What Is Your McGuffin? Marketing lessons from Alfred Hitchcock

Ever heard of a McGuffin? Probably not. But certainly you know of one of the most famous creators of a McGuffin: Alfred Hitchcock. He defined a McGuffin as anything that moves the plot along. Why should you care about this? Because marketing people often confuse activity with results. In other words, they lose sight of their McGuffin.

What is your FedEx box, crystal skull, Rosebud or flock of insane birds?

The reason I bring up a McGuffin is not simply because I am a video producer and filmmaker. I bring this up because I see so many similarities between filmmakers and marketing people. How so?

A McGuffin serves to move a plot forward. Think of the drive that Tom Hanks’ character had in “Castaway” to deliver that FedEx package. Another example is the crystal skull in the Indiana Jones movie. Or what about the meaning of Rosebud in “Citizen Kane”? How about the birds in, well, “The Birds”? What do any of these have to do with the motivations of the characters? Everything. Each of these McGuffins shaped the behavior of the characters and defined the choices they made.

But each McGuffin is also a mystery. Why do the birds go crazy? We never know. What’s in the FedEx box? We never see. Why is the Rosebud sled so important to Charles Kane? It’s uncertain. What gives the crystal skull such powers? We don’t know.

Too often marketing people tend to behave in the same way. This is why their behavior appears so mysterious to their peers, leaders of other business lines within their companies. C’mon folks admit it. They don’t get our McGuffins.

What is your McGuffin?

When I was VP marketing, I had many voices clamoring for my attention and budget. I often found it difficult to set priorities and stick to them. By this I mean, I found it difficult to create a real link, that we enforced every day, between the needs of my company and the way we expended resources, particularly money, time and energy.

The most insidious way this issue presented itself was not in how I chose to fund projects that made no sense for the company. I was not guilty of this. Instead, I found myself struggling to complete projects on time and on budget that appeared to deliver exceptional value if we just added this or that new feature. In other words, I lost my McGuffin.

I’m wondering if you’ve had this experience. Have you had projects go way over budget and deadline simply because some new feature or benefit appeared too good to pass up? In the end, was it really worth the extra time and money? Did it really deliver the impact you had hoped for?

Over time I learned how to measure the value of projects and how to cut off or say no to “value-adds” that took us off course. But it took quite a while to learn this.

Here are my marketing McGuffins

I think the marketing function at any business has one McGuffin: to create value for the company. But there are many ways to do this. I have come to think of these as mini-McGuffins. Here are my top three.

  1. Impact revenue. I believe it is marketing’s job to create revenue for a company. The best way marketing can do this is by generating leads, developing new products or services and positioning the brand in front of prospects with whom you can do business.
  2. Help close deals. I believe marketing should play an active role in closing deals. Although it’s not glamorous, this does mean creating sales tools that make it easy and efficient for sales people to present your offerings. But this also means helping cue up leads so they become true prospects who are ready to engage in serious dialogue.
  3. Empower the brand. I believe marketing has to own, protect and empower the brand over time. This includes establishing and enforcing brand standards, enhancing brand awareness and helping to improve the likability of a brand.

These are my mini-McGuffins. How do yours compare?

Sticking to the plot

When a movie loses sight of its McGuffin, it leaves the audience very unsatisfied.  We’ve all had the experience of watching a movie whose ending was unfulfilling.  It fills you with regret and makes you wish you could take back those two hours of your life.

How interesting would “Castaway” have been if Tom Hanks had not made it off the island and delivered the FedEx box? What if the birds had not gone crazy? What if the crystal skull had just turned out to be a piece of glass?  What if the name Rosebud had not been revealed on the sled at the end of “Citizen Kane?”

The same is true for your McGuffin. If you don’t stick to your plot line, you’ll not only lose your audience, your career will suffer too. Senior managers will begin to question your judgment and your upward mobility will curtail.

Every day when you go into the office, the opportunity to continue your sojourn or go off-course is very real. The details of websites, email campaigns, sales literature, tradeshows, marketing automation systems and meeting after meeting after meeting all pull you away from your McGuffin.

But like every great filmmaker, you get to define your plot. You get to decide which voices to heed and which to ignore. So I ask you – what is your McGuffin? What is moving your plot forward?

About the author

Randy Shattuck is a senior marketing executive and founder of The Shattuck Group, a full-service marketing firm that specializes in growing professional services firms. You can reach him at randy@theshattuckgroup.com.

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