Sage advice from a departed legend

For 50 years, John MacDonald, a winner of the TVNZ Marketing Hall of Famer, worked in marketing. Earlier this year he spoke to NZ Marketing about his time in the industry and now, following his passing, we revisit that interview and find some timeless advice. 

During your career did you ever experience ‘ageism’?          

No, I can honestly say it never arose. Occasionally, I heard words like ‘there he goes again’ referring to some hobby horse but certainly nothing like ‘he’s too old so what does he know!’.

Are there any risks of getting rid of experienced thinkers in favour of ‘young hot things’?

Experience in every industry is very valuable but so is new thinking. For most managers, getting a balance is incredibly important. Constantly having to go over the same ground is costly and time-consuming and this is where the experience comes in.

It’s worth remembering in the FMCG industry that the brand leaders 50 years ago are still mainly the brand leaders today. A few examples are Nescafé, Coca-Cola, Heinz Wattie’s, Milo, Dettol, Weet-Bix, Cadbury, Sunsilk, the list goes on. This doesn’t mean that new brands haven’t been invented but that the originals have held their ground and largely their positioning is the same as it was years ago.

All these brands have probably had a heap of people working on them in marketing roles and in their advertising agencies so as one manager hands over to another, the experience has kept growing as well.

But it’s equally important to keep a brand up to date so that it appeals to the next group of consumers.

Are there lessons you have learned from the young ones coming in?

Absolutely, many times, and I have always tried to encourage anyone new to the business to have their say and share their thoughts.

This is particularly important as means of communicating change—for instance, the last five years has seen fantastic growth via digital media. But, at the same time, it’s always useful to remember not to be too far ahead of a particular audience or consumer needs.

Are there lessons you’d like to share with those entering the industry?

Many, but some fundamental things:

  • Make sure you enjoy what you are doing—if not, do something else. Have a life outside work, remembering that family and friends will always be there and the boss/work may not!
  • Take time to fully understand what you are being asked to do or to use the jargon. Make sure you understand the brief fully before starting as huge amounts of time and frustration come by not understanding this. And if you are a marketer, learn how to write a really good brief so that the agency gets it right first time!
  • Consumers/customers aren’t all like us. If you work in an agency in Parnell or Ponsonby in most situations your consumers won’t be like you.
  • It’s really exceptionally important to understand your consumer or target, and again it’s worth remembering that the ‘oldies’—i.e. 50- to 65-years-old—have greater purchasing power than most other age groups. They’re responsible for most new car purchases (apart from corporate purchases), they travel more or have the funds to travel, ‘need’ more pharmaceutical/medical preparations and they may well be the group that influences purchasing by their younger family members.
  • In 50 years the need to supply consumers with information and encouraging them to understand and purchase products and services hasn’t changed much. What has changed is how the information gets to people. Back then, radio was more important than TV so the creativity was very different—i.e. jingles and jingle writers were the top dogs. Today it’s changed again with digital communication needs starting to overcome some forms of broadcast or wide media.        

How does the age of those entering the industry today compare when you entered it?

Probably about the same. I was appointed as a marketing director at 28-years-old. The main difference is that back then, almost all marketers (i.e. product managers) were male and probably older, and came into marketing in a variety of ways, i.e. from the sales force, with research backgrounds etc. It’s great to see today that there’s huge diversity, with a large number of women in these positions.

I’ve come to the conclusion after all these years that men and women in marketing behave slightly differently, so when approaching an issue, I needed time to consider both groups answers at the risk of alienating all my colleagues.

Men tend to take more risks and get bored with issues more quickly, so they’re often happy to present the recommendations when eight out of ten boxes are ticked. On the other hand, most women want to make sure all boxes get ticked, so are more cautious getting their recommendations right and may take longer.

However, my experience has also shown that the end result, say a year later, from both genders will likely be the same.

Having a team with both genders and a variety of ages is probably best overall to make a winning combination. Unfortunately, it may be a luxury not available to everyone!

  • This interview first appeared in the 2017 Media Issue of NZ Marketing.
  • You can read more on MacDonald’s career here

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