Greetings to you all.
A week ago, my friend John Ajayi invited me to speak at this summit, the Q1 2023 Marketing Edge Virtual Marketing Summit. It is unusual for me to accept a speaking appointment at a week’s notice. Normally, I would protest that this did not leave me enough time to properly prepare.
But this was not a normal request. It was for an event in my favourite Nigeria. It was also a request from an insistent John Ajayi. Then I was going to speak about a subject I care about deeply. Finally, this would give me an opportunity to make some humble remarks to the President-Elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
So here I am. I can only hope that I have not made the wrong decision in giving in to my friend, John Ajayi. Even more ominously, I hope I have something to say.
Message to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu
I would like to say a few words to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and his team. This team includes two of my big brothers, Babatunde Fashola and Nassir El Rufai.
I am not a party-political actor by any stretch of the imagination, or by any reasonable definition. My message, therefore, to the President-elect, who I lived within walking distance from for close to 6 years but never spoke to is: Sir, Be gracious. BUILD NIGERIA. HEAL NIGERIA. LET NIGERIA RISE AGAIN.
Deliberately, I have chosen a message for Asiwaju Bola Tinubu from a man who hailed from Peter Obi’s home state of Anambra. That man was a great admirer of another man from the North of Nigeria, from where Atiku Abubakar and Rabiu Kwankwanso hail. The man is none other than Professor Chinua Achebe, from Ogidi in Anambra, the celebrated writer and scholar. Achebe was a self-confessed admirer of Mallam Aminu Kano, a Northern Nigerian.
There is some symbolic significance here. A message to Bola Tinubu, who is from the West, from Chinua Achebe who was from the East and who admired Aminu Kano, who was from the North. North-East-West makes for an acronym “NEW” and covers all 3 original provinces of Nigeria.
Now shall we listen to Chinua Achebe. 1“We tend to be full of enthusiasm but, only for a short time… Nigeria is big enough to call itself anything it wants. It is no joke to have a quarter of the population of Africa living in one country, no joke to have a country with traditions and art of Nok alone, the bronzes not only of Ife, but Benin. We can call ourselves Head of Africa – but let’s mean it.”
I have nothing more to add to the great man’s injunction. I simply wish Nigeria, more liberty, more egalitarianism, more prosperity, and more fraternity.
In the beginning…
Now let me focus on Marketing. In 1960, Professor Theodore Levitt, then of Harvard University and writing in the Harvard Business Review, wrote what was in my opinion his magnum opus. The article titled, Marketing Myopia, oozed with the characteristic vigour and energy of Theodore Levitt.
He left no one in any doubt about what Marketing is supposed to be about. Hear him: 2 ”The difference between marketing and selling is more than semantic. Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, and marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert the product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering and, finally, consuming it.”
Some who must claim everything originated relatively recently, and only in the Western world, point to this historically significant article as the origin of marketing. I have no evidence though that Levitt himself ever made any such outrageous claims.
The attempt to say Marketing started only in 1960, is of course utter nonsense to diligent students of history. The tendency, in some circles, to appropriate all that is good and noble about humanity, to only one part, and to only one age, is hogwash.
We must all listen and reflect on this quote from the article, 3History of Advertising 101: What You Need to Know. Here goes: “In the history of advertising, the first-ever written ad was found in the ruins of Thebes in Egypt. It was a Papyrus created in 3000BC, promoting their weaving shop.”
Lost wanderers of the present age; Marketing has deeper and broader roots than you realize. The antecedents of the profession date back to long before the present age.
Marketing, at its best, has much it can take pride in as its contribution to improving the human condition. A few examples will help illustrate this.
William Hesketh Lever, founder of Unilever, introduced Sunlight soap bars in England to alleviate the drudgery of working class and peasant housewives, who in those patriarchal times, were saddled with responsibility for household laundry. Typically, the soaps they used were poorly made and were therefore awful smelling and harsh on the hands of users. Sunlight, a scented soap with product technology that made it kind on hands, was therefore a real solution that improved people’s lives.
The same man was responsible for the introduction of the Lifebuoy soap. At a time of epidemic hygiene-related illness in England, the introduction of Lifebuoy was a lifesaver. Till today, there is no doubt in the minds of medical scientists that as simple an exercise as handwashing can drastically reduce infant mortality and infant morbidity. Here too, is another example of a brand offering a real solution that improves people’s lives.
An entry on Henri Nestle, founder of Nestle company – the biggest food business in the world – in the article, 4Nestle in the Ottoman Empire: Global Marketing with Local Flavour 1870 – 1927, read: “Although Nestle and his wife were childless, they were aware of the high death rate among infants. …In addition, fresh milk was not always available in large towns.”
To cut a long story short, Henri Nestle acted to bring solutions that would improve people’s lives.
Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata Company, was an Indian pioneer industrialist. He is referred to by many as, “Father of Indian Industry.” Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, paid tribute to Jamsetji Tata thus: 5“When you have to give the lead in action in ideas – a lead which does not fit in with the very climate of opinion – that is true courage, physical or mental or spiritual, call it what you like and it is this type of courage and vision that Jamshedji Tata showed. It is right that we should honour his memory and remember him as one of the founders of India.”
In 2021, “Hurun Philanthropists of the Century” ranked Jasmetji Tata, first among philanthropists.
In the interest of time, as I do not have your attention forever, I will not go into details anymore. But whether it is Mo Ibrahim of Sudan, Manu Chandaria of Kenya, Toyota’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda of Japan, Bill Gates of North America, or the founder of Embraer, the aeroplane manufacturer in Brazil, Ozire Silva, there is a pattern. Many of the pioneers in successful businesses focused their Marketing effort on providing solutions that improve the long-term health of society.
That is what business should be about. I hope you noticed that, in order to establish the universality of the principles at stake here, the examples given were taken from each of the inhabited continents of the earth – Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. Before anyone reads political sentiment into the order in which the continents have been listed and accuses me of partiality towards Africa, that was merely done by alphabetical order, nothing else.
When it is done right, the animating ethos of Marketing that makes it noble is universally present. The Marketing profession, while it embraces an attitude of innovation, constant learning, and adaptability, is an adult and mature profession. It is definitely not a fledgling profession that should now be debating its essence and purpose. We shall come back to this theme later.
Even in some of the companies that the listed pioneers belonged to, there are signs of capitulation to the pressures of Neoliberal capitalism. It tells us that a commitment to excellence and service is like a quest for the Holy Grail. It never stops. We must always be vigilant, and it requires tireless commitment.
Then came big bad wolf…
Before we get back to the discussion on the essence though, we must acknowledge not everything about the history, theory, and praxis of Marketing, has been decent. Kantar, a major voice in the Marketing world, has recently distinguished between PROFIT and PROFITEERING6. Kantar endorses the former and denounces the latter. I confess not only to finding this distinction very conceptually handy but also to agree with Kantar on their positions about both.
Greed, profiteering, short-termism, and shareholder primacy – in summary, let us be very clear, Neoliberal Capitalism – are a distinct threat to wholesome and noble marketing. They are indeed a threat to all professions and all of human existence.
I bow my head in shame that a mindless chase for short-term shareholder returns led marketers to do such things as:
- Advertising alcoholic beverages and tobacco products at peak viewing and listening hours for children.
- Selling sugary products and promoting over-consumption of fatty products which then resulted in an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and the rise of many lifestyle diseases.
- Turning a blind eye to brand-building value chains that include slavery and do long-term ecological damage. Destroying this one earth we must all live on.
- Promoting destructive, irresponsible, and wasteful consumerism.
Some people will stop at nothing, including destroying the earth, to make a profit. The climate change debate offers many such examples. Mindless consumerism has left the world in a place where we need 1.75 piles of earth to sustain our current rate of consumption. Humanity is eating up the world’s resources. We are set to exceed the 1.5-degrees global warming target if radical changes are not made now. Climate change is putting the world at risk.
25% of the world’s population lives in high water-stress regions. Climate change threatens food and water security. 10% of the world’s population controls 76% of the wealth. The gap between the rich and the poor has become untenable. 60% of people do not believe their families will be better off in 5 years. There is a growing pessimism about upward mobility amidst the cost-of-living crisis. 65% of people think that civility and mutual respect are at an all-time low. Polarization within societies is increasing while trust is decreasing.
Oxford University’s Said Business School’s focus on the “Economics of Mutuality” could not have come a day too soon. This mindless consumerism will kill us all.
It is not because people are inherently evil and cruel that the twin evils of colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade happened. These inhumanities happened as core processes and construction agents of profiteering. They were, simply put, a brutal and barbaric transfer of sustenance from the Periphery to the Metropole. We must never forget this as businesspeople.
In pursuit of profiteering, people have been willing to subject their fellow human beings, even to the most extreme indignities. When we warn of the risks Neoliberal Capitalism poses, it is partly because we know what happened before when business and the human race lost their way. We who work and campaign to see business become a force for good, have never forgotten what can happen when business ethics and values derail.
My friend, the French lawyer and ace marketer, Pierre Emmanuel-Marie, liked to say: “At some point in time, all power is tempted by the abuse of power.” There is a new marketing myopia. Whatever marketing people say about Naomi Klein and such people, about the “No Logo”7 movement and so on, it must be acknowledged that they did not manufacture the examples they give.
In the name of so-called “Performance Marketing,” Neoliberal Capitalism has produced a very objectionable, interminable, and often unethical brand of marketing. We must all come together to stop this rampage.
The celebrated management writer, Henry Mintzberg, in a remarkable article titled 8Managing Quietly, published in 1999, was courageous and stark in pointing out the dangers of Neoliberal Capitalism. He used other terminology, yes – like globalization, shareholder value and so on – where some of us just denounce Neoliberal Capitalism. He was very sure-footed in his pronouncements, and wise. I would therefore like to spend some time on some of what he wrote.
Professor Mintzberg warned that: “unless (American business) gets off its destructive kicks – the mindlessness of managerial groupthink, the mercenary ‘me’ of shareholder value and executive compensation, all the noise and the hype – it will be in deep trouble. So much of this activity is deadening and just plain socially bankrupt.”
Keep in mind that Mintzberg was writing in 1999, and it underlines how far-seeing he was. He fearlessly posed the question, in a manner that will no doubt anger the apostles of shareholder primacy: “Is ‘shareholder value’ new as well, or just another old way to sell the future cheap? Is this just an easy way for chief executives without ideas to squeeze money out of corporations? This mercenary model of management (greed is good, only numbers count, people are human, ‘resources’ who must be paid less so that executives can be paid more, and so on and so on) is so antisocial that it will doom us if we don’t doom it first.”
Again, remember that he was writing all this before the enlightenment that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and more broadly the conversations around ESG and Sustainability have enabled in modern management. “The CEO who favors the quick fix over steady progress is destroying an organization.”
A battle between regeneration and degeneration
I have just quoted Henry Mintzberg for the last time in this speech. What ought to be obvious to us all, is that there is a battle for the very soul of the Marketing profession – and indeed of all of management – always raging on.
I call it a battle between the forces of regeneration and the forces of degeneration. If those on the side of regeneration lose courage, degeneration will take over. It is why that indefatigable campaigner for Sustainability, Paul Polman, remarked in his recent book9, that: “all our biggest challenges are daunting and need courageous people to tackle them.”
Polman knew what he was talking about. The forces of Neoliberal Capitalism are driven by tremendous and insatiable appetites for profiteering. They are greedy, very rich and ruthless. Their deep pockets and tentacles have amazing reach and influence. Some have described them as The Metropole.
They fight back. These forces exert influence on the international media; control shareholders lobbies that can exert tremendous pressures on CEOs; and in Robinson Crusoe Societies, they can take control of the politics of whole nations, sometimes even capturing whole states. They can get people elected and get people kicked out. Through control of important levers of the publishing industry and even some universities, they sometimes succeed in determining what passes as unquestioned and unquestionable management orthodoxy.
They have their own blanking out of opposing voices like happens under absolutist theocracies, laundered to read as cancel culture. Only the naïve underestimate their power. It is also why that great ancestor of the Global African world, the African American writer, Maya Angelou, once insightfully remarked that, 10 “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
And the wolves do bark…
Make no mistake about it, there is a red-hot battle taking place for the soul of business, of management and of marketing. One of the most vocal of the intellectual high-priests of Neoliberal Capitalism, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, revealed this when he barked in 1970 in an essay tellingly titled, 11Social Responsibility of Business, that: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources to engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
Bear in mind that Professor Milton Friedman was the influential and undisputed de facto leader of the so-called Chicago School. This was a group of highly politically connected and influential scholars minted at the University of Chicago. Milton Friedman was the 1976 Nobel Prize winner for Economics. He was a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan of America, to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and to General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. Upon his death, a prominent voice of Western civilization of the modern variety, The Economist, wrote about Friedman that, he was 12“the most influential economist of the 20th century… possibly of all of it.”
Paul Polman was very right. Standing up to Neoliberal Capitalism requires courage. Its high priests are people of tremendous power.
Following Francis Fukuyama’s inspiration, when he wrote the book which came to mark the hubris associated with the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Neoliberal circles, 13The End of History and The Last Man, no less than the former Chief Marketing Officer of Coca-Cola company; one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world, Sergio Zyman, produced a book in 2002, evocatively titled, 14 The End of Marketing As We Know It.
In that book, Sergio Zyman spat Neoliberal fire when he tried to define the purpose of marketing. “The sole purpose of marketing,” wrote Zyman, “is to sell more to more people, more often and at higher prices. There is no other reason to do it.”
Wow!! How did this noble profession land here? It is shocking that as senior a marketer as Sergio Zyman could so badly misunderstand the purpose and essence of Marketing. Again, I say, this glaring misunderstanding of the profession, is the new marketing myopia.
Are we trying to resurrect Milton Friedmann…
In 2023, in a highly influential and otherwise well-researched paper, titled, 6Modern Marketing Dilemmas, put out by a firm described in some places – and credibly at that – as, “the world’s leading data, insights and consulting company,” therefore arguably one of the most significant voices in the profession today, an essence of marketing was presented. That definition was: “…the very essence of marketing is to sell more stuff to a greater number of people at higher prices.”
That sounds like we are right back to Milton Friedmann and Sergio Zyman. Have the Sustainability Movement, the SDGs and ESG and all that, left people so unmoved?
While giving a lot of credit to Kantar for showing tremendous tolerance and willingness to listen and engage with humility and an open mind on this matter, right to the very top of the organization, I disagree sharply with this definition. It is my responsibility, therefore, to say so. With no equivocation or ambiguity.
Back to our noble roots…
Let us be very clear, the essence of marketing is the crafting of strong brands that provide real solutions to improve people’s lives. When that is done well, we are rewarded with a legitimate return on our investments by satisfied stakeholders.
Marketing is not, and has never been, about shoving stuff at people. It carefully crafts products and services, having understood people’s needs. It does not just sell stuff.
We must return Marketing to its human and humane origins. Or else, we will create the kind of society which my brother Dr. Mzamo Masito once described with the following observation. “The poor do not sleep, because they are hungry. And the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake.” This, along with stark naked anomie conditions, is the actuality of a Robinson Crusoe Society.
Sometimes, when such things occur in the profession, it is possible – even understandable – for the forces of regeneration to feel discouraged. To wonder whether the many efforts being made are moving the needle at all. The questions begin to float in our minds about whether a business will ever again be a force for good? Whether humanity can learn from its past errors? Or whether, as Samir Amin put it, all of these are just, 15 “miracles that lead nowhere.”
Yet, we must continue the conversation and keep engaging. Importantly, we must NEVER FEAR. NEVER FEAR. NEVER FEAR. As the philosopher Aristotle argued in his body of work called 16The Nicomachean Ethics, we are not just inquiring so we may know what is good, we inquire so we may DO good.
The revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx, writing in 1845, in his 17The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, observed provocatively as he was quite capable of, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Those immortal words were inscribed on his grave upon his death.
Humanity can still do good…
On days like these, and that is the note I wish to end on, a positive one, we must remind ourselves that the human race is still capable of doing much that is good. Though sometimes it does not seem like this. At its best, humanity offers many examples of tear-evoking selflessness. It is those realities that must move the forces of regeneration to constantly organize and not just agonize.
In my view, one of the most important and equally influential books of the 20th century and beyond is that written by the German psychiatrist and Nazi holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Even in recounting one of the worst experiences of cruelty that human beings have meted out to other human beings, another example of what can go wrong when we prop up bad examples of leadership like King Leopold of Belgium and Adolf Hitler of Germany’s Third Reich, Frankl gave hope.
Movingly in the pages of easily his magnum opus, 18Man’s Search For Meaning, the immortal Viktor Frankl records an enduring memory from the Nazi concentration camps: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The Marketing profession is at a critical conjuncture. It must end all signs of new myopia – the endless capacity of Neoliberal Capitalism for submerging ethics and values, in pursuit of profiteering. Marketing must return to its original noble roots. Roots that made the profession a clear and distinct servant of the human race. A true force for securing the long-term health of society.
Who thought will be Frankl’s people, willing to give out their last pieces of bread? Who will pursue the cause of regeneration along M. Scott Peck’s, 19The Road Less Travelled?
I keep faith with many an African tradition, culture, and historical praxis when I reach to the wisdom of our ancestors to close this speech. Our great African ancestor, the celebrated African American writer, James Baldwin, writing in one of his characteristically deeply reflective modes had a fitting message for us today.
20 “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.”
When the sun goes down for the last time for us, may we be found working for Marketing to serve humanity. All of us as professionals, owe this to our consciences.
As the Area Boys at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos would often say to me: E Go Better! They are right, it will get better. But we must make it better. The forces of regeneration must rise and organize fearlessly to keep Marketing on the path of service to humanity. Rise all ye marketers! Rise up!
I am done. A luta continua.
- Levitt, T. (1960), Marketing Myopia. Harvard Business Review, 38, 45-56.
- Achebe, C. and Wambu, O. (2013), The Trouble With Nigeria Revisited. An interview by the Africa Leadership Institute.
- Segar, J. (2022), History of Advertising 101: What You Need to Know. Cross-Channel Advertising Category.
- Koese, Y., (2008), Nestlé in the Ottoman Empire: Global Marketing with Local Flavor 1870-1927. Enterprise & Society, Vol. 9, Issue 4, pp. 724-761, 2008, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1311722 or http://dx.doi.org/khn045
- Chatterjee, D. (2014), Noel Tata Takes Over As Chairman of Trent. Article in March, 31 issue of Evening Standard. Available at: Noel Tata takes over as Trent Chairman | Business Standard News (business-standard.com)
- Kyriakidi, M. and Staplehurst, G. (2023), Modern Marketing Dilemmas. Kantar Group and Affiliates.
- Klein, N. (2009), No Logo. Knopf Canada.
- Mintzberg, H. (1999), Managing Quietly. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/ltl.40619991206
- Polman, P. and Winston, A. (2021), Net Positive – How courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Angelou, M., (2014) Maya Angelou Quotes: 15 of the Best, Guardian, May 29, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-in-fifteen-quotes
- Friedman, M. (1970), The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970, 122-126.
- Milton Friedman, a giant among economists. The Economist, November 23, 2006.
- Fukuyama, F. (2012). The end of history and the last man. Penguin Books.
- Zyman, S. (2002), The End of Marketing As We Know It. John Wiley & Sons.
- Amin, S. (1974), Accumulation On A World Scale. Monthly Review Press.
- Aristotle, R., W. D. 1., & Brown, L. (2009). The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford; New York, Oxford University Press.
- Marx, K. (1845), Theses On Feuerbach. Written: Slightly edited by Engels, F., First Published: As an appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888, Progress Publishers.
- Frankl, V. (1962), Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press
- Peck, M. S., (1978), The road less travelled: a new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth. New York, Simon and Schuster.
- Baldwin, J. (1990). The fire next time. Penguin Classics.
This lecturer is by Yaw Nsarkoh of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana, and African Marketing Confederation.
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