Is there a person in your marketing?

Why we can’t rely on technology to make our decisions for us

Abraham Lincoln once explained to a visitor why he was so confident his favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant, would eventually win the Civil War for the Union.

He told the story of an “automaton chess player,” a complex machine that, all the way back in the early 1800s, could beat human players at the game.

According to Lincoln’s story, “After a while the automaton was challenged by a celebrated player, who, to his great chagrin, was beaten twice by the machine.”

How could a machine, before the age of computer chips and robotics, compete—and win—against people?

“At the end of the second game, the player, significantly pointing his finger at the automaton, exclaimed in a very decided tone:

‘There’s a man in it!’”

And, of course, he was right. There was a human inside the machine directing its actions.

Lincoln knew that Grant was thinking things through, not just following the same tactics and techniques as the failed generals who’d come before him. And Lincoln knew Grant wasn’t constrained by the same script from which his enemies took their tactical cues.

And indeed, victory always goes to those who are not bound by capabilities of the technology, or conventional wisdom, of the day.

It goes to those who direct technology to their own purposes and make their own decisions. Those who use technology instead of being used by it.

Today, while we may use technology—like ad networks, social media platforms, dashboards, and automation systems—to accomplish our work, we must resist the temptation to merely follow the industry scripts. To hew too closely to conventional wisdom.

Because if there isn’t a person in our marketing, making decisions that are unique to our needs, we will get the same outcomes as everyone else.

As Harrington Emerson said, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few.” The person who knows principles can pick and choose their methods, and make the adjustments that are best for their business. But, he continued, the person “who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

And we’re sure to have trouble if we simply buy technology—or use a technique, or deploy a tactic—without understanding how to use it. Or without understanding the principles behind its operation.

Strategy, at its core, is really about making decisions that are likely to get us better than average results. Better results than we’d get if we simply followed the crowd.

But if we do the same things as everyone else—using the exact same technology in the exact same ways—why would we expect anything but average outcomes?

Instead, we can go back to our principles. What do we do? Who do we do it for? And how do we do it in a way that’s uniquely suited to our best customer’s needs?

We can ask whether the technologies—or the tactics, tools, or techniques—we’re using, and the way we’re using them, allow us to reinforce our market position in a clear and creative way. And whether they let us make decisions that set us apart from the rest.

We can determine whether we’re really getting a return on our technology spend, or whether we’re simply spending money because we see other people doing it.

In essence, we can ask ourselves, is there a person in our marketing? Or are we just running the same script as everyone else?

A saying goes that the “most shameful excuse a general could make was, ‘I did not think.’” But that is true for all of life, including business and marketing.

No matter how much technology we have at our disposal, or how advanced our tools or techniques may be—we must think.

And we must make sure there’s a person in it.


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