“You can’t manage what you don’t measure”.

As a marketer working with many big brand performance marketers, I find myself coming across this fine quote from uber-statistician W. Edwards Deming a few times each month. There’s nothing wrong with the quote per se, other than the fact that most marketers take it far too literally. Like all great quotes it must be taken in its’ correct context – something that rarely happens with this quote.

The thing is, we debate whether we should invest in TV, radio, billboards and other media where you can’t measure whether your ad works? Is an ad in The Times or Vogue worth 1,000 times as much as a text link on Google? If you’re doing the comparison directly, that’s how much extra you’re paying if you’re only measuring direct web visits…

One school of thought is to measure everything. If you can’t measure it, don’t do it. This is the direct marketer method and there’s no doubt it can work.

There’s another thought, though: Most businesses (including your competitors) are afraid of big investments in unmeasurable media. Therefore, if you have the resources and the guts, it’s a home run waiting to be hit.

Ralph Lauren is a billion dollar brand. Totally unmeasurable. So is Dior, Coca-Cola, IBM, Donald Trump, Lady Gaga and hundreds of other mass market brands.

There are two things you should never do:

  1. Try to measure unmeasurable media and use that to make decisions. You’ll get it wrong. Sure, some sophisticated marketers get good hints from their measurements, but it’s still an art, not a science.
  2. Compromise on your investment. Small investments in unmeasurable media almost always fail. Go big or stay home.

And if you’re selling unmeasurable media? Don’t try to sell to people who are obsessed with measuring. You’ll waste your time and annoy the prospect at the same time.

Moral of the story?

The next time you roll across that quote from our friend W. Edwards Deming, perhaps consider this alternative perspective from Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull ~

“’You can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is a maxim that is taught and believed by many in both the business and education sectors. But in fact, the phrase is ridiculous—something said by people who are unaware of how much is hidden. A large portion of what we manage can’t be measured, and not realizing this has unintended consequences.”

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Leader • Lover of Old Business Books, Clever Technology and the NHS • Based in London, UK.

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