Why Marketers Should Skip the War and Eat the Soup

A few years ago I sat in on a marketing class at Concordia University. I was downtown and had some time on my hands so I went to class and listened to what the next generation of people was learning.  The age difference was only about 3 years between me and the students but it was fascinating to listen to what the professor was talking about. At one point  I noticed that many of the students were reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu. A staple of business schools for years, many MBA programs list it as required reading.

I thought the application of the book was bullshit. They were reading the wrong text. The lessons of Sun Tzu are parables that don’t fit the modern marketing and business model. Instead of reading The Art of War, they need to read Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John A. Nagl and watch The Fog of War, a documentary by Errol Morris. Business people, and to a degree marketing people, use many of the same ideas as modern-day politicians and militaries.

Why The Art of War Fails Marketers

The Art of War’s primary drawback comes from envisioning conflict as a pitched battle (in a modern context often called symmetrical war). The Art of War focuses on engaging opponents when they’re in the open and leadership as a top-down model. Emphasized command structures do not, unfortunately, translate well into a modern context.

For instance, much of the text involves the importance of posture, with success defined as both a psychological and physical element. However, putting on a brave face is no substitute for competence. Another flaw is the notion that “he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease and he who comes later to the scene rushes into the fight weary.”

Unfortunately you (or your company) can’t take  a set position or  you’ll be surpassed by those who remain on the move. The constant level of change in the field means conditions change rapidly and those who remain at ease will lose their advantage to an opponent who stays alert and ready to adapt.  

Why Marketers Need to Eat Soup with a Knife

In contrast to the ancient philosophies of Sun Tzu, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife deals with the counter-insurgency efforts of the British during the Malay Emergency and contrasts them with the tactics and strategies used by the U.S. military in Vietnam when it was faced with asymmetrical warfare. Since competition in today’s business world more closely resembles counter-insurgency than the traditional battlefields of old, marketers can benefit from understanding what makes counter insurgency battle plans successful.

Nagl identifies individual military structure as the primary difference between U.S. and British strategies.  The U.S. model relied on a top-down structure that followed strict dogmas on troop engagement. The system didn’t offer flexibility, so the U.S. had difficulty making tactical changes to counter their opposition.   This approach led to pointless campaigns that wasted massive resources, time, and manpower.

In contrast, the British model emphasized a bottom-up model.  Each unit had the flexibility to conduct operations based on the most immediate information available. Ideas trickled up to command. Regiments had individual styles, so particular way was designated the standard.

With no single way to conduct affairs, British forces had a high level of adaptability to new threats and changes, the key to their success.  Above all else, adaptability provides the primary means to survive and win.  The same principles hold true for marketers.

The Lessons of War

In Errol Morris’s documentary,  The Fog of War, there are multiples lessons that every marketer needs. In the first half, Morris highlights the need for empathy, proportionality, and the capacity to learn. In the second half, Morris reminds us that even if you have the data, the knowhow, and the resources to conduct a campaign, it can still fail. All told, I took away 11 lessons from the film:

1.     Empathize with your enemy

2.     Rationalization will not save us

3.     There’s something beyond one’s self

4.     Maximize efficiency

5.     Proportionality should be a guideline in war

6.     Get the data

7.     Belief and seeing are often both wrong

8.     Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning

9.     In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil

10.  Never say never

11.  You can’t change human nature

As a marketer, you can implement the lessons from both the book and the film to improve the effectiveness of your campaign. Overall the message of the film is learn from one’s mistakes but pay careful attention to lesson numbers one and four. Empathize with your audience. Provide them with the information that they will deem important and always make sure you never over saturate them. Be proportional in how you present your ideas to them.

To have a more effective mindset for today’s business world, we need to change the way we think. The old lessons of Sun Tzu don’t really fit a constantly changing environment. Business is adapting and evolving at not a continuously faster rate. New models for management and business arise constantly, which requires the ability to adapt on the go. If you want to understand how to make sure your business or strategy becomes efficient, then look to Nagl and Morris for insight and leave Sun Tzu on the shelf.

About Andrew Morris

Andrew Morris has worked for a variety of companies as a marketing consultant, strategic planner and copywriter. He’s also worked for an ad agency, a record label and a publishing firm. He has a degree in political-science, his favorite color is green, and he hates every sports team from Boston except the Celtics. He currently lives in Montreal which is where he was born.

  • Pat Grady

    they should be required to read Cialdini.

  • http://www.revenews.com Angel Djambazov

    I have a custom shirt with the following printed on it:

    “Everything I know about business I learned from reading Asimov, Ian Banks, and Le Carre.” Foundation, Culture, or Carre’s espionage lit make a lot of things about the world of business quite clear.

  • Andyjrmorris

    its important to remember that the first ones to the game usually aren’t the ones who really succeed. Remember friendster? does anyone still use myspace? has anyone ever even seen the interface of classmates? Just because they were the first to the field does not mean they are the ones who succeeded. They were all crushed by facebook.
    Microsoft beat out corel and lotus but they certainly weren’t the first to come up with office software.
    Zappos certainly wasn’t the first company to sell shoes online and adapting the amazon sales model to a specific niche was a bright idea.
    This has been a trend through out history.

  • http://www.gypsybandito.com CT Moore

    RE “Rationalization will not save us”

    This is why advertising can be such a powerful marketing tool: pathos can easily trump ethos and logos.

  • Wjtmac

    Another key point seems to be that a lot of social media and search marketing is basically a cottage industry. So the agencies or companies that work in that field are small enough that they can change their strategy on a whim instead of having to go through a mass of red tape.

  • dupontagentorange

    Thanks for bringing to light some super interesting connections. cheers!

  • Dave Jaffer

    Enmity breeds stupidity> Beer is awesome> I like boobies>