The Illusion of ROI

A marketer without a keen sense of the ROI (return on investment) of their campaigns and other business driving initiatives won’t be employed very long. It’s particularly important in our “Covid economy” where businesses are failing, revenue is down and operating budgets are constricted. Moreover, today’s marketing technology and data collection resources have set an expectation among CMOs and their management that it’s possible to have virtual real time access to ROI metrics.

It all sounds great. ROI keeps everyone focused on outcomes. If we spend X on marketing we can expect to grow our business by Y. Except we risk falling into a dangerous trap by focusing too much on ROI: it fosters the illusion that we can control outcomes.

Nick Saban, Alabama’s head football coach, is famous for talking about the importance of process. Bill Belichick, the Patriot’s head coach and one of Saban’s mentors, likes to tell players to focus on “doing your job.” Don’t worry about winning, just focus on preparing well so you can successfully execute your given task.

These are interesting observations for men in a profession where there are only two possible outcomes: win or lose. Coaches get paid to win, it’s why you play the game in the first place. It’s purely binary, which is not the case with most other professions. Yet Saban and Belichick, by any measure two of the greatest coaches of all time, spend more time talking about the process as opposed to winning. Why is that?

Before answering that question, I have to note it’s somewhat painful for me to quote Saban and Belichick. With all due respect to their accomplishments, I’m not much of a fan of the Crimson Tide and the Super Bowl victories by the Giants over the Patriots are among the happiest memories of my life.

The answer is because both coaches understand, like high performing individuals in any profession, that the key to success is to focus on the things you can control. The truth is we can control process, which is another word for the actions we take, but not outcomes. Coaches can’t make a team win, marketer’s can’t make consumers to take action and sales people can’t make prospects buy. If they could, no one would ever lose. And I’d be retired.

Focusing on process is critical because it’s through good process that we dramatically improve the chances of better outcomes. I’ll take it one step further, the best performers know the real goal of the process is to learn. By learning from past actions, we close the gap between success and failure.

ROI becomes an illusion if we lose sight of the process by focusing too much on the outcome. It’s better to measure the things in our control. Think of it as “return on process.” (Not that the marketing world needs another acronym.)

Of course, in business we get paid to deliver results. Promotions, compensation and career longevity are tied to ROI: are each of us delivering value. (At this point I probably should reassure my management that I am keenly aware of the outcomes expected in 2021 from our marketing efforts.) But if true success comes from focusing on the things within our control, all of us would be better off ensuring we don’t prioritize outcomes over developing a consistent process of learning. To paraphrase Belichick one again, that’s the job.

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