[Review] Invisible Handcuffs by Brian Sroub

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Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Invisible Handcuffs is not your typical marketing book.

See a typical marketing book might be a collection of case studies. You know the type of book I am talking about: company A faces challenge B and has to choose between options X, Y and Z. There are pros and cons for each choice, you weigh each option against the other two, and then make your call. Later in the book there’ll be a section where the ‘correct’ response is included along with some reasoning and – fingers crossed – it matches the conclusion you came to.

This is not that sort of book.

Another type of marketing book might dive deep into analytics. Page after page of graphs, charts, tables, number crunching and formulas that explain how and why to make a certain marketing decision. Marketing, after all, likes to present itself as a science of sorts, mixing psychology with business acumen, a little bit of accounting, analysis of trends, and statistical magic and – voila – the marketing scientist will tell you what direction to choose and what numbers to use to justify that choice to your CEO.

This is not that sort of book, either.

There are also the marketing books that seek to appeal to a wider and perhaps (apologies if this is unkind) less-informed audience. The titles on these books sometimes seem like they would be better on a long blog post instead of a 250-page text. Things like The 10 Rules of Marketing to Millennials or The Three Ways that Social Changes Everything. Often times you can spot these sorts of books in your trawling of Amazon by their keyword-stuffed subtitles – something like It’s the Orange, Stupid: How Naming a Product, Branding a Product, and Selling a Product Comes Down to the Psychology of Color.

There’s some value in books of this sort, but this isn’t that sort of book either.

Finally, there are the memoirs of the leaders and decision makers that have changed the way that the marketing sector functions. Think of great autobiographies like Miracles Happen, Mary Kay Ash’s recounting of how she built one of the great cosmetics and sales empires on Earth. Or Michael Dell’s Direct from Dell where he explains how he took apart an industry, focused on supply chain and operations management, and built a business marketing PCs to the masses. If you’re partial to your Morning Joe then Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It is a marvelous memoir of how the entrepreneur built Starbucks into a global brand and marketing machine.

But, again, this isn’t that sort of book either.

Instead of being one of these books, Brian Sroub’s Invisible Handcuffs: Business Fetish Run Amok represents the best elements of all of these types of books.

It’s a fascinating recounting of the ups and downs of a long career marketing everything from toilet tissue to cutting edge electronics, flowers to magazines, medical services at one of America’s best-known hospitals to life-saving medical technologies in some of the most poverty-stricken and hopeless corners of Africa.

The journey that Sroub takes the reader on moves from his childhood, through college days, graduate school, and then into the world of work at some of America’s biggest companies – Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and Sony – as well as his entrepreneurial pursuits in Silicon Valley and a side-step to the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. Along the way there are personal and professional triumphs, professional lows and moments of absolute personal despair, good friends, enemies, periods of sunshine and months where the dark clouds never seem to clear.

So, yes, this is not your typical marketing book – but there’s incredible value for the student of the discipline who wants to understand how the real world matches up with the impressions gathered during their mandatory MBA coursework.

Marketing in High Temples of Commerce

Sroub’s experiences marketing for some of the biggest companies in the world reveals what most books about marketing don’t, namely, that having the best data, the best ideas, and the perfect plan doesn’t mean a lot if the corporate culture is not open to implementing it.

At times it is clear how frustrated Sroub becomes with marketing for major brands that are part of an even larger group. Decisions that get endorsed by the marketer must pass muster with a series of higher-ups, a chain of necessary approval that might be denied by the next boss up the ladder.

Balancing this frustration, though, is the education in practical business that is offered to every marketer who lands at a company like P&G. When even small accounts are measured in the tens of millions of dollars, when brands that have built a customer base over decades are handed to newly-minted MBAs for management, and when the corporate culture encourages learning, welcomes questions, and is designed to impart more than 150 years of experience in consumer marketing, the corporate education that young professionals earn at P&G stands them in good stead for the entirety of their careers. Indeed, throughout the book Sroub reveals just how valuable the letters ‘P’ and ‘G’ are on his resume, fielding multiple job offers across his career based, in part, on his experience at the Cincinnati-based giant.

Sroub will experience upper-level marketing practices at some of the most significant players on the American corporate landscape. He manages the marketing for Sony in the United States as it works to introduce an early PDA to a world which is almost ready for smartphones, but not quite there. He takes his knowledge and experience to the Hearst Corporation, a media giant publishing hundreds of newspapers and magazines, and reaching out to hundreds of millions via its television and cable interests, too. He moves to General Electric and is tasked with managing the marketing of lighting products for a company that remains an icon more than a century after Thomas Edison himself got things rolling.

In A Startup and in The Silicon Trenches

For all the time Sroub spends marketing the biggest brands and the biggest companies, he’s also in his element in the startup world, too.

Plantopia, a startup he co-founded, wholesales potted flowers and plants to supermarkets and retail outlets to take advantage of a new trend in what we might call home botany. It’s a very different marketing environment to that of P&G. There’s no budget besides what Sroub and his team can pull together from savings and from early sales, there’s no team to test, re-test, or focus group ideas. What’s more, there’s no safety net if things go wrong.

When things do go wrong (if you Google “plantopia” today you won’t find Sroub’s company but rather a garden wholesaler from Little Rock, Arkansas) it’s clear that it wasn’t Sroub’s marketing nous that let the team down, but rather unethical practices on the part of others. Still, in a startup it’s the founder who finishes in the hole, and Sroub finds himself down, but not yet out.

Sroub also takes the reader through his history in Silicon Valley and his time at an online software packager and reseller. He comes on board to market but finds himself in a new world, one where the strict and time-proven strategies that he has applied at P&G and in his startup no longer apply.

Test, re-test, and get the product right before launch? No – just get it up online and we’ll fix anything that is wrong later. Don’t aim for perfection or even getting things to great; just get it done, bare bones, and start selling.

Marketing in this environment is faster-paced, more highly-stressed, and encourages divergence from the values and professionalism that Sroub has brought to his work previously. Poor management above and a lack of vision for the business leave him looking for new options, older and wiser for the experience he has had in the earliest days of the dotcom era.

A Marketing Memoir

Invisible Handcuffs is equal parts memoir, marketing bible, advice manual, case study, and history of marketing either side of the millennium.

Sroub is there at the birth of web advertising, the heady days where there was more than one major search engine and companies like Lycos and Excite were considered major players alongside Yahoo! and the ballsy startup out of Stanford called Google.

Sroub, in fact, is the man who first proposed “renting” a keyword and paying a set fee per thousand impressions or clicks is mooted as a way of getting around the PR costs of “owning” less-than-savory keywords; yes, there was a time before CPM and pay-per-click and it will have digital marketers shaking their heads at the thought of buying a keyword for life for a couple of hundred dollars.

Throughout the book Sroub reinforces the importance of connecting with the customer. He visits stores, talks to salespeople, conducts focus groups, and seeks to understand how people really use – or wished they were able to use – the products he markets. His insistence on moving to the front lines, to walking the same supermarket aisles as his sales team, to reducing the distance between consumer and marketer as far as possible – all of this makes his approach unique, but also seems to be in large measure responsible for his success, too.

Sroub’s memoir offers his readers a glimpse into professional marketing at both the biggest and smallest of America’s companies. He markets while pulling a six-figure salary for a global conglomerate, and he markets while sinking his own savings into an idea he believes in. He works hard to connect with consumers and business customers, offering advice, tips, practical wisdom and a glimpse at the marketing magic that has seen him succeed in every environment.

From time to time – most notably when recalling his time marketing the Cleveland Clinic and working at General Electric – it is clear that Sroub is frustrated by the politics he must negotiate just to do his job. Over time he grows better at this, but the reader is left with the impression that he is happiest working in teams of committed sales and marketing professionals who share a vision rather than being forced to consider how to convince a disparate group of political professionals of the benefits of his proposed marketing program. Perhaps that is why he finds it so easy to move between the world of Silicon Valley startup and the Fortune 500: he adores the culture of the former while appreciating the budgets and structure of the latter.

Yet all this aside, this reader is left with the distinct impression that Sroub is truly happiest at the small medical technology company that is seeking to change the lives of millions in Africa.

A Marketer with a Mission

Sroub comes across as a thoroughly decent individual. He cares for his subordinates and colleagues, he is a dedicated family man, he is honest and trusting of others, sometimes to his own disadvantage. But it is the tale of how he took to marketing medical devices in Africa that demonstrates the most heart in his professional life. Here he has a product that works, that can save lives, that people want – even desperately need – and that he knows precisely how to market.

Sroub is on the ground, meeting with the people who will use the product, seeing the harsh human outcomes that emerge when the technology he is selling is unavailable, or only available to the very rich. He is in his element, marketing a product he believes in to people who are interested in buying it. How interested? Every trip concludes with Sroub and his team selling the sole prototype they are travelling with to a customer who doesn’t want to wait for the production model!

Coming near the end of the book, Sroub’s time marketing healthcare in Africa demonstrates his bona fides as a marketer with a mission. Not a mission to move more product for the company, though this surely drove him while he was putting in his time at P&G. Not a mission to sell a product that no one had ever sold before, though that certainly seemed to drive his work at Sony and Plantopia, at least to a certain extent.

Rather this is a mission to help others, to make the world a better place, and to market for the greater good.

Yes, it is possible.

Conclusion

Invisible Handcuffs is a book that will intrigue and surprise. As stated at the outset, it’s not a typical marketing book, but it would be impossible for any marketer to read it without coming away better equipped to practice their craft. Reading the book, it is impossible to forget that the marketing decisions that are made every day in corporate America are made within a specific context. Sure, there is the consumer context, the economic context, and a cultural context, but there is also the corporate culture in which the decision is made. Brian Sroub’s book allows the reader to dive into almost every different corporate culture there is, from the global giant to the Silicon Valley startup to the one man consulting shop, and this diversity will ensure the book appeals to a wide audience of marketers and non-marketers alike.

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