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👋 Hi, I’m James. Thanks for checking out Building Momentum: a newsletter to help startup founders and marketers accelerate SaaS growth through product marketing.


“I’m sorry to tell you that this is not your average course. If you’re expecting to party first, socialise second, and study third, you can leave the room right now, walk down to the office, and change course right now.”

That was Elsbeth, a steely Canadian advertising-exec-turned-course-leader. Day one, first sentence of the introduction session for our Advertising and Marketing Communications course.

The next three years saw us thrown headfirst into the theory and application of the core concepts of advertising. We began the course, expecting to become strategists, planners, account directions and creative directors at Europe’s top ad agencies. Our lecturers included everyone from academic experts on consumer behavior and analysis, to award-winning creative directors, to sharp strategy planners like Elsbeth.

I started university with the goal of beginning a career in public sector advertising. After a second-year internship, I’d been won over by the opportunity in B2B tech marketing, and started applying what I’d learnt to what was a cliche, dull and dreary.

Now 10 years later, I’ve been reflecting on the key things that advertising school taught me about marketing – and thought I’d share them here with you.

1. Marketing/advertising should drive behavior change

Marketing isn’t just about improving the brand, supporting sales, or generating unengaged leads. We need to go further and encourage behaviour change.

That might be an awareness change, like becoming someone’s source of industry news – one-time website visitors are vanity, but repeat visitors are a sign of behavior change. Or, it might be a purchase change; someone buying your product instead of something else.

A focus on improving brand perception by itself is relatively worthless if it doesn’t translate to changed behavior.

2. Use unconventional wisdom

I’ve written before about unconventional wisdom in narratives. Some of the most memorable and timeless advertising campaigns are driven by unconventional insights into the product and it’s manufacturing process.

Cadbury’s ad
Pin on Dolores Hawkins
Dove soap ad
Ikea ad based on their testing process

While these examples are from older FMCG ads, there are still plenty of modern examples.

In B2B positioning, for example, we see brands build upon their support and account management, or focused on their people and their passion behind the industry. What can you tell your audience about the way you build your product and your insight into their challenges?

3. Use customer insights

One of the stories I remember from Elsbeth, the Canadian advertising lecturer, was from a product she worked on. A type of lemon-flavored butter to be used on chicken and turkey was marketed as an ingredient. As time passed, the team realized sales were growing in the hot summer months – unexpected, as sales normally peaked in the holiday period winter season.

After carrying out customer interviews, the team found that customers were buying it not for food, but for scenting their refrigerators to remove bad smells. After a quick repackaging, the business now had a second product line in an entirely new category to grow completely new purchase opportunities from, without cannibalizing their existing product category sales.

One of the biggest things I learnt was that qualitative research should be carried out first in almost every situation to understand the parameters and thought processes involved – assessing the ‘breadth’ first. Only then should qualitative surveys be used to measure the ‘depth’ and understand where patterns did, or didn’t exist.

4. Creative only works if combined with effective strategy

In line with lesson number 1 above, it’s pointless having excellent creative if it isn’t planned with an aligned strategy.

The best ad that the target market never sees is the worst ad that exists. The best placement with the worst creative that everyone sees is the biggest failure.

No matter if you’ve developed excellent campaign concepts or positioning or narratives, you need the aligning actions and tactics to make it successful.

One of my ex-creative director lecturers once remarked that creative advertising awards exist solely because otherwise, those ideas would never see light of day. While there is unlimited creative opportunity, it’s very rare that that creative is aligned to an effective strategy. Don’t make that mistake.

5. Don’t forget placement and distribution

What’s the fourth P of marketing? Product, price, promotion, and… ?

Place. It’s even in the heading there.

In traditional advertising, this might refer to anything from product availability (i.e. being in stock and available to purchase) and product placement (being on the right shelf in the supermarket), to ad placement (ads being in the right location for the target audience).

In B2B, I usually think of placement as marketing and sales distribution. How visible is our marketing promotion and sales visibility in the market? Are we being seen in the right places, is our sales process up to scratch, and are we reaching the right people?

Again, the best product or ad in the world would be pointless if marketing and advertising wasn’t displayed to the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

6. Balance new audience growth vs repeat purchases

Advertising will usually have a goal to create a behavior change in a new audience member, or to encourage repeat behavior.

Firstly, don’t combine the two. Be clear and focused in your messaging. Are you attracting a new lead, or are you trying to engage someone who already knows who you are and what you do?

Secondly, look at your audience and figure out the most effective path of least-resistance. Is it easier for you to encourage repeat purchases or account growth, over attracting a new customer? Or maybe the CAC of new customers outweighs the effort of account growth. Ideally, do both anyway. But be specific and thoughtful about it.

7. Your market position determines your marketing strategy

The market leader in your category is tasked with growing the market. Their marketing strategy is to create new purchase and usage events, grow the target audience of potential customers, and use brand to increase their share of mind.

The second and third in the market leaders list should try to increase their share of market. They need to work harder to convince the target audience that their brand should be in the consideration set – although this is sometimes easier than growing the market. Promotion should be focused less on brand, and more on benefit-led functionality, driving evaluation, and competitive differentiation.

Anyone else in fourth position or below, should forget trying to win a whole category right now. Instead, they should focus on winning a smaller sub-segment of the bigger market. This will help them drive more effective unit economics, whilst building an engaged base that, if it grows big enough, can tip them into a pole parent-market position.

Using these lessons in marketing

These concepts are key to my work in product marketing, and you’ll see these themes repeat throughout my posts on Building Momentum.

From being focused (on your customer, product value, and goals) to building confidence (through creative and physical execution and goal measurement), momentum is a result of decisions. And hopefully, those decisions are ones you’ve made proactively – and not the decisions that you decided not to make.


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3 Replies to “7 things advertising school taught me about marketing”

  1. […] Check out the post in the archives to find out the seven lessons I learnt at advertising school that I still keep in mind today: […]

  2. […] Trott is a famous copywriter that I’ve been following since I studied advertising. Aside from his slightly annoying writing style, you’ll find a ton of useful lessons on how […]

  3. […] get to the core nugget of insight that has driven, or can drive, a specific action. (And remember: marketing is meant to drive behavior […]

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