If you Teach a Man to Fish: Why “fishing where the fish are” is not enough

For as long as I’ve been doing this, people have been telling me that the surest path to marketing success was to always be “fishing where the fish are.” That is, put your message where the people you want to reach, are.

And that makes sense, right? If you’re talking to motorcycle riders, advertise where motorcycle riders are. If you’re talking to Moms, put your message where Moms are. And if you’re talking to Moms who ride motorcycles, well, you get the idea.

And this advice has served advertisers and their agencies for centuries. I would bet that if you dug deep enough into Pompeii’s ashes you would find an ancient Roman vellum purporting delivering this aphorism in some Latinate version of corkscrew advertising-ese.

The problem with this idea, however, is that it doesn’t go far enough. 

This became apparent to me one day when I was asked to investigate toe fungus.

Hold on – it gets better.

An agency I was employed by had, somehow, been handed a piece of pharmaceutical business – fairly remarkable frankly because none of us had pharmaceutical experience.

But the client in question wanted to dip his – you will forgive me – toe, in the water of experiential marketing, and decided to suffer the slings and arrows of his own procurement department and use us.

So we were charged with the challenge of promoting this medication which cured a particularly popular form of toe fungus, via our particular area of marketing expertise, experiential.

And that’s when I realized “fishing where the fish are” wasn’t enough.

Because it occurred to me that if you were a toe fungus sufferer, and you were walking down the street, suffering, and you saw some sort of street theatre, some sort of guerilla event, some sort of experiential, um, experience, would you really be likely to walk over and engage with it? Or would you be too embarrassed to admit in public that you had, you know, toe fungus?

Now imagine you’re with friends, or god forbid, you’re on a date. Are you really going to raise your hand and out yourself – even if the creative were great, even if the message were motivating, even if the offer were compelling?

Let me help you here. No. You’re not.

You’re not going to advertise the fact that you have toe fungus to strangers or friends. No matter how brilliantly pinpointed the media part of the execution was. The “fishing where the fish are” part.

Because as true as that aphorism is (and it is) and as often as it needs to be repeated (and it does) - because it’s still not adhered to by enough marketers (it’s not) – that’s really at root, what it is. A media strategy. Or rather, a justification for a media strategy.

So what occurred to me in that dusty room after the briefing by the planners and the media folks was that “fishing where the fish are” wasn’t enough. You needed to take into account the context of the message. You needed to take into account the feelings of the consumer. You needed to take into account the situation.

In other words, you needed to fish the way fish want to be caught.


Fishing the way fish want to be caught

Simply put, if you don’t speak to your customers the way they want to be spoken to – at a particular time, about a particular product, in a particular medium – you will not succeed. No matter how great your media buy.

For today we have hundreds, thousands, millions of media options. An almost uncountable selection of places wherethe fish we want to catch are. Which means that simply being where they are is no longer a competitive advantage. So what is?

Understanding how those customers want to be spoken to. Understanding what their expectations about the conversation they’re engaging with you are from the media they are using for that conversation. Understanding what their needs are that they feel you can address.

And the crazy thing is, in hindsight, I believe that this has always been true.

What sort of fooled us, however, was the comparative media desert we lived in (though no one knew it was a desert at the time - for who in 1961 would have been able to wrap his brylcreemed brain around the media overload we deal with today?).

In those days, “where” more obviously took precedence over “how” because there were a limited number of “wheres”.

But in hindsight, you can see it. You can see that David Ogilvy is speaking to Rolls Royce owners the way they want to be spoken to in his classic “At 60 miles an hour…” ad. You can see that Julian Koenig is doing it in his classic “Think Small” ad. In fact, you can see it time and again in every great ad through every age. Speaking to people the way they want to be spoken to in the context of the medium, the product, and the situation.

In other words, fishing the way fish want to be caught.

Or think of it this way: I can show you the best fishing hole in the state. I can show you the place no one else knows about but that is just loaded with fish.

But if you tie a car battery to your fishing line, you’re still not gonna catch any fish.

And bad on me, as your agency, for letting you do that.

And bad on you for blaming the fishing hole for the failure of the creative.

I mean bait.