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Why Marketers and CEOs Rarely See Eye-To-Eye

July 13, 2021
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Thoughts

 A venture capital figurehead, on behalf of the tech industry, is taking credit for having pulled the world out of the pandemic; the tech community responded with mixed feelings. All of this describes why CEOs and marketers often fail to see eye-to-eye.

 

A Picturesque Visionary CEO

Andreesson Horowitz is a bedrock Silicon Valley VC firm that held early investments in many of the tech products that we use every day. Marc Andreesson, one of the firm’s co-founders, is a swashbuckling tech veteran and physical caricature of someone that grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa—credited to both his giant, cone-shaped head and an overall presence that stands grander than his actual frame would suggest.

He is known as a brash, farsighted thinker. His partner, Ben Horowitz, once described what it's like to work with Andreessen in a NYT article:

“If you say to Marc, ‘Don’t bite somebody’s f***ing head off!,’ that would be wrong,” Horowitz said.
“Because a lot of his value, when you’re making giant decisions for huge amounts of money, is saying, ‘Why aren’t you f***ing considering this and this and this?’


Steve Jobs famously challenged the world to Think Different. Marc Andreessen never needed such advice. 

Andreessen is lauded for his occasional essays that he publishes on the A16Z blog. Many consider these pronouncements to be a state of the tech union.

Most famously, he published "Why Software is Eating The World" in 2011, where he predicted the impact that companies like Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google would have on their respective industries.

This piece was a laughing stock for non-tech media. At the time, Amazon Prime had just 5M customers worldwide. Amazon's stock price was $185, Apple: $10, Netflix: $26; Google: $250. I didn't even have a Twitter account yet.

Today, Amazon Prime has 200M customers and their stock trades around $3,500/share; Apple at $135, Netflix above $500, Google around $2,500.

It's crazy to think that this was 10 years ago—it feels like yesterday. Blockbuster was already out of business… 

When Andreessen speaks, many listen; holding his words as Gospel.

He is a visionary; a true tech CEO, who, for more than a decade, has run a successful venture capital firm that relies on his ability to discover and coach other tech CEOs. HBO’s Silicon Valley series included many fictional characters that attempted to replicate his personality and thought-process. 

There are only a few people on the planet that see the world through the same lens as Marc Andreessen. Whether you agree or disagree with his thought-process and proclamations about the future, you still need to respect the fact that he thinks differently than you do. 

 

It’s Time To Build

At the height of the pandemic, Andreessen published "It's Time To Build.” The piece expressed disgust at Western society's response to the pandemic and our inability to produce things like masks and basic PPE equipment:

As I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America! ... Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard!


"It's Time To Build" is a call to arms; an expose on how those in power—business leaders, politicians—have chosen the easy route. We don't have futuristic cities and reformed education systems because these oligarchs have had no incentive to build the utopian society that [the tech industry] has dreamed of.

I concluded my book, Join or Die, with an ode to "It's Time To Build," reflecting on AdVenture Media's attempt to, well, build. 

As a business leader, it forced me to reflect on our contribution, if any, to the greater good. 

As a marketer, though, I wondered: do our customers actually care if we’ve contributed the greater good?

Even if the answer to the latter question is no (it almost always is), it does not negate the moral responsibility to still seek to leave a positive impact on the world. The distinction between these two questions is important and often overlooked.

Here’s what I’ve learned: CEOs and business leaders need to have a long term vision. Ideally, this vision includes building something that benefits the greater good. However, in the short term, you must still focus your marketing efforts on serving your immediate customers. Only then will you be able to survive long enough to turn your vision into a reality.

 

Technology Saves The World? 

Last month, Andressen emerged from his cave with "Technology Saves The World." He expected American lockdowns to last as long as five years, but is crediting technology as the savior that brought us out early:

Last April, I issued a call to our technology industry that it was time to build — and I am so proud of how we delivered. Please join me in an enthusiastic — virtual! — round of applause for all of the amazing workers in our spectacular technology industry who made all this possible.
The experience of COVID has made crystal clear both how important our technology is to human flourishing, and how well we can deliver. Technology helped save the world.

He cites vaccines as the cornerstone example—Moderna created their mRNA vaccine within just two days of receiving the genetic code for COVID by email—but quickly transitions to the crux of his article: technology's positive impact on society over the last year extends far beyond the development of vaccines. Among his examples:

  • Telemedicine allowed the healthcare industry to continue serving patients.
  • Remote work enabled many businesses to continue operating.
  • Ecommerce allowed many small businesses and retailers to stay afloat, as seen by the massive influx of new Shopify stores, Facebook Shops, Etsy sellers, Instacart-ready grocery stores, and more.
  • Schools transitioned to remote learning. 
  • Online entertainment kept people entertained. Netflix, video games, Zoom Happy Hours.

There is also the long term economic impact of the realization that remote work can now separate the tight link between geography and economic opportunity.

Ben Thompson of Stratechery published a response titled "Pandemic Progress" in which he attempted to provide a more practical perspective. He mentions these examples above, but notes that:

This leads to the cynical argument: all of the pieces for these success stories were built before the pandemic hit — that’s why the U.S. was able to navigate the pandemic as well as it did.

 

He suggests that tech’s ability to “save the world'' was more of an opportunistic convenience than it ever was an intentional act—a convenience that certainly benefited tech companies and the VC firms that back them.

We should therefore not put Zoom, Teledoc, or Shopify on a pedestal just yet. They didn't save the world because they wanted to help build a utopian society: they did so because there was a competitive advantage, fueled by a societal lockdown, that provided a massive opportunity to generate profits.

 

Good Marketing vs. Visionary CEO Jargon

Here’s a screenshot of what Zoom’s homepage looked like on March 1st, 2020, right before the pandemic hit (via web.archive.org)

Zoom homepage circa March 2020

 

It’s the most boring hero section I’ve ever seen! Zoom was not founded on the idea of democratizing communications or spearheading the remote-work evolution; it was founded because Eric Yuan spent 10 years working at Cisco—the then-leader in the video-conferencing space—felt that their video conferencing product sucked, and went off on his own to build a better product himself. 

From a marketing standpoint, I’d argue that this hero section isn’t all that bad. The Gartner Magic Quadrant is the golden standard in B2B marketing, so it’s wise to use this real estate to brag about their Gartner rankings. What’s more, their headline is straightforward and to the point (although, they shouldn’t be using the word Zoom to describe their product, but I digress). 

Yuan didn’t think that Zoom would change the world, and the hero section of Zoom’s website—the most valuable real estate behind your marketing and branding efforts—proves that. 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this was Yuan’s master plan all along, but he resisted the urge to shout it from the rooftops because he knew it would fall on deaf ears. If that’s the case, then hats’ off to him. 

But one day, he woke up and realized that such an opportunity fell into his lap. 

By April 1st, the hero section looked like this:

Zoom homepage circa April 2020

 

Challenging times. In this together. That’s save the world stuff. The kinds of things that CEOs love to say on earnings’ calls. 

It’s also bad marketing. If you had never heard of Zoom but were in the market for a video conferencing solution, what would your reaction be? This looks like the landing page for an internet provider; not a video-conferencing service. 

They got away with it because overnight, Zoom became a household name… and a verb! When a global pandemic thrusts you to the tier of Google and Band-Aid, you can get away with a vague headline. 

(As of this writing, Zoom has returned to highlighting their place in the Gartner Magic Quadrant, a sign that they’ve floated down from their cloud and are refocused on the interests and needs of their customers.)

Compare this to Shopify, another golden goose of pandemic that wasn’t as fortunate to become a household name. 

Their hero section on March 1st, 2020:

 

Shopify Homepage circa March 2020

 

I love Shopify but I hate this headline. It’s lazy. 

During the summer of 2020, they adjusted it to fit the needs of their modern audience:

 

Shopify Homepage circa July 2020

 

Much better. The homepage has changed a bit over the last year, but it keeps the customer—and their needs—as the focal point of the messaging. By the time you reach the visionary CEO jargon: Empowering independent business owners everywhere, the user already has all the information they need to make an informed decision. 

Throughout the pandemic, both of these firms did wonders for small businesses and corporations alike. They deserve a pat on the back, but their leadership should remain focused on the only common variable that will continue to determine success with or without a pandemic: the customer. 

 

What Drives Progress?

While we might want to blame politicians for the lack of progress, it's not entirely their fault—they simply don't have the ability to move the needle in the way that a profit-focused tech firm does.

From “Pandemic Progress:”

 

Take privacy, as an example: Apple’s iOS 14 changes, which are great for Apple’s business, have done far more to change the advertising industry than Europe’s GDPR, which only entrenched the biggest players.
It’s the same thing with climate change: Tesla has driven a wholesale shift in the automotive industry first-and-foremost by being cool, while solar prices have plummeted far faster than expectations; both are poised to succeed not by telling customers what they can’t do, but by making it more attractive to do what is better for the environment.

 

Thompson's conclusion really stuck with me:

This for me is one of the biggest lessons from the last year: solutions that give customers what they want, from cooler cars to the ability to work from anywhere, are the way out of intractable problems, particularly if we want to remain true to Western values of self-determination and individual choice.
That’s exactly what happened in the case of the pandemic: the U.S. didn’t beat the coronavirus by locking people up in their homes against their will, but by inventing new technology that let them live their lives as they wish. The ultimate governor on progress is the human condition, and catering to that reality, both in terms of what we build as well as why we build it, is a feature, not a bug.

This bears resemblance to many issues we deal with in marketing. We often have client-side CEOs or investors—brash, outspoken, farsighted thinkers—that want to change the world and envision a future where we all harmoniously join together and sing kumbaya.

But at the end of the day, no one gives a shit.

People embrace change when it makes sense for their bank account. Apple doesn't care about privacy; they care about their customer LTV. The global consensus about privacy (as well as the general anti-Facebook sentiment) was their window of opportunity. 

Retailers didn't flock to Shopify because they woke up in 2020 to realize the incredible opportunity with ecommerce; they did so because local politicians forced them to close their doors. 

People didn't start using Instacart because they suddenly realized they hate grocery shopping; they did so because they were afraid that they would contract a deadly virus. 

All of these opportunities existed long before the pandemic, but there was never an immediate need to drop everything and embrace a dramatic change.

Do I think that privacy is a good thing? Yes. Do I think that ecommerce is good for the world? Yes. Have I always hated grocery shopping? Yes. 

Would we be where we are today, with regards to our adoption of these technologies, if not for a strong competitive/monetary incentive, which was drastically accelerated by the pandemic? No.

Great marketing caters to the human condition. 

Is your retail shop closed? Start an online store with Shopify!

Afraid to go out in public? Instacart will do your shopping for you!

Plenty of tech companies never made a positive impact on the world because their marketing failed to keep them afloat long enough to realize the impact. 

We can work toward a better society, but we need to recognize the true incentives that consumers have when they are making purchase decisions. That's what you should be advertising—not your vision to change the world.

It took a global pandemic and worldwide lockdowns for these companies to realize their potential. I certainly hope that no such shock will exist again in our lifetime…

For any aspiring entrepreneurs that hope to change the world, I am sorry to inform you that you need to play the long game. In the short term: build a great business and delight your core customers. 

For a long time, I worked with a company called AudioEye, which provides technology for websites that makes them accessible for people with disabilities (screen reading software, etc.). I always fought with them because I felt that our marketing messages were not in-line with their customer's desires. Their customers were business owners—anyone that sold products through a website or app—that had an opportunity to make their website more accessible. 

Think of it as a wheelchair ramp for an online store. 

Their leadership team filled the pages of the website with messaging about diversity and inclusion... about how they are making the internet accessible to all!

AudioEye’s homepage circa 2015 (via web.archive.org):

AudioEye homepage circa 2015

 

They also happened to be another publicly traded tech company—backed by people that see the world through a similar lens to Marc Andreesen.

Here's the reality: AudioEye's customers don't care about that kumbaya vision: they care about the fact that, per the Americans with Disabilities Act, business owners can be sued for non-compliance on an inaccessible website.

That's it. That's the reason that they exist… At least for the foreseeable future.

At some point, they changed their messaging to embrace the idea of "We'll make sure you do not get sued. Sign up for our software and instantly become ADA compliant. For free!" 

The original website never mentioned the legalities of ADA or WCAG compliance. The new one featured a link for: Lawsuits directly in the main navigation.

Since then, their stock price has more than doubled. Go figure.

AudioEye homepage circa 2021

 

Over the long term, AudioEye can make a real impact on the world if they help raise awareness for the benefits of accessibility—in the same way that Zoom needs to advocate for remote work, Shopify for ecommerce, and Tesla for electric vehicles. 

But that can’t be a part of their short term direct marketing strategy…

CEOs and marketers need to have this conversation. We can build, and we can save the world… but we also need to generate some revenue.

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