Have you ever wondered why the highly touted marketing miracles never seem to work for you? Stick around.

In recent years, copywriters, “branding” experts, “strategic” thinkers, and advertising and marketing agencies have evolved a conceit in which they refer to themselves as “storytellers.”

Although it is largely self-inflating bullshit, I enjoy this conceit. It puts an emphasis on the concept of “stories” and helps me explain and expose one of the great logical errors of our industry. I call it the “untold stories” problem. Here’s how it works.

Most of the information we get about the success or failure of advertising and marketing activities comes in the form of a story:

– A press release

– An article in a trade publication

– A feature in the business section or on a TV business report

– A case history presented at an industry conference or event

The stories that reach us are often superficial — they are mostly just headlines lightly dusted with a few specifics, some meticulously curated numbers, and a generous helping of spin. This is because marketing strategies are valuable trade secrets and keeping them confidential is crucial to business success. You don’t just give ’em away. As a result, the stories we get are often devoid of some important specifics that are key to understanding the true nature of the activity.

Nonetheless, for every story we are exposed to, there are a thousand untold stories we don’t get to read or hear about. These are the non-spectacular stories, created in non-spectacular fashion, by non-spectacular brands — in other words, they are about 99.9% of everything that ever happens in  marketing.

man sitting on bench reading newspaper

I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to suggest that we are far more likely to hear success stories than failure stories. Ask any business reporter. The number of PR releases she gets about the brilliant new campaigns being launched will outnumber the releases she gets about the failure of campaigns by about a zillion to one.

After all, who wants to embarrass the CEO, alarm the Board, scare the shareholders, frighten the puppy dogs, and reveal themselves for the bewildered bumblers they are? It’s a lot wiser  to be forthcoming about your successes and circumspect about your failures.

However, when this tendency becomes terribly dangerous is not when it is applied to a specific case history, but when it is applied to primary information we get about marketing fundamentals in general (not just particular brand campaigns.)

I would wager great stacks of money that the untold stories of the mediocre performance of virtually all marketing activities outnumber the widely told stories of success by a hundred to one. This is doubly true of (but not limited to) the shiny new object activities like social media, content marketing, virtual reality, native advertising, “personalization,” blockchain, and whatever new marketing miracle happens to be trending this week.

The narratives we are exposed to about marketing activities, and the belief we have in these activities, are profoundly skewed by the bias toward trumpeting success, not failure.

This is perilous. It leads to conferences, books and, god help us, Powerpoints, extolling the efficacy of undertakings based on wildly unrepresentative samples. It gives our entire industry a false impression of the value of these strategies.

It leads us to throw money at expensive, wasteful tactics. And it reinforces the lemming-like attraction of naive marketers to the trendy fantasies that have dominated our industry for the past decade, often through widely read “success” stories.

It is not that the stories themselves aren’t true. It is that the results being reported may be wildly divergent from the reality to be found in the total number of stories on the subject, the vast majority remaining untold.

Before you take any story about advertising or marketing as indicative of a general truth, you’d be wise to assume that just the fact that it is being told at all makes it likely that it is one or two standard deviations from normal. You should assume that the overwhelming number of stories that haven’t been told on the subject aren’t nearly as rosy.

In marketing, the untold stories are usually the real story.