Warren and Me

While reading my good friend Warren Buffett’s 2010 letter to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, I found myself smiling and nodding on several occasions. Before I explain, I should point out that Warren and I are not actually friends; I just said that so you’d keep reading. I suppose it would be fair to say that I know Warren a lot better than he knows me, which is not at all.

The reason I referred to Warren as a friend, aside from the attention grabbing value of doing so, is that when I read his various comments about how he measures his company’s performance, I saw many parallels to my own views on measuring marketing performance. In that sense, we are friends. Here are a few examples featuring excerpts from Warren’s well crafted letter.

Example 1

  • Warren: “I believe that those entrusted with handling the funds of others should establish performance goals at the onset of their stewardship. Lacking such standards, managements are tempted to shoot the arrow of performance and then paint the bull’s-eye around wherever it lands.”
  • Me: Those managing marketing budgets have the same responsibility. Set performance goals up front so everyone is clear on how marketing spending will be judged. Selecting goals after the fact introduces a bias towards using metrics that prove marketing worked rather than determining whether it worked.

Example 2

  • Warren: “Our job is to increase per-share intrinsic value at a rate greater than the increase (including dividends) of the S&P 500.” … “The challenge, of course, is the calculation of intrinsic value. Present that task to Charlie (Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger) and me separately, and you will get two different answers. Precision just isn’t possible.” … “To eliminate subjectivity, we therefore use an understated proxy for intrinsic value – book value – when measuring our performance.”
  • Me: Marketing’s duty is to run programs whose objectives align with those of the organization. Any business exists to make money but, I don’t try to measure the exact financial ROI of each program because I feel that type of precision just isn’t possible. My proxy for ROI is to measure program results against their objectives, which should be focused on driving profitable customer activity and creating value for the business.

Example 3

  • Warren: In writing about how he values Berkshire, Warren explains why he doesn’t use net income as a metric. “Regardless of how our business might be doing, Charlie and I could – quite legally – cause net income in any given period to be almost any number we would like.”
  • Me: Choose metrics that are reliable and meaningful, and above suspicion of being manipulated to tell the story you want to tell. You want the people that matter to trust that your numbers accurately reflect the truth, not your version of the truth.

Example 4

  • Warren: Berkshire uses a well accepted accounting standard (Black-Scholes) for valuing option contracts, a standard that Warren doesn’t seem to like because under certain circumstances it can produce “wildly inappropriate values”. On this, Warren writes “Part of the appeal of Black-Scholes to auditors and regulators is that it produces a precise number. Charlie and I can’t supply one of those.” … “Our inability to pinpoint a number doesn’t bother us: We would rather be approximately right than precisely wrong.”
  • Me: I love that last sentence! There is a natural inclination to want to measure marketing precisely but I don’t think a high level of precision is needed to make good decisions. If you can be approximately right at identifying which marketing programs were most and least effective at meeting their objectives and creating value for your business, then you can make very good decisions that will optimize your marketing effectiveness.

I was glad to read how Warren’s point of view aligns with my thinking on marketing measurement. Any good measurement process just needs to be right enough to be an effective decision support tool. We need to measure the right things well enough that we learn what we need to know to make better decisions.

Warren and I may not be friends, but he’s a guy that I’d love to sit down with, have a hamburger (he apparently loves hamburgers) and soak up any wisdom he’d like to share. Since that’s not likely to happen, I’ll have to make do with a pretty good letter from a wise man.

PS. If you’d like to read Warren’s full letter, you can find it at the Berkshire Hathaway website: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2010ltr.pdf

About Rick Shea
Rick Shea is President of Optiv8 Consulting, a marketing consultancy that helps small to mid-sized organizations improve their marketing impact and business outcomes through customer insights, strategic discipline and effective content. Copyright ©2016 Optiv8 Consulting. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this article by including this copyright and, if reproducing electronically, including a link to: http://www.optiv8.com/

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