S#*! Our Business Leaders Say: "We're in Business to Make Money"

I can't help but get a little frustrated every time I hear someone say that the purpose of their business is to make money.

When confronted with such comments from business executives, my response (at least in my head), is always, "Yes...and?" "I'm in business to make money" is akin to a college student who says they are going to school to get a degree (or, to use the old joke, the chicken who crossed the road "to get to the other side"). Yet, we so often accept this (non)-answer as complete justification for a business' existence.

That's not to say that a business shouldn't concern itself with making money. Certainly, I've seen companies develop such tunnel vision with the interests of their leadership that they lose sight of the need to bring revenues in to keep the company afloat, their employees paid and so on.

But this way of thinking is often used to keep a company from confronting the issues that it really should be concerning itself with: innovating to keep its customers, its employees, and its shareholders pleased over the long-term, and to be better long-term partners and stewards of the communities and the environment it operates within. Instead, it seems to argue that fulfilling one short-term goal--making profit to keep its public or private shareholders pleased--is the only purpose of the company.

Think of the number of companies that seem to constanty change what they do (especially as they shift from business model to business model as the company falls apart). In most cases, they were never particularly clear, internally or externally, about what it was they did in the first place. They were there to make money; how they made money could change on a dime, as long as they found short-term profit in it.

This attitude disconnects companies from what it is they do beyond making money--the reason they exist; the need they are supposedly filling; the customers they are serving; and the unique position they are supposed to hold in the marketplace. This way of thinking can be blamed in part for the newspaper industry being much too slow to react to how the media business was changing; how the post office lost sight of being in the message delivery business in a world of electronic communication; and how tech company after tech company has fallen to newcomers in the past few decades for thinking about their product of the moment rather than continuously innovating to provide ever-more-efficient ways to serve their customers.

Such a dismissive attitude often pervades the marketing world in particular. I've sat in multiple meetings discussing a potential marketing initiative when someone trumpets the advice, "Let's not forget we are really just doing this for marketing purposes." In such an example, the advice is passed along as a conversation-ender, as if to say...let's not sweat the details for this project too much; its only goal is to promote us. Anything beyond that is just overthinking things.

This line of thinking is insulting to the audiences the company is seeking to reach. If the company that has that sort of response were to actually put themselves in their audience's shoes, they would be very much concerned with how an initiative serves the wants and needs of its audiences, how the communication from a company addresses a potential customer's pain point and what actual insight, utility, or value an initiative is providing the audiences it seeks to reach. Of course a program is supposed to market the company...but it's not actually going to do that very well if it doesn't educate, engage, enlighten, or entertain its audiences in a way that's useful to them, not just the company.

Potentially even worse, "It's just for marketing" or "we're just trying to make a buck" is an even greater insult to the company itself and its employees. Employees are empowered when they understand, know and believe in the good their work is doing. (See my piece last week on whether marketers should strive to make a difference.) And "only for marketing" implies that no real value can ever actually come from a marketing initiative, which indicates to me that the person uttering such a phrase has internalized cynicism about the value and role marketing can play. I am quite certain that people who believe marketing can provide little of actual value to audiences are in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"We're in business to make money" and "we engage in marketing to market ourselves" is the kind of circular logic that sends companies spinning into obscurity. And it is to serious business strategy conversations what "because I'm your dad" is to parent/child relations; a shortcut from a leader who does not feel up to developing any reasoned and considered approach at all.

As I embark on 2012, here's hoping it is a year free of these strategic stonewalls. So far, it's three weeks and counting for me. If we could all just target purging this way of thinking from our organizations and clients this year, I can't imagine how much more productive, useful, innovative and energized our companies--and we--might be.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was recently named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: William Shatner on "S#*!" My Dad Says" Ron P. Jaffe / CBS]

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