The popularity of self-teaching and home learning courses has skyrocketed during the Covid pandemic.
One consequence has been a huge increase in the number of those looking to take advantage of this trend: the self-anointed ‘gurus’, or contrepreneurs, who offer a range of get-rich-quick books and courses, be it in property investment or the stock market, promising to make readers and participants a millionaire overnight.
Many of the industries in which they operate do not regulate or are not regulated on, how they market or advertise themselves. As a result, thousands are falling victim to the false promises these snake oil salesmen are peddling. Earlier this year, a former soldier killed himself after he lost his £13,000 life savings on a property training course that had promised to make him “debt-free”.
Lewis Hackney is a marketing expert and founder of narrative-driven content marketing agency Etch'd who is vocal about companies and industries responsibly marketing themselves. He argues the way in which these ‘gurus’ and coaches irresponsibly and falsely market themselves to the most vulnerable in society (including the young and financially vulnerable) is a crisis, and that companies more broadly must be much more honest and transparent to young people in their marketing, highlighting both the benefits but also risks of their service, industry or product.
Lewis also calls for industries to be doing much more to self-regulate, with greater action required from industry bodies and trade groups to stamp out dangerous marketing practices.
I caught up with Lewis this week to discuss his mission to shine a spotlight on these conniving shysters and their marketing practices. A mission that aims to not only expose them for who they really are but to improve vulnerable people’s perceptions of business and ‘getting rich quick’.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the industry?
I initially worked with former athletes to help them build a career after they retired. I also helped develop the Undr The Cosh podcast with two ex-footballers which has featured a huge range of Premier League stars.
I noticed that there were few CEOs actually putting themselves in the limelight in the way sports stars do and that there could be a huge value for them creating their own influential brand in the business world.
Can you give us a brief overview of your cause? A mission statement, if you will?
So many children today grow up saying they want to be a YouTuber of an Influencer for the sake of it, without any direction or the right role models. My mission is to help create a more diverse group of influencers across a wider range of professions and lifestyles. I think CEOs and founders of influential businesses is a great place to begin.
How many of these nefarious companies are currently operating worldwide?
It is difficult to quantify, because so many pop up, disappear and reappear in a new form a short time later. But the numbers are increasing.
Do you think there are legitimate online training and home learning companies out there how have been negatively affected by this blight?
I do because there are some great companies that offer amazing training in an array of sectors. Fortunately, referrals and recommendations remain a huge source of business. If a legitimate online training and home learning company is doing a good job, my belief is that referrals will continue, and their reputation will remain intact – despite the growing numbers of shams.
Are there any tips you could give our readers who might be considering a self-teaching course to help them seek out the legitimate companies from the con artists?
I think the easiest question is to ask oneself: who is this person, and did they turn up on my screen or did I find them through research and recommendation? Secondly, you need to look at a serious track record of an individual or a company before you move forward. Never be pressured by an apparent shortage of places or limited time offers. Always take your time before you make a final decision.
What do you think needs to be done on a global, national and grassroots level to get rid of these snake oil salesmen once and for all?
As has always been the problem with snake oil salesmen, they will adapt and change depending on the current trends in the market place. They have been around long before the internet and will, unfortunately, be around for a long time.
My belief is that increasing the number of visible CEOs and Founders would severely undermine their work. More CEOs and Founders stepping up and building a more visible brand would mean far more genuine role models imparting genuine knowledge and expertise out there. This would go a long way to undermining those with no real expertise or credibility.
Elon Musk is a great example – he’s built a fabulous profile and personal brand, and never sugar-coats things. In fact, most of the time he is talking about failure. Although this isn’t a nice thought, it is more balanced and realistic message than the ‘unlimited success’ messages peddled by nefarious individuals.
What does ‘open and transparent’ marketing look like to you?
I think this really goes back to a time before the internet and even large retail chains. There was a time where, as a local business owner, you did what you could to bring value to that community and to be known and respected within it. Ultimately, people buy from people, and these were relationships built on trust.
Trust, therefore, is key, and this includes being honest – not over-promising and being transparent. Of course, it is important for companies and individuals to highlight the rewards of their companies or industries, but equally, they need to be honest about the hard work, sacrifice, and risk involved to get there. This is something that companies must be much better at doing in their marketing.
Do you think social media has made people more gullible or less trusting?
I think the Instagram lifestyle has created its own problems, and it forces people to compete at a material level which is a huge problem. Fake gurus use this to their advantage and showcase a perceived, but unattainable, lifestyle through their social media. This gives people who are easily lead by the desire to achieve this lifestyle to buy into the lie.
What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries and if you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
My one hope for the industry is that more CEO's and Founders take on the challenge of creating content to showcase the true lifestyle of an entrepreneur or businessperson.