Do You Want a Cook or a Chemist?

January 02, 2012

On AMC's hit show Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine manufacturer. Through his many terrible decisions, Walter provides the audience some valuable life lessons. Granted, most of those lessons have to do with the perils of lying to your family, getting involved with trafficking drugs, and making deals with Mexican drug cartels; but, there are also useful lessons for businesses and marketing professionals.

For instance, Walter learns very early on that it is dangerous to not know the people with whom you do business. In particular, it is important to know what they are capable of. It is also important to know your own limitations. Early on, Walter and his partner figure out they are not capable of managing a large-scale drug business on their own. But, with the right help, they could be profitable. Still, I doubt many business owners would describe those lessons as revelatory. However, this season did bring out a lesson that I see many companies ignoring when dealing with social media.

At the beginning of season four, Walter once again finds himself in a tight spot. Without giving away too much, he is in a situation where it seems his boss is going to kill him. At least, it is a very real possibility. In an attempt to save his life, he lays out the potential options for his boss: He can either let Walt live and keep working with someone who understands the underlying chemistry behind the drug. Or, he can kill Walt and go with a cook, someone who just knows the steps to take to cook the drug. In the simplest terms, "Do you want a cook or a chemist?"

Ultimately, this is the decision facing many companies today, in particular with how they handle digital marketing. And unlike in Breaking Bad, too many of them are choosing the cook over the chemist.

What do I mean by that? I have spent a lot of time recently patrolling job postings on places like LinkedIn. I have also talked with several recruiters in the last year. One thing I constantly see are job postings for "people who understand social media." Or jobs looking for people who know how to "create a Twitter following." Moreover, talking to recruiters, they often ask about specific experiences with Twitter or Facebook or some other tool. For instance, I had an interview with a HR person who asked me at least four times how familiar I was with PowerPoint. That is akin to interviewing a carpenter and focusing only on how familiar they were with a nail gun.

The point is, I have never been asked about my understanding of marketing strategies. I have been grilled about my ability to use PowerPoint, but I have infrequently been asked about my understanding of integrated marketing or the four "P"s. Essentially, people are looking to fill jobs by quizzing people about the steps involved in cooking a marketing plan, but not in the underlying chemistry that makes a successful strategy possible.

As Walter makes it clear while trying to save his life, knowing the steps involved is OK as long as nothing goes wrong. But, as the environment changes, if you don't know why you are doing something, when the unexpected happens, you won't know how to fix it.

This is the case today. Four years ago, when businesses knew nothing about social media and most users were trying to establish its value, having someone who "know how it worked" was a valuable commodity. But, the world has moved beyond a point where there is a dearth of understanding about social media and the online world. As Hubspot rightly points out, developing worthwhile content, i.e., understanding how marketing messaging affects your audiences, is more critical than simply knowing social media.

Essentially, the novelty of social media is gone. Where just being there was enough, it is only part of the game now. Social media understanding is ubiquitous at this point. Companies who focus on this--to the detriment of getting people who understand how to develop compelling marketing materials--are missing the forest for the trees.

In today's information environment, content is king. If you hire people who don't understand this, your social media campaigns will flounder.

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.

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