John Wanamaker.jpg

There is a famous quote attributed to the American retailer John Wanamaker – “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” It to a great extent sums up the challenge that faces the modern advertising and marketing industry – in a clamour for demonstrable, linked return on investment, there are swathes of marketing activity for which it is very difficult to assess the impact. But, undoubtedly, it has an impact.

I explored this challenge in more depth a few months ago, and I would maintain that whilst it’s possible to accurately track activity that leads to a specific “call to action” – for example, a search term ad leads to a click leads to a purchase – for something more ephemeral like brand building where it’s about winning hearts and minds, correlation between marketing and outcomes is next to impossible. But it might be a lot easier to track what happens if you stop doing something.

It’s got me thinking about an alternative to thinking about “return on investment” – the idea of “return on no investment”. Put simply, if you are paying to do something today, what might be the costs and consequences of stopping doing it tomorrow? What are the risks, how quickly could you revert your decision if necessary, and would reversing your decision take you back to where you were in the first place.

Take something like corporate email. Could a company do without it? Probably. What are the costs of managing an email implementation in an organisation? Huge – when you factor in not only the costs of running the technology, but the vast costs of every employee managing their own personal email overload.  Would anyone take the risk of getting rid of it? Not a chance, other than in PR-able “Email free Friday”-type stunts. And all of that is fine – but how many organisations have done the analysis?

I know that often “do nothing” is used as a base case to justify project investment, but I’ve rarely seen “stop doing something” as the case as a whole. The way in which we assess change activity in organisations tends to focus on doing new things – it’s probably partly to do with the sort of culture that generally exists in corporate management teams that is driven by delivering stuff. Delivering a void is a harder thing to conceptualise, let alone with which win management brownie points.

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