Don’t Ask Me

I didn’t do anything wrong, shady or inappropriate, but my final grade in Calculus II was probably higher than it should have been. In the mid-70s, Calculus II was part of my CEGEP studies at Champlain College on Montreal’s south shore.

After a disastrous mid-term exam, I needed either a big comeback or a small miracle to salvage a decent final grade.  While licking my mid-term exam wounds, I resolved to play less road hockey and maybe even study a little.  Then, right after the mid-term, the mother of all academic miracles arrived in the form of a teachers’ strike.

I played a lot of road hockey during the strike, and occasionally I studied.  The strike was eventually settled during the last week of the semester.  I remember walking nervously back into the last class to see what would happen.  I knew my not so vast knowledge of calculus was likely less vast than it had been at the mid-term, and I was worried that the mid-term results would stand as my grade.

Then, it happened. Our teacher explained that there was no point in giving us a final exam, since we hadn’t covered any new material following the mid-term.  Instead, he asked us to pull out a single sheet of paper, write down what grade we each wanted for the course and explain why we deserved it.

All that fresh air and exercise from playing Canada’s national sport had prepared me well for my Calculus II final exam.  With my brain uncluttered by calculus theory, I was thinking clearly and presented my case.

I explained how in recent years I had tended to start slowly in my math courses, with poor mid-terms always followed by sensational final exams, which was true, even if “sensational” might have overstated the case slightly.  I calculated my average grade in my recent math courses and asked for a grade of 70%, which was slightly lower than my recent average.  My teacher accepted my self-evaluation and I got my 70%.

What lesson can we learn from this? That writing skills are more important than math skills?  That playing road hockey is a great way to prepare for an exam?  Actually, I was thinking more about the wisdom of letting self-interested people grade themselves and how this applies to marketing measurement.

When a company wants to measure its marketing, should we ask the marketers to grade themselves? Perhaps no more than a Calculus II teacher should ask his students to grade themselves.  Although I still feel my logic was sound, I’m pretty sure I was biased in creating my scoring process at the end of the course, for the purpose of justifying the grade I wanted.

Here are a few tips to minimize bias in your marketing measurement:

  • Decide on a measurement process before you do your marketing. Before you do any more marketing, if you don’t have a measurement process, or don’t like the one you have, start by creating a new process.  We all know that a fair employee performance evaluation process involves starting the year with clear goals and having a method for scoring results against those goals so you can fairly award merit increases and bonuses.  Treat marketing measurement the same way so everyone knows marketing’s goals and how the results will be evaluated.
  • Involve key functional areas in creating your measurement process. Since one of marketing’s underlying purposes is to improve the overall performance and health of your company, the measurement process needs input from all key functional areas.  For example, suppose the objective of a specific program is to influence customers to order earlier ahead of your busy period, which will mean you can staff more appropriately, operate more cost effectively and manufacture more efficiently.  Then the departments affected need to be part of creating the measurement process and identifying the right performance metrics and objectives.
  • Ask the marketers, but remember their natural bias. If I just spent $100,000 on a marketing program, and the CEO asks me if it worked, I’m going to try to find a way to prove that I spent the $100,000 very wisely.  I can’t help it.  I’ll want to prove that it worked, as opposed to assess whether it worked. It’s in our human nature to have a positive bias towards our own performance, especially when trying to survive and succeed in a dog eat dog corporate environment.  Still, marketers must play a key role in developing an unbiased measurement process.
  • If you’re the marketer, why not take the lead and ask others. By taking the lead, you can show your willingness to be held accountable, and by creating a process up front, you can avoid much of the bias that comes from creating a measurement process after the fact.  Inviting others in the organization into the process further eliminates bias by making sure that interests other than yours are being taken into consideration.  That will also help keep you out of an awkward conflict of interest position, and any perception that you might be biased.

I caught a break back in CEGEP and basically got to pick my final grade.  It was a bit like going in front of the judge, pleading not guilty, and hearing the judge say, “OK, that’s good enough for me!”.  If as my CEO you want to know how well I’m performing as your VP Marketing, my advice to you is to remember that I have a natural bias towards giving myself a good grade, so don’t ask me!

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 ©2007-2023 Optiv8 Consulting, a brand operating under Rick Shea Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this article by including this copyright and, if reproducing electronically, including a link to:

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