Beyond Mad Men or Maths Men: Unleashing technology for growth

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If marketers want to own the future, they need to stop looking to the past and instead look ahead and broaden their ambition for marketing technology, writes the head of innovation at Zenith Media USA.

The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that if you want to be different from the past, you have to study the past. For the ad industry, study-ing the past and attempting to place new, emerging and, at times, conflicting technologies into existing structures, is at the heart of the "Mad Men vs Maths Men" debate that has framed our (mis)understanding of marketing technology. 

It reflects not just the questionable, continued allure of outdated hyperbole, but the implicit shortcomings of seeing the structures and assumptions of today as crucial for success tom-orrow. It leaves us in danger of creating an industry that merely improves incrementally, while the power of bold new thinking is wasted. 

This is not to say that marketing technology has already created a brave new world that legacy agencies and brands are eschewing. As head of innovation for Zenith, I see first-hand the fault line between the promise of adtech and what I experience as a human being. 

However, for the promise of marketing technology to translate into transformative experiences the industry must look not to the past, but to a future of disruption. This future is not without its uncomfortable challenges, but it requires us to embrace the power of new behaviors, technology and opportunities, rather than treat this change as we have  –  something to digest.

Desire vs datapoint

For years, advertising was led by the self-styled "Mad Men", whose task was understanding people and finding rich, smart, creative, insightful ways to connect with them. They never missed data, partly because they couldn’t miss something they’d never known, but also because their senses had compensated, becoming hyper-developed and picking up on tiny signals. 

The internet age seems to have swung us all the other way. Now, at a time when it seems everything can be measured – almost immediately – where success can be "gamed" and data becomes bigger, and yet more intimate, creativity gives way to science. We can microtarget to the extreme; glean insights from datasets; endlessly optimize. Marketing has become a scientific endeavor, with algorithmic evolution and modelling massaging us all to the best outcomes. The power of bold ideas seems to give way to a more measured approach to crafting success. Endless eyes on focus groups have challenged the belief systems, senses and old-fashioned hunches on which this business was built.

The long-term future of marketing technology is incredible, but we're facing a crappy interim

So, with creativity and data-driven marketing technologies presented as mutually exclusive pursuits, I’m left a little disappointed. We shouldn’t be trading off the two, but combining the approach; something we are a long way off doing. The long-term future of advertising and marketing technology is incredible, but we’re facing a crappy interim; a series of unhappy compromises and undelivered promises. This makes it all too easy for the terms "marketing technology" to signal not opportunity, but shrugged shoulders and professional boredom. 

The good news is it won’t always be like this. I will welcome the days when virtually all media is digital, where programmatic makes automation normal, creativity is found in writing code and optimization and placement algorithms in addition to copy, data-rich dashboards aid marketers’ decision-making, creativity is supported by knowledge, and where we can feel what works in our bones and brains. However, before we put the technology in place and focus once again on people, we will be in a lousy maelstrom.

The challenge of the pre-digital age

This era of disruptive growth feels far from the reality of the uncomfortable compromises that the industry faces today. Lift  the hood of many of the world’s most creative brands and the "single customer view" is still a long way off. Data silos persist, while supply chains that, at the most basic level, ensure that each business department – online or retail – ties together and communicates remain in the distance.

We’re between two paradigms. The pre-digital age has been endlessly added to; our world is built on the foundations and assumptions of a time before the internet. Like TV sets with four remotes, or houses where half the clocks change automatically, we’re in a hybrid environment of peak complexity. The current marketing landscape is a portrait of inefficiency, messiness and disconnection, with a fundamental inability to deliver on the promise of disruptive growth.

As an industry we’ve become obsessed with all things technology. We boast about big data, yet the physical mail I get routinely promotes credit cards or bank accounts I already use. Clearly their targeting is ratified, but is merging two databases that hard? We talk about the wonder of adtech, yet we’re frequently re-targeted with ads for things we’ve since bought. We have online retailers who seem to think if we buy a vacuum cleaner, we "may also like" to buy more of them. Why, on the most personal device I own, does one company think I want to buy rivets, another that I’m after a university degree, and another that I want to use the Microsoft cloud? 

Adtech currently feels rather like a broken Swiss tourbillon watch; we can either marvel at the wonder of its mechanics, or accept it rarely tells the right time and that even a sundial is more accurate. 

The promise of the post-digital age

It isn’t unusual to think that the world has understood the power of the new when it hasn’t. Most thought the beauty of the MP3 format was its storage capability, when, in hindsight, it was about streaming every piece of music ever recorded. We thought the wonder of the mobile phone was making calls anywhere, when it was a personal gateway to the internet and, next, a way for AI to augment our lives. My favorite example is the way in which we misunderstood electricity. It didn’t change businesses overnight; it took about 20 years for people to understand it wasn’t a question of embellishing existing processes, but rebuilding them from scratch.

Just as we don’t have electrical media, strategists or agencies, we shouldn’t have digital equivalents today. We still label some businesses arbitrarily as "tech" companies, simply because they seem progressive and forward-thinking. We need to consider digital as the background to life and technology as oxygen. When we get there, then we will be in the post- digital age. 

In this post-digital age, virtually all media will be digital. Pipes won’t be radiowaves, broadcast, cellular or broadband, everything will just be connected by the internet. Currently, we name channels by the single-purpose devices we use to consume media: radios, TVs, laptops, phones, newspapers. However, when all devices are converged, these meanings evaporate.

Reinventing marketing

This is the best time ever to work in advertising, but we need to keep our eyes on people and not technology. The world is changing faster than ever, we need to embrace the new behaviors and possibilities that we’ll soon have.

Adtech has gone astray; endless narrow targeting when we need to be aware that waste isn’t wastage. A world of "perfect", narrow targeting isn’t perfect – even luxury handbags feel more luxurious when those who can’t afford them know they are desirable too.

Adtech has focused too much on attribution, on capturing credit, not boasting holistic success. Many silly models are undervaluing what happens around the purchase or offline, whereas adtech insists on rewarding those most proximate, not causally linked to action. Be aware of the McNamara fallacy: not everything that counts can be counted.

The future needs people comfortable with ambiguity, driven by empathy, passionate about the possibilities and untainted by the memory of the past. The future is great; we need to go out and make it.   

Driving the disruptive growth agenda: 12 Trends for the future of marketing

1. Contexts not channels 

Since the dawn of advertising we’ve bought content as a proxy for the audience. We didn’t buy young, male car enthusiasts, we bought around the shows they watched – buying channels to reach people. Yet the promise of the internet, especially early Web 2.0 thinking, is that we buy audiences directly; the same car enthusiast wherever he goes. The future offers a chance to buy several data sets' layers on top of one other. From location to intent, weather to screen, browsing history to time of day, we won’t be buying "TV", but a moment in time, with ads optimized to screen and viewing context.

2. Intimate data

We talk about big data when we should be talking about the profoundness of the decisions we can make with it. This doesn’t need volume so much as quality. The post-digital age will be about data that makes us understand people better, enabling advertisers to communicate more precisely and helpfully. As we spend more time on devices we don’t share, and move toward wearables or smartphones that measure activity, location, heart rates and so on, there is the potential to access the best information imaginable about someone.

3. From demographics to personalization

Demographics have never been perfect, but they were all we had. Thanks to vast, cheap data-storage capacity, more-intimate data, faster processing and digital platforms making consumer behavior more trackable, we will soon be able to deliver on the promise of personalized campaigns. One day, advertising could be based entirely on each individual. Huge data-management platforms rendering out the right message, to the right person, at the right time; each one entirely bespoke.

4. Privacy trading

As data becomes more personal and useful, ad people need to be more mindful of how this is used. Personalized ads have huge power to freak people out. Consumers feel uncomfortable with brands reflecting their true selves back to them, so they must learn to keep their secrets. The future of advertising depends on an informed, transparent dialogue with consumers. A world of personalized advertising should be more relevant to people, and lead the way to fewer, but more premium, useful and interesting ads. If we start an honest dialogue, guard data seriously and have opt-in services, we could one day access a benefit that works for all.

5. Programmatic that works

One big advantage of this new era will be the use of programmatic in more intelligent ways. For years, it has been synonymous with deflationary pricing and remnant inventory, but its true potential is smartness. It will predict consumers' receptivity, bring in key contextual information in real time, match with personal data and render ads perfectly. Ads will be pro­grammatically created, copy coming from thousands of permutations, and be tested and optimized in real time. This software and its logic trees will become a new home of creativity and production in advertising.

6. Flow advertising

As all screens are digital, motionless advertising makes no sense, but, similarly, our shorter attention spans means ads should also be far shorter. Flow advertising will be a new way to think about how messages can build. Advertising can build stories across screens and devices, stories can be told sequentially with different units. Messaging can move people from brand to product to purchase over a matter of days or even years.

7. New calls to action

Click-to-call is the only new action we’ve made, and it took a decade to create. Why can’t I click to save a coupon, add a bookmark, remind myself to visit when I pass by, to be told of special offers? For mobile advertising to become a scaled reality, we need to rethink what’s possible when our phones include every device in one. They allow images to move based on accelerometers, and offer ads that can use microphones or light sensors. So can’t we make units that appear in 3D, or offer better ways to interact with content than a click? Why can’t we control with voice? Brands need to adapt quickly.

8. The storefront is everywhere

The internet will slowly morph, so everywhere will be one click away from a purchase. Soon our banking/credit-card details, shipping address and fingerprints will be embedded in phones and computers; one click to buy from ads, social content and TV shows will be the way forward. It will bring about massive changes to how advertising is seen.

9. API’vertising

We consider ads to be set images, but they need not be. If an ad is a series of instructions that pulls you through content in real time, ads can be formed by API (application programming interface) instructions that serve personal, context-specific, real-time ads for that moment. Trains running late – why not try an Uber? Night before Mother’s Day – buy this from Sears. We need to think of ads as constructions of data, not "ad copy."

10. Maps as a gateway

What is interesting about mobility isn’t that we’re moving, but that we’re making decisions about what to buy, where to go and how to get there. No other medium is so often used at a time when we make selections. While decision-making on a desktop often rests on a search bar, mobile search frequently happens in maps. Great opportunities await companies that see maps as a vital area to explore for advertising. Google, for instance, could offer sponsored places, routes and bookmarks.

11. Artificial Intelligence

Software and hardware now work in tandem. Teslas get faster overnight, phones improve, my Amazon Echo does more. Increasingly, the capabilities are removed from devices and found in software and data-processing. What’s next is AI – smartness for rent from a server. The smart programmatic, the endless optimization, the personalized nature of ads, will soon be powered by machine learning and AI. From better customer service to advanced media-buying, AI will become a huge engine for growth and efficiency.

12. Mobile is still the big opportunity

I know we think we’ve "got" mobile, but we haven't. We will soon spend more time on it than virtually any other screen. However, we can’t just make ads smaller, we have to work around the opportunities offered by it – the personal, tactile, immersive, connected screen – and not its limitations. Instant messaging is the default method of communication for a generation, yet it is ignored by many companies. Why not employ it more fully, for businesses to speak to consumers, process purchases and give delivery updates?