What will marketing look like in a post-recession world?

Creativity: let's party like it's 2007
Creativity: let's party like it's 2007

The recession brought ROI into sharp focus, but as the economy recovers, let's get creative, writes Will Harris

I heard an amusing quip the other day. A hoary old agency creative who had survived 30 years of long lunches and growling at account people was asked how he saw the modern agency world of "360-degree appraisals", "sharing", "building" and "supporting". How different was it working back then, compared with now? He thought for a minute and concluded: "It’s basically the same, except it just takes longer to tell someone to fuck off."

Wise words, and as talk turns to post-recession marketers, a reminder, perhaps, that every generation thinks it has reinvented the wheel. Sure, there must be differences between marketing in the booming sunny uplands of 2% GDP growth compared with the icy grip of recession, but how much of that is down to the economic climate, and how much to broader marketing trends? What will marketing look like in a post-recession world?

Steering a panel debate at the rather excellent BrandMAX conference in London last month, Dan Robb, European B2B marketing manager at Sony Europe, James Frost, marketing director at Nectar, and Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of marketing and founding management at 23snaps, painted a picture of the future marketing world that our aforementioned creative would view as positively dystopian. The talk was of algorithms, measur­ability and facts.

As a litmus test of how modern and digital an organisation is, it’s tough to beat just asking people what percentage of their total marketing budget they can track (track, mind you, not post-rationalise). The range in the panel and audience was from 80% at the top, down to 20% at the bottom end. If that span is a reflection of the broader marketing milieu, then it is clear that we have a long road to travel before all businesses are equal in this regard.

Recession legacy

Obviously, not all business models are the same, and a pure-play online company is far more likely to rush to instant accountability than one with a less direct model, but the fact remains that this is one-way traffic. Marketers don’t move away from measurement and accountability. Finance directors and chief executives are not likely to become less interested in where you have spent your money, and what you got for it, whatever the economic climate.

This is perhaps the lasting legacy of the recession. When money was tight and sales were even tighter, it paid to be able to show a real-time return on your marketing dollar as a defence mechanism against the end-of-quarter P&L collection plate. "Investing ahead of return", it strikes me, is a phrase dreamed up by academics during an economic boom. "Making the payroll" has been the corporate
imperative over recent times.

So if you are secretly thinking that an end to the recession will signal the start of Champagne marketing, my message is bleak. The days of accountable marketing are here to stay. Where I do think there are grounds for optimism is in the style and spirit of the communications we will start to see.

Change in prospect

All the best advertising and marketing is, in some sense, a reflection of the society in which it is created. If our ad agencies have been creating a conveyor belt of images showing hardworking people struggling to make ends meet as they do their weekly shop/clothe their children/insure their car, that’s because it reflects real life. I’m not expecting campaigns asking "How do you fill up your helicopter?" any time soon, but a return to good fortune in the economy might open up some richer, less short-term creative ideas.

Just as people are concepts or numbers, marketing department tend to be creative powerhouses or counting houses.

All of which brings me nicely back to our panel, and the gentle tussle over the future of marketing: is it a gaggle of number-crunchers, cleverly spitting out messages and offers to just the right people at just the right time, effortlessly learning as they go?

In that version of the future, marketers are more nerds than necromancers, numerate but not necessarily literate. The creative smarts are farmed out to the agency, the last bastion of imagination without reason in the marketing civilisation.

The alternative view of the marketing world sees all the earnest wrestling with numbers solved at a stroke by a real black box. It hums away in the corner of the office (or more likely, somewhere in the cloud) quietly, efficiently, without the need for fixed-wheel bicycles or contributory pensions. It sparks an arms race, in which the media agencies are the superpowers and the poor clients proxy nations doing battle on their behalf.

I found myself alone on the BrandMAX panel in my belief that, just as people are intrinsically concepts or numbers, so too will marketing departments tend to be either creative powerhouses or counting houses. No doubt both types of people will be needed, but the output will be defined for that business in one way or the other.

For my part, I’ve always believed that the potency of creative ideas is the exciting differentiator in our business, and that calculated risk-taking, by which I mean doing what you think is the right thing, but cannot prove until after the event, is the best way to conduct your marketing (and your life). However well-buffed and polished your algorithms are, and whatever stage of the economic cycle we are in, if your marketing is dull and unimaginative, you are doomed to spend a life in the shallows. To put it in terms our wizened creative from the start of this piece could relate to: "Shit in, shit out."

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