The 4 levels of “marketing competence” 


By Robert W. Bly




            During my quarter century as a copywriter, I have observed that business owners and managers fall into one of four categories as far as their competence and skill in marketing is concerned.

            By recognizing which category you are in and taking the action steps recommended below, you can move up to the next level and significantly increase the ROI from your marketing dollars.

            A realistic assessment of your level of marketing competency can also guide you as to when to listen to a consultant or advisor … and when to ignore his or her advice because your instincts tell you it is wrong.

            The lowest level of marketing competence is “unconscious incompetence.” You don’t know what you are doing, and worse, you don’t know that you don’t know.

            You may even think you are a pretty sharp marketer, even though to others, that is clearly not the case. Egotistical small business owners who appear in their own TV commercials and junior employees at “creative” Madison Avenue ad agencies can fall into this category.

            Do you think you are an okay marketer, and blame the lack of results generated by your marketing always on external factors, such as bad timing, bad lists, or bad luck? You are probably in the unconscious incompetence stage.

            Recognize that you don’t know what you’re doing and it is hurting your business. Get help. Hire a marketing manager who knows more than you do. Or take a marketing course or workshop. Read DM News.

            The next stage up the ladder is “conscious incompetence.” You’ve recognized that the reason your marketing isn’t working is that you don’t know what you’re doing.

            Again, take the steps listed above. When I was at this stage as an advertising manager recently graduated from college and with only a year of work experience under my belt (instead of the considerable paunch that resides there now), I hired an experienced ad agency and leaned on them for guidance.

            This strategy worked well for me and my employer. The company got better advertising than I could have produced on my own. And working with the agency accelerated my own marketing education, making me a more valuable employee.

            “Conscious incompetence” is better than “unconscious incompetence,” because people in the former stage are amenable to guidance, while those in the latter stage are not.

            My friend Jim Alexander, founder of b-to-b ad agency Alexander Marketing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, once told me: “I can handle a client who is ignorant or arrogant, but not one who is both.” The unconscious incompetent is often both.

            Moving higher up the ladder of marketing competence, you reach the stage of “conscious competence.” You’ve read the books, taken the courses, and understand what works. But your experience at putting it into practice is limited.

            That means whenever you want to create a promotion, you have to slow down and think about what you are doing. It doesn’t come naturally.

            In this stage, you should keep checklists, formulas, and swipe files (examples of successful promotions you admire) close at hand. Model your own efforts after the winners of others.

            Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Observe what works and adapt it to your own product and market.

            Do this enough times, and you will slowly begin to become a true master of marketing. You will reach the highest level of marketing competence, “unconscious competence.”

            At this stage, coming up with great offers, promotional ideas, headlines, and copy is second nature to you. You do it naturally, without having to consult your checklists or reference files. The quality of your work is better, and it comes faster and easier.

            However, you should still keep an extensive swipe file of promotions. Borrowing ideas and inspiration from direct mail packages that are working is a time-honored tradition in our industry, as long as it does not step over into plagiarism or copyright infringement.

            My colleague Michael Masterson says it takes approximately 1,000 hours of practice to become really competent at copywriting, marketing, playing the flute, or anything else. If you have expert guidance, you may be able to cut that to 500 hours.

            But ultimately, you learn by doing – and doing a lot. If you are at this stage, keep doing more and more marketing. When you put in 5,000 hours, you will become great, not just good, and your results will be even better.

            Action step: Rank yourself using the four levels of marketing competence as described here, and follow the recommendations for whatever stage you are in.


About the author:

            Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha). His e-mail address is and his Web site address is