Hot Takes

The Four Most Dangerous Words in Marketing with Will Foust


In this session with Will Foust, Chief Critic at ad-versary, you’ll learn the most dangerous words in marketing–words that have destroyed projects, derailed careers, and caused more than a few tears.

We’ll learn how to never let them destroy you again.

[Transcript] The Four Most Dangerous Words in Marketing

Although transcriptions are generally very accurate, just a friendly reminder that they could sometimes be incomplete or contain errors due to unclear audio or transcription inaccuracies.

Armando Biondi

Well, first and foremost, where were you? Why? It’s been a very busy day here. It’s the fourth session of the first half of the marketing track at Hot Takes Live. I know, it’s a lot of content, and up next is Will Foust. Hey, Will.

Will Foust

Hi, how’s it going, Armando?

Armando Biondi

It’s going really well. Thank you so much. You are the Chief Critic at ad-versary. The stage is yours. Thank you.

Will Foust

Well, just a little bit about me real quick and a little bit about what I’m bringing to the table today. Today, we’re talking about the four most dangerous words in advertising. 

How have I gotten to know what these four of the most dangerous words are, and how have you not? Well, my job is Chief Critic. I work for a small consultancy called ad-versary.

What we do is we do strategic teardowns of larger strategic campaigns and also tactical elements like landing pages and things like that. A plan against best practices as well as recruiting ICPs for qualitative evaluation.

So, we’ve gotten to see a lot of different things come across the table that make sense, things that don’t, and how we understand these four most dangerous words.

The four most dangerous words in advertising. How have I gotten to hear them? I got to work on the brand side, I’ve gotten to work on the agency side over the past 25 years, and the one thing I’ve learned is that people think marketing is a bit of a soft skill. 

They see it as movies, and they see it in TV shows, and they see Mad Men, and they think, “Well, Don Draper does this, I can do it too.” 

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, and you can automatically tell when somebody says these four words to give to you because you automatically can tell that they are approaching something that they know very little about. 

They have a lack of understanding about what they’re being asked for, they have a lack of respect for the people who are doing it, and they have a lack of appreciation for the work that’s been gone into something.

And that’s purely a function of people thinking that marketing is nothing more than a soft skill, and everybody in marketing knows that it’s not a soft skill. That’s PR. PR is a soft skill.

But what are these four most dangerous words? Foremost dangerous words are: “It just seems like.” 

When you hear these words, it’s a gift, and you get to understand what somebody means, what they think, and how they’re approaching a problem. As they’re approaching it with a lack of appreciation, they’re approaching it with that lack of understanding, like I said. 

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

Some great “it just seems like” moments through history: “It just seems like you could carry my stuff for me,” Jordan Hillary to Tenzing Norgay, Everest 1953. 

“It just seems like you should have booked the Beatles,” Letterman to a sad, sad Booker in 1982. 

“And it just seems like I can declassify these things at any time,” Trump to himself, Palm Springs 2021. 

Moments in marketing history. We’ve all seen this, and these are all near and dear to my heart, places where people come in and say, “Oh, it just seems like these icons could bounce.” We all appreciate unsolicited design expertise from people who don’t really understand and appreciate what goes into it. 

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

A client said to me in 2005, “It just seems like we could double the budget and double the leads.” Well, it just seems like it, but with this mathematical economic theory called the point of diminishing returns, it doesn’t always necessarily work like that. 

And this is my favorite, and we’ve all seen this, and we’ve all heard it: “It just seems like we can make this go viral.” Because it is just that easy to make something go viral. 

Where are we today? Moments in, “It just seems like.” And “It just seems like” present. It just seems like AI could do all of this writing for us, along with all the design work and along with the management. 

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

Well, that seems like a great idea, but it’s not really tenable to have all these things happen like that. And it’s once again not a clear understanding of what AI can do for you and what AI should do for you.

When you hear these words, it’s safe to assume that you’re dealing with somebody with a highly non-technical background, somebody who doesn’t understand what goes into a website or what goes into a design or what goes into any of the elements that are there. 

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

Coming from a place of pure, the truest term, the truest meaning of the word ignorance. People coming from that place of utter, complete ignorance. It just seems like you could do this thing that I have no concept of what goes into it. 

Another thing that is a bit of a gift when you hear these words is you get to understand that you might be dealing with just a narcissist who loves their own ideas.

It happens all the time. We’ve all seen that–ehm, C-level–and people who love espousing their own ideas and making other people bring their vision to life without a real appreciation or understanding of what’s gone into it.

Honestly, more times than not, whenever you hear, ‘it just seems like,’ it’s probably a pretty bad idea from a CX perspective, from a UX perspective, from a general business perspective. The reason for that is typically, whenever you hear these words, the person has stolen the idea from somebody else. 

That’s just an unfortunate reality of where we are and what’s happening in the world. When somebody sees an idea, they automatically want to apply it to themselves and their business.

The number of times I’ve had C-level people get off an airplane and tell me that they want to do something they read about in Sky Miles or Delta Sky magazine has been not only frustrating but a little scary. 

When you hear these words, you automatically know that there is no rationale for it, there is no sound judgment behind it, there is nothing other than somebody saw something, and they want to do something, or they think that this could happen quite easily and painlessly without an appreciation of the technical elements that go into developing something like that.

So, how do you deal with it? Well, the truth of the matter is, when you hear ‘it just seems like,’ you will shudder for the rest of your life, I hope, because you understand now what those four words are loaded with–the four most dangerous loaded words. 

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

But it’s okay, it’s all right. When you hear those words, you have an opportunity. As marketers, we have an opportunity. We know we’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t appreciate marketing as anything more than a soft skill. You know you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t have anything technical to bring to the table.

You’re dealing with somebody who might have pulled the idea from somewhere else, and you’re dealing with somebody who just may like their own ideas and want to see them brought to life by somebody else, by underlings, and then take the glory and credit for themselves. And that’s fine. We live in business. It is what it is.

But the opportunity here is, despite all those negatives, you have a few golden opportunities here to develop, to listen, to make some connections, and to help dispel that ‘it just seems like’ and replace it with ‘I understand a little bit better.’

The first thing is to listen. Listen to the person. There could be a jewel in their ignorance. And when we say ignorance, we don’t mean it with the connotation of being dumb or stupid. 

Ignorance is simply the vacuum of knowledge. When somebody brings you an idea that comes with that vacuum of knowledge, there may be something in it. Listen to it, understand it, and get to the heart of their idea because they’re trying to communicate something. They think they can, although they obviously can’t since they started off with those four most dangerous words. 

They don’t have the vocabulary, and they told you they don’t have the vocabulary when they said, ‘It just seems like.’ So listen to them, help them get to the point of what they’re trying to communicate, and give them that vocabulary. Because you’re going to start to break down those walls of ‘it just seems like.’

Thirdly and lastly, know why you did what you did. When somebody comes in and says, ‘It just seems like,’ they don’t have a great appreciation for what they’re asking for. They don’t have a great appreciation for what you’ve already done. 

Make sure you communicate to them why you’ve done what you’ve done and why, where their idea fits, if at all, into it. Kibosh it, kill it, and make sure they understand. But know why you kill an idea, and it doesn’t come from a place of ‘my idea is better,’ it doesn’t come from a place of ‘I’m a creative,’ it doesn’t come from a place of ‘I’m a strategist.’ 

It comes from a place of ‘this is why, this is the why of what we’re doing, this is the why of how it’s happening, and this is why your idea doesn’t necessarily fit into it. Or better yet, maybe this is why it does.’

Key takeaway: People think marketing is easy. They want to help; you’ve got to take their feedback. But remember, you’re the expert. You’re the person in charge. You’re the person who is not only in charge of this thing that’s thought of as a soft thing. You’re in charge of bringing it to life and making it a real thing.

And if you water it down with bad ideas, if you water it down with yes-isms, if you become a simple “yesman,” you are the reason why agencies fail. And you’re the reason why marketing fails: because you’re just doing whatever’s asked of you. You’re an order taker. And order taking is the great failure of marketing.

So, that’s what we’ve got. We’ll jump into some questions. But before I go, if anybody wants to come and check out ad-versary, we are at Yeah, was taken, so we have a hyphen.

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Marketing With Will Foust

Come and check us out. And if you fill out a form, we’ll do a quick consultation with you, and you’ll get one free tactical teardown, be it a landing page, PPC creative, or anything like that.

We’ll do a teardown for it against best practices and see, take it for what it’s worth. And if you like what you see, we’ll do some more work with you. 

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Hot Takes Live


Catch the replay of Hot Takes Live, where 30 of the top SaaS leaders across Marketing, Sales, and RevOps revealed some of their most unpopular opinions about their niche.

These leaders shared what lessons they learned and how they disrupted their industry by going against the grain (and achieved better results in the process).

Armando Biondi

Love it, WIll. Thank you so much. It just seems like you don’t like to mince words.

Will Foust

I do not like to mince words. I do not. And I feel like I’ve even tried to mince a few here, but no. 

Armando Biondi

It’s funny. Matt was saying in the chat you might have the spiciest, boldest, and hottest take yet. 

Will Foust

Oh, that’s awesome. Cool. Well, I’m happy to be here to offer it up.

Armando Biondi

Yeah, absolutely. I love everything about it, by the way.

It’s interesting because it feels like one of the emerging themes is if somebody mentions those four words, there might be a knowledge gap, let’s put it that way.

So, it’s an opportunity to understand. One of my frameworks, is going back to first principles. Like, what do you mean? What are you trying to achieve? What do you want to unpack? 

You know, one of the things that happens all the time is, “Oh, I read this on this blog. Sounds awesome. Should we try it?”

Will Foust

So many times, so many times. Every marketer here who’s worked on the agency side or the brand side has had somebody come in and say one of three things.

One, “I read it in an airplane magazine.” If I hear, “I read it in an airplane magazine,” I automatically know I should just quit; I should just go away.

Two, “I read it on a blog.” That’s at least somebody’s online, you know, and that’s some work better, right? 

And three, “Hey, I saw this when I was driving into work today, or I heard this on the radio,” or something like that.”

Well, those are all great things; they’re all couched in decent, like, all right, there could be something there. But the reality is, you’ve taken something so immensely out of context and immediately applied it to your business. It flouts any sort of rational kind of sniff test at all, and so we run into that so often. 

And it just, you know, it says the best gift that they can give you though is to say that and bring you a stupid idea because you can automatically figure out that that idea is bad, this is why that person thought that idea was bad, and let’s help you get to a place where you can make it right, right?

Armando Biondi

And so, like on top of that comment around understanding more where they are coming from, what they mean, what they want to achieve, you know, that first principle type of conversation, you mentioned in that last part of your recommendation, doing your own work, being able to articulate why you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing, which I think is also absolutely spot on. 

One thing I’m wondering, and you know, to some degree, it’s an opportunity to educate on, “Hey, it’s not as easy as you think it is,” or it’s not as, you know, the thing that you have in your mind, that’s not reality; that’s not how it works, right? 

So, the question around to which degree, after the fact versus before the fact, do we have a framework for you, do you do it?

Because, to some degree, one could argue that if you have to articulate what you’ve done after you’ve done it, maybe you should have mentioned that earlier, like, as you take the opportunity to educate that before the fact,

Will Foust

Definitely, definitely. And, you know, so it’s interesting because you definitely need that opportunity before the facts, but you’re still going to run into this kind of editorial after the fact, right? 

So no matter how much front-loading you do, this is why we’re doing it, this is what it is, this is what it is, when you hear those words, you know that somebody’s coming at it from a place of ignorance automatically, right? 

So no matter how much you front-loaded it, obviously, there’s a delta that got missed somewhere or that somebody’s created their own delta, you know, that their own variance, their own white space that they’re looking to fill and pack that in. 

And the reality is, some of the work you can do at the front, some of the work you’re going to have to do at the end, and the best thing you can do is pay attention and look to see what kind of argument you’re going to have to make, get it where you need it to be.

Armando Biondi

Also, like, something else, I think you would agree with this, but just, you know, want to validate that, is the fact that there might be, like, if these four words come up in between the process, there might be a symptom of a lingering misalignment of some kind that was not addressed.

Will Foust

Misalignment, miscommunication, lack of communication upward. That’s one of the big things that happens more often than not. 

You’re dealing with a team here, then you present to a team here, or you deliver to a team here, and that team here has not communicated back down to you what they’re seeing above them. 

So when you present to that higher level, that higher level has a whole different idea of what they’re expecting. You’ve not been communicating with them, or they’ve not been communicating with you. Whatever that communication has just gone away somewhere. 

Yeah, there’s a gap somewhere, and that happens more often at the C-level than anywhere else.

We jokingly say, “Well, the C-level is where they don’t know anything, man. They’re the ones who say it the most.” But the reality is that the C-level is the most disconnected from the actual work. 

Armando Biondi

Yeah, and the ones that need to abstract the most as well because of many things. So, wait, is it on them to do the work to understand? Or is it on you to be able to explain?

Will Foust

It’s on us, but honestly, the biggest problem is face time and the ability to find that time to connect and make it.

Because so, and a great example of this is on our websites, right? Websites are the most…everybody has an image of what a website is. 

But if I came to you and said, ‘Armando, we’re going to build a new website for, and here are the 54 things we’re going to do on it,’ there would be a 50/50 chance that there are things you had thought about, maybe you hadn’t mentioned, or it didn’t pop into your head until we were in the final creative review or anything like that. And that’s where that happens.

Armando Biondi

And also, thinking through this out loud with you, it seems like…[Laughter]

Will Foust

[Laughter] You just got yourself, didn’t you, buddy?

Armando Biondi

It just seems like there is a level of abstraction, like translation, needed between the two, right? 

So, there is a role for a person; for a C-level to understand, you need to be able to synthesize and summarize stuff effectively because the time window is so short, and there are so many other things happening all the time.

Will Foust

Well, a great example here is the C-level disconnect on a chatbot recently. I was working with a company that had a great chatbot on their website. The CEO asked, ‘How often is this manned?’ My answer was, ‘I think, based on what I’ve seen, it’s only manned about eight to ten hours a day based on U.S. time zones.’ He looked at me and said, ‘It just seems like we could have that staffed all the time.’

Well, it does seem like that. It does seem completely capable of that. When he said that, I replied, ‘Well, it just seems like you should probably talk to your call center and make sure that staffing is happening all the time because it’s not a question of marketing or anything like that. 

What’s the cost associated with that? What’s the manpower associated with it? Do you offshore that? It was a lack of appreciation for the fact that he had had a VP make a series of decisions. 

That VP had communicated it to him but hadn’t communicated the math behind it, and where the end result landed turned out to be a place where he had an expectation for something that was untenable within his organization.

Right, he didn’t have an understanding of the inability to make it happen.

Armando Biondi

Will, this was awesome. Thank you so much for this.