Why HR People Are Horrible Marketing Clients (Or, How to Get the Most From Your HR Marketing Firm)

In a life before I was a content agent here at The Starr Conspiracy, I was an account manager and writer at a boutique agency that focused solely on benefits and compensation communication. In essence, the firm’s clients were HR leaders, its target audiences were employees and its "products" were the ins and outs of its clients' benefits and compensation programs.

At The Starr Conspiracy, I’m more involved in business-to-business HR. Yet a lot of the folks we deal with here have come from the HR side of things, regardless of their current role or title.

I lay this all out simply to say I know a thing or two about HR people as marketing clients.

Including that they make horrible marketing clients.

They make horrible marketing clients because when they get to deal with tasks such as choosing the color palette for the company’s rebrand, screening actors for a marketing video or reviewing copy for a new sales slick, it’s as close as they’ll ever come to achieving two driving desires in their lives (or in the lives of any us, for that matter):

1. Having direct control over the life and death of something without being required to give any provable, objective, observable or rational reason for their decisions.

2. Getting to be an art director or published writer for all the world to see. Even better, they get to be an art director or published writer without needing to answer to a client or an editor.

The urge to act on these two desires burns in HR leaders like visions of the Promised Land burned in Moses. Because as much as HR leaders would like to think otherwise, and despite all of the white paper ink and marketing hype around HR getting a seat at The Table, HR is not a source of revenue and does not have a seat at The Table. HR is still a risk-prevention and cost-containment piece of the pie. (Come to think of it, Moses never got to the Promised Land, either.)

And who really wanted to be an HR director or manager when they were a kid, anyway? Who, in third grade, when the teacher asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answered, “An HR director!”

What they really wanted to be were teachers or doctors or firemen or astronauts – something with some gumption and some independence. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most HR folks got to their jobs in large part by exhibiting strong skills in writing, attention to design and style, or both.

So, when they have the chance to be art directors or authors, with no holds barred and despite the better judgment and arguments of the consultants, trained graphic artists and experienced writers whom they’re paying to handle such things, by golly, HR people are genetically incapable of not jumping in whole hog.

They put on blinders to the world around them. They see what they want to see. Or worse, they look for what they’d like to see. Meanwhile, they are often totally unable to articulate what that is. Which is not really the problem. The problem is that they drive the bus with blinders on. Because they can. And they are having fun. And they are in control.

They become like Rod Steiger’s character in the 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night: "I got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead!" Period. End of conversation.

Also, like that character, if HR clients would step back, listen more and control less, act more on the evidence and less on what they think their guts tell them or what they think looks or sounds nice, odds are good they’d get better results with more impact in the long run.

Even if it’s not what they would have designed or written. Or not their vision of the Promised Land.