Marketing hubris will get you killed

Ian Lurie
it worked the last 10 times

Marketing hubris will get you killed. Especially in search.

I hate it when someone asks me “Have you worked with other companies like ours?” If I have, I consider it a vulnerability, not a strength, because I’ve got the a-word: Assumptions.

Anyone starting a marketing campaign with assumptions is one step from failure. Why? Because those assumptions prevent adaptation.

It’s not the assumptions themselves. If you’ve worked with 10 travel agencies, then yes, you probably have a decent idea how to start an SEO campaign for the 11th. It’s the refusal to abandon those assumptions that gets folks in trouble. It’s a kind of marketing hubris. I see it happen again and again.

A great example

An insurance company hires a search marketing firm. This firm has years of experience with other insurance companies. They’re insurance marketing sages. They nod thoughtfully in initial meetings. Then they say “Create PPC ads based on cost and great service.” And “Do SEO around ‘cheap car insurance’.”

Well, slap my forehead, I NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT. No chance every OTHER insurance company on the planet is doing the exact same thing. This is PURE GENIUS.

Six months later, insurance company is bleeding money, stuck in the same race to the bottom they’re always in. The marketing firm can’t see that their client has the biggest, best network of agents and support on the planet. So they never talk about breadth of coverage. They just keep bleating “Low cost! Great service!”


I’m not saying, “Don’t hire experienced firms.” Just make sure they have the wisdom to put aside assumptions. Check ’em for that hubris thing.

It’s not the rankings, it’s how you get there

In search marketing—and yes, I mean both SEO and PPC—marketing hubris can be fatal. Search may seem like the pursuit of a finite set of keywords, with everyone scratching and clawing their way to the top using identical strategies. But it’s nothing like that.

Yes, you may need to rank for ‘car insurance’ or ‘jeans’, just like all your competitors. It is a zero-sum game. But the way you get there must be unique to you. You must use your unique strengths, or you’re going to be crushed in a riot of me-too’s.

An experiment

Try an experiment: Build your search campaigns around the things that make you better than competitors. Don’t focus on getting the same links they have, or having the same word count, or trying to match bid amounts and ad copy. Instead, find 2-3 things that clearly, totally separate you from the pack. Then:

  • Build your content strategy around them.
  • Play up those attributes in social media.
  • Create PPC ads and landing pages that emphasize them.

For example: If you sell furniture, and you have more orange couches than anyone else, run PPC ads that say “YES! We Have Orange Couches!” I bet you’ll sell a few.

Try it for a month. See how it goes.

And, if you’re a potential client, feel free to ask me if I’ve worked for other companies like yours. Just realize I’m always going to say ‘no’.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. What you are really saying is that every engagement must be approached with a fresh perspective. And that clients need to look for agencies that don’t just do the same old thing, but try to come up with something truly innovative.
    Isn’t that a recipe for poor profits for an agency though, surely your business model is built on replicating what you’ve done before?
    Play along with me here, your article reminded me of a book called, “3rd gen R&D,” a book written in 1991 by a bunch of management consultants from Arthur D. Little. The premise of the book was that businesses could manage their R&D product portfolio much more effectively, if they tried managing the portfolio.
    There’s always going to be change in the marketplace, so as a company you have to look for another innovation that’s going to give you category leadership. This portfolio management for technology strategies applies just as well for leadership when it comes to search rankings or content marketing. If one keyword, or attribute is held by a company think of another keywords, or even change the meaning of the keyword, or think of another way to develop content that beats the competition.
    Your article makes a lot of sense in that light. Building the same model for a lot of businesses is a profitable way to build a business, but you have to know when to make a change and look for a new innovation, whether that innovation is a tech strategy or a new keyword or content marketing strategy.

    1. John, your comment is better than my post 🙂
      You’re spot-on. How many clients have we worked with over the years who thought they could just do “The next _______”? How often did that actually work? Not very.

  2. This is what bothers me about competitive analysis too, not just engagements.
    I’ve heard “Let’s see what our competitors are doing!” more than I care to mention.
    Well, what are you hoping to achieve by that?
    If you’re answer isn’t “Differentiating my company from the pack”, you’re going to fail.

  3. I was talking to a large off-line marketing firm the other day who is losing market share and they’re still using the same techniques for clients they were 5 years ago- TV, Radio, Newspaper ads, letter drops.
    I almost fell off my chair.

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