The That-One-Thing Fallacy
Marketing monomania as signal of strategy failure
Picture the scene: It’s the early ‘00s somewhere in the 408 or 650 area codes. There’s a weekly client/agency meeting in a conference room named after a classic rock band, ‘90s hip-hop artist, wine varietal, or a Silicon Valley luminary. Competing with the supply closet in terms of spatial generosity and ventilation, the room still smells of the since-removed stale pizza and outgassed Mountain Dew from the bug-squashing session late the previous night. Through the window and outside this sample of the region’s uninspired, earthquake-paranoid architecture, the landscaping lamely evokes the acres of orchards that stood there just decades before. Inside, about $300 to $400/hour is getting billed across two people.
For that amount of money, is the conversation between the agency and the client about long-term planning? Crisis management? Launch event timing factors? Content ideas? Editorial planning? Business-goal alignment?
Nope. For the fourth time in as many consecutive meetings with about a dozen related emails in between, it comes down to just that-one-thing. This time around, that-one-thing is “Has Mark Offerson of The National Journal-Times-Post yet agreed to interview us for a feature that will go out the third Tuesday of July in time for our product rollout?”
With the highly specific demand thus unfulfilled at that very instant, the interrogation begins.
“Haven’t you called, emailed, or smoke signaled?” (Yes.)
“Aren’t you being aggressive?” (Yes, inasmuch as not coming off as a complete pest would allow.)
“Are you being aggressive enough?” (Yes, but camping out in his office lobby wearing a sandwich board got creepy.)
“Don’t you have a relationship with the reporter?” (Yes, but it wouldn’t matter if we shared the same $3,000/month dumbwaiter in San Francisco’s latest inexplicably popular neighborhood. Journalists want stories.)
“Did you see what he covered yesterday? That should have been us!” (Engaging with the article beyond a zero-result CTRL-F vanity search will likely demonstrate that this is not the case.)
“There must be something wrong with the pitch you’re using! I need to see it! Let me write it for you!” (You can hire a stenographer much more cheaply.)
“Did you pitch this person strategically?” (Note that the person in such meetings who misuses the word “strategy” and its variants, or otherwise utters it as if it were a vowel, is usually that meeting’s least strategic participant.)
“Can’t you go over the reporter’s head to his editor?” (Wasn’t forging a mutually beneficial relationship with this reporter the whole point? This won’t do it.)
“You know… I bet if I hired [trendy high-flying publicist] we could get this done!” (Threats? Fine. Please go right ahead.)
This was a frequent experience in Silicon Valley at that time, particularly since 1) the power of the tech trade press was rivaled only by the automotive industry and 2) “mainstream,” “national,” or “business” coverage was the ultimate flex for an early stage company. The only thing that has meaningfully changed two decades later — not only in crypto, where I currently ply my trade, but so many other areas — is the manic sense of urgency, the quantity and speed of the inputs, and the (only slightly) lower focus on media relations in favor of community engagement, influencer programs, and content marketing.
The early-century example above borrows from the media-relations-heavy focus at the time, but you can adapt and extend it across all marketing and communications disciplines today. Too often, startups and even a number of established companies make it about that-one-thing — a media placement, a conference sponsorship, an influencer shout-out, a display ad campaign, and so on. It consumes the marketing team to the point of distraction. It creates unnecessary churn. It teaches younger employees to approach communications and marketing as strictly a tactical, order-taking discipline, risking the creation of a generation of corporate doormats. It results in stratospheric, unmet expectations that, likely, contribute to that 80% of CEOs who don’t trust their marketing leadership.
They want the security, especially amid all of the multi-variable chaos of startup life, that success can be boiled down to that-one-thing. Since marcomm is generally considered “easier” than most of a company’s other functions, putting that-one-thing in that group’s purview has an incredibly strong appeal. The department of Dumbo’s magic feather. (“Can you get me on Joe Rogan?” was, at least for a time, that-one-thing.)
Pennyheads are smart folks. I’m not going to go into what happens when that-one-thing doesn’t happen. A great many of you have experienced this firsthand.
Here’s the rub, though. Most of the time, the worst and most crushingly ironic part comes when that-one-thing… is achieved! “But where are all of the inbound sales calls? Where are the visits to the web site? Signups to our beta? People carpet-bombing us with resumes? That-one-thing was supposed to deliver all of this. Everyone here said so! It was supposed to be the crucial independent variable that unlocked sales, recruiting, and a whole host of vital functions. I guess it just wasn’t executed properly, that’s it.”
(Sidenote: I will grant that, in my experience, there has been one example of that-one-thing actually delivering the desired result. At one client I worked with, the sales team observed the magazines left on prospect companies’ lobby coffee-tables and on their executives’ desks. What resulted was a monomaniacal focus on getting into The Economist. Thing is, it worked. Dead sales contracts suddenly came to life. Key difference here, I think, is that the comms team was treated as a partners in this effort, versus merely order-takers. I hasten to point out, though, that this very analog growth hack probably wouldn’t work today. This was 2004 and, by that point, people had been saying “print is dead” for more than a decade.)
Some thoughts on how to address that-one-thing thinking:
Treat It As a Signal — When your organization starts to fall into that-one-thing thinking, recognize it early for what it is: strategy failure, and not just in the marcomm operation either. It’s time to offer that 360-degree view.
Teach People How to Treat Your Work — I discussed “service orientation” versus “influence orientation” last week. If the need to achieve that-one-thing results in people with little in the way of expertise dictating and demanding activities, you’ve basically lost control of your role in the organization. To prevent this, be better at “showing your math” in terms of how the process works and achieves results. Channels like Slack are great for this.
Know When to Fail Quickly and Move On — At a certain point, even modestly reasonable internal stakeholders need to understand when the that-one-thing isn’t going to happen. This isn’t failure. As I had to tell one client: “Hello, Ahab? Big white whale is still on ‘line two.’”
But Don’t Be Blind to Efficiencies Either — It’s rare, but sometimes that-one-thing isn’t coming from a place of institutional laziness and excuse-nesting but rather a shared discussion of deploying scarce resources. So long as you don’t descend into violating the previous encouragement to fail quickly, you could have a home run on your hands. Experience and instinct will help you know the difference.
Tired of op/ed pieces in the marketing trade press trying too hard to make you believe they aren’t selling you something? Had it up to here with a front page full of executive moves and little else? Wish there was a newsletter that treated you as a human being and your trade as more than a kind of Kinkos-plus-creative? Then subscribe. Tell your friends. Become a Pennyhead. We have punch and pie.
BUSINESS: “Jordan Thomas and His Army of Whistleblowers,” The New Yorker (2022) — I’m still on the fence about the presumed sanctity of whistleblowers. Rarely do people ask “Did this person make any effort at all to fix a situation internally before going public and risking little more than uncritical applause and/or a substantial payday?” This piece delivers good insight into the whistleblowing industry. (And let’s just call it what it is, shall we?)
CRYPTO: “Why Brazilians Are Turning to Stablecoins Like Tether,” CoinDesk (2022) — I see the global case for crypto every time I go down to Brazil. If you’re really interested in crypto news coming out of Latin America’s most dynamic economic force, please subscribe to Aaron Stanley’s excellent Brazil Crypto Report.
CULTURE: “A Matter of Emphasis,” American Scholar (2022) — SNL’s Wayne Campbell? Anthrax’s Scott Ian? Nowhere else is the power and utility of the word “not” so elegantly conveyed.
Man trains “attack squirrel” and feeds it meth to heighten aggressiveness. No, not in that U.S. state. Not that one either. The other one.