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Everything in Business is Personal: Scott Stratten on Business Ethics and Authentic Marketing

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Scott Stratten spent the beginning of his career in the corporate world. There’s an old joke that the word “entrepreneur” is Latin for “bad employee,” and that was Scott – but despite that, he lasted two years in HR and two years as a national sales training manager teaching people to sell bubble wrap. “I flew around the continent training people how to sell air,” as he describes it. It took a moment of clarity for the ideas of authentic marketing and business ethics that eventually became his brand UnMarketing to really hit home.


See Business Ethics with Scott Stratten for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

While Scott was still a sales training manager, he happened to be doing a training event in the same city as Jeff, an old friend. He and Jeff met to catch up and shoot the breeze. While they were talking, Jeff’s phone rang. He answered it, and it was a marketing cold call. He berated the person on the other end because they were wasting his time and his time is valuable before hanging up.

A little later, Jeff said, “Okay, Scott, I have to go. I’ve got to do my calls for the day.”

Scott responded, “Jeff, what are you talking about? We just talked about how lame cold calling was in that situation as a business development tool.”

Jeff said, “Yeah, but I sell something people need.”

Climbing over people or succeeding together

After that conversation, Scott knew there had to be a better way. When he looked around, everything he saw in marketing and business in the early 2000s was a “buy or goodbye” mentality. Business was all about snapping necks, cashing checks, stepping over people to meet the sales incentives. To Scott, that didn’t seem right.

I believe we don’t have to take a ladder to success. I think we can take an elevator to success together.

Scott Stratten

He realized that people do business with people they know, like, and trust. So why wasn’t business doing it that way? He set out to prove that you could build a business by building relationships and promoting yourself as an authority in front of your target markets, so when they have a need for your product or service, they choose you.

Authentic marketing has no one-size-fits-all approaches

If you were selling something in 1982, there was really only one way to do it – you had to go knocking on doors. But now, that’s not usually an effective way to do it. Cold-calling and door-knocking can still work in the right industry and the right place. If you’re paving driveways, you can go knock on neighbors’ doors and say, “We’re already bringing our paving equipment here in two weeks, do you want a discount?” And that can work really well. But it’s not an end-all-be-all, or even a be-most.

When Scott set out to build a business based on authentic marketing and business ethics, his one condition was that he was going to be him. He was going to say what he thought and say it mostly without a filter because he was passionate about it. A lot of people are afraid to be passionate because they’re afraid of the part of the market they’ll push away. They don’t look at the market they attract even more strongly with that passion.

Business ethics and authentic marketing emphasize the human element.

Business ethics, authentic marketing, and trust

Corporate marketing is very manipulative, just trying to force the sale. In marketing, if you lie, most of the time nobody even knows. But Scott doesn’t think that ethics are a renewable resource. When you compromise on business ethics, not only do you compromise your personal ethics, if you’re a leader then you compromise your team’s ethics.

Scott uses the unmarketing.com blog as a way to keep brands accountable for marketing dishonesty. About six years ago, he noticed that Bell Mobility, one of the largest phone providers in Canada, had their app as one of the top apps in the App Store. He started reading the reviews. The first thing he noticed was that they were all glowing, and the second thing he noticed was that they sounded like marketers talking marketing-speak and not real people.

Scott got on LinkedIn and cross-referenced the names of the reviewers. They were all Bell employees. He wrote an article on the unmarketing.com blog called “For Whom the Bell Mobility Tolls” – and it went viral. The Canadian Competition Bureau launched an investigation that eventually resulted in Bell Mobility being fined.

The first comment Scott got on the blog post asked, “It’s just an app, who cares?” Well, Scott does. To him, the internet is spun out of trust.

I think the only way the internet works for us in a good way is if it’s trusted. We have to trust it.

Scott Stratten

Yelp reviews and business reviews only work if we feel like we can trust them. The thing that made him angriest about the Bell Mobility app reviews was that they didn’t have to do it. Bell has almost a dual monopoly with one other company in Canada, and if you’re a Bell customer, you’re probably going to download the app anyway. But they wanted a vanity metric to win an award, which led to an investigation and a fine when Scott made it public.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re promoting, it has to be the truth because otherwise nobody wins. You might win in the short term, but word gets out. It’s a small world. Ethics is not a renewable resource – once word gets out that your business ethics aren’t so ethical, you can’t get that trust and reputation back.

People will remember how we behave in a crisis long after it’s over.

Scott Stratten

Business ethics and treating people well

Scott doesn’t understand the endless pursuit of more no matter what. On a trip to speak in Germany, he mentioned to a friend and fellow speaker that he had just hit a revenue goal for the year. His friend said, “Awesome. What’s next?” Scott responded that he wanted to do this for the rest of his working life. He has a skill – speaking – that he’s good at and he can get paid for it.

When you just have the endless pursuit of more, you never see what you have today.

Scott Stratten

There’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s right. That’s what a lot of businesses miss. Can you? Legally, sure. Should you? That’s the question. When it comes to endlessly increasing profits, a lot of situations fall into that area of legally allowed but ethically dubious. People say, “It’s business, it’s not personal,” but everything in business is personal because you’re dealing with people.

Scott went into HR because he thought it was one of the only positions in a company that could change people’s lives. After he realized HR was just about protecting the company, he didn’t last long. Scott sees the Great Resignation, with so many people quitting their jobs recently, as more of a Great Realization or Great Reassessment. People are waking up and realizing that their job is stressful and they want to be able to spend time with their families or doing things they want to do.

A lot of companies think they own their employees, and they don’t. Employees are assets, and they are what drives the companies. If you have a poster on your wall that you value employees and then treat them like crap, it’s hypocritical.

When Scott was doing consulting, he was hired by a distribution company in Toronto. The executives told him there were no issues, they just wanted more out of their employees. His first session with employees was in a grimy break room, and nothing he said was landing with any of them. Finally, he tossed his entire presentation out the window and gave everyone three pieces of paper. He told them to write “Stop” on one, “Start” on another, and “Continue” on the third. The employees could list everything the company should stop doing, start doing, and continue doing. At the end, he collected all the papers and typed them up to give to the executives. He ended up with 25 pages of “Stop,” 20 pages of “Start,” and one item for “Continue.”

When he presented it to the directors, they said they didn’t bring him in to take a survey. One of them told Scott either the employees were lying or he told them to write what they did. There’s no happy ending to the story – this company absolutely refused to recognize their employees were assets. Their opinion was, “If they didn’t like it here, they’d leave.” Scott hopes none of the people he talked to are still there today.

Business ethics and authentic marketing are about people.

​Business ethics and employees as assets

Employees are assets. People are assets. Employees are people. Scott has been in the business world for twenty years, and it still surprises him how many people don’t grasp that treating people well is good. Not good for profit, not good for a company, not good for retention, but just good. Yes, it leads to better retention, better revenue, and more engaged employees, but treating your employees like humans is just the ethical thing to do.

Scott was at an event once where he made this point, and someone asked him to show him the numbers and prove that happier employees are better. Scott just looked at him and said, “No.” If he shows a number, you’ll just say something else. If you don’t already accept that treating people well is the right thing to do, even in business, then no data Scott has to show will change your mind.

Marketing is a combination of nerdy numbers stuff and creativity. If you love the numbers but your boss is a prick, it’s harder to do your job. And you know what kills creativity? Stress. If you’ve ever been stressed, you shouldn’t need someone to prove that to you.

There are times when you have to hustle or work a late night or two. But when that’s the norm and the boss tells you to “be a team player,” that’s a problem. If they say the team is like a family, that’s also a problem. You expect me to do everything for nothing and deal with you no matter what because we’re family? A business isn’t a family.

​The human element in authentic marketing

The other side of treating your employees like humans is to treat your customers like humans, too. People buy from people they know, like, and trust, and if you’re all about scale and getting more sales, the human element that builds “like” and “trust” gets lost.

Scott has been using the same welcome email for almost twenty years asking people what industry they’re in. Every few days, someone replies to the welcome email saying something like, “I know this is automated.” Scott replies with, “Automated is the nicest thing I’ve been called this month.” And they’re always surprised to get a reply because so much of marketing is automated nowadays.

Everything can’t be about scale and automation. Automation is great, but if you scale and automate everything, there’s no longer a connection with people. And when the connection with people is lost, it’s no longer authentic marketing, it’s just a sales funnel. You’ve stopped treating people like people and started treating them like a sales machine. That is a failure of business ethics.

I’m not passionate about marketing, honestly. I’m passionate about people. – Scott Stratten

Scott Stratten

You can find Scott Stratten at unmarketing.com. If you sign up for his email list and respond to the welcome email, he will see it – and he might respond.

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