
So I’ve spent the last ten years trying to counter the spread of this nonsense to new territories by explaining that, just like the King’s New Clothes, its fine to say it’s a load of bollocks – because it is!
This year my work has so far all been in the UK and among the first businesses that I was introduced to was one of our largest advertisers. I was taken around their “marketing department” which in fact was an entire office building larger than most businesses corporate HQ’s and introduced to departments and functions as “… our above-the-line this” and “ our below-the-line that” and increasingly recoiled into a mental ball. I mean, what the hell are we doing when one of our largest and most prized organisations are basing their business on such antiquated thinking. Its no wonder, as I realised during subsequent discovery, that thinking was a bit woolly, but the waste ….!
I long ago took the “above and below” subject out of the presentations that I do in the UK thinking it was redundant, but it seems I’m going to have to reinstate it with new prominence, in fact I think its going to occupy a whole new section in my Full Effect Marketing seminars.
FORGET ABOVE AND BELOW-THE-LINE! There’s no such thing, its irrelevant thinking, a distraction, a red herring. There is only one way that you should be thinking of dividing your marketing – STRATEGIC and TACTICAL. Don’t even think of media in above and below-the-line terms, its doesn’t work anymore (I personally don’t think it ever did). There are mass media and targeted media, some offer interactive capabilities, others can carry a big slice of emotion, all media are relevant in some way, its up to us to decide which we need to apply to each area of our strategy for most cost-effective results.
I’m sure that the Czechs and their colleagues in the other emerging new European countries, will work it out for themselves before too long. Its just a pity we gave them such a bum steer to start with. As for our guys back home – I guess its ingrained after all. A lot of work is obviously still to be done. But, hey! That’s my job. Watch this space.!
December 11, 2007