What The Professor & The Madman Have In Common With Marketing 

I’m just wrapping up reading The Professor and the Madman, which has become the basis for the upcoming biographical movie of the same title. The life of Professor James Murray is portrayed as he begins work on compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the mid-19th century. While a great read, I fear I’ll never be able to see the book translated to the big screen, despite Vertical Entertainment acquiring US distribution rights to the film this year following a lengthy legal dispute for the last two years. That said, this post is not about the Oxford English Dictionary, or the legal dispute, but one piece of the novel that rings true in the world of marketing.  

The process of creating the Oxford English Dictionary was a monumental task. James H. Murray began working on the dictionary in 1879 expecting to complete the assignment in 10 years. However, five years into the project, they had famously failed to reach any further than the word ‘Ant’. Ultimately, the project took 60 years to complete and in 1928 amassed 400,000 words. 

But as I said this post isn’t just about that story. Murray was a methodical and systematic individual. The story references that at one point, with Murray said to have stated he wanted to complete 33 words per day. Using the internet as a backdrop, that task appears pretty realistic, but this was 1879 – the exercise of submitting a word into the Oxford English Dictionary was a massive undertaking. The process, when likened to lead generation could be viewed as follows: 

  1. Detecting a word: One of the most critical decisions was defining what designation goes into the dictionary? This can be equated to asking who is my target market? What is our account definition or ideal customer profile, and should we market to them? 
  2. Scrutinizing the word: Once the decision has been made to include any term, extensive research is required to realize all of its potential explanations. Similar to the orchestration of a marketing campaign, while defining your messaging and tactics. 
  3. Finding the QuotationThis can be likened to realizing that first marketing qualified lead. Here marketing needs to validate an account or leads qualification, making sure it is sales qualified. Finding a quotation for the Oxford English Dictionary meant locating the term in published literature and referencing it’s use in the context of the proposed definition. Remember…all before the days of the internet! 
  4. Defining the Word: Once all the below steps have been confirmed, a definition needs to be generated, similar to landing an account into Sales’ hands.  
  5. Approval: Finally, the agreed upon definition makes it into the dictionary or sales closes the deal.  

This is all about the process. The amazing accomplishment can be found in setting a goal of 33 words a day, given the amount of work per word varied indefinitely. Murray had commented that in some instances, one word would take three quarters of a day. Similarly, sales and marketing functions require a system which initiates the process from day one, sets a timeline of activity to execute each step and then on the last day reaches a conversion. Every day means dozens of words in each stage of that funnel so that each day, 33 of them convert to approval. Beginning to sound familiar? Everyday marketers need to have accounts in different stages of the waterfall running concurrent processes and promoting different content in different stages of the buyer journey so that every day, we’re converting 33 leads. 


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