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Machiavelli and Marketing

April 19, 2016
Computers at work

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli is one of my favorite books. I re-read it constantly.

This Italian political treatise is about 500 years old, but contains a lot of insights into human behavior that translate well into modern life, particularly politics and marketing.

I recently thought of my favorite passage from The Prince during an awful client meltdown.

This situation will be familiar to many of my digital marketing friends:

  1. The client previously had significant engagement on their blog and social media.
  2. Organic visibility fell off now that Facebook and other social networks started pushing paid ads.
  3. The client doesn’t want to spend money on social media advertising, and blames your firm for supposedly providing subpar content.
  4. A competitor comes out of the bushes, and makes unrealistic promises of organic reach and other snake oil remedies.
  5. Client is now pissed.

When dealing with a client who refuses to accept digital marketing changes, I think about Machiavelli’s warning to leaders who face resistance to change:

“For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

“This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new until they have seen it proved by the event.

“The result is that whenever the enemies of change make an attack, they do with all of the zeal of partisans, while the others defend themselves so feebly as to endanger both themselves and their cause.”

I’ve seen this repeatedly – digital marketing changes, and then clients freak out.

Most clients accept the changes and update their marketing tactics accordingly. Others refuse to believe that the changes are real and instead shoot the messenger before being poached by a snake oil marketing agency.

Machiavelli’s answer?

Brute force.

“We must look whether these innovators can stand alone, or whether to carry out their ends they must resort of entreaty, or can prevail by force. In the former case they always fare badly and bring nothing to a successful issue; but when they depend upon their own resources and can employ force, they seldom fail.

“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.”

“For, besides what has been said, it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.

Now Machiavelli is suggesting getting your army together and chopping off heads, which would be a little awkward in a business context.

However, I’ve found that arming yourself with case studies backed by hard data can be just as compelling.

There’s nothing better than to be able to tell a client that you’ve actually tested your recommendations and “look, here’s the data!”

Also, ideally your agency is constantly running pilots and publishing results instead of doing a fire drill every time.

If the client still refuses to believe your proposal will work, then they are a lost cause and deserve whatever snake oil your competitors sell them.


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