Has the backlash against adtech and a long-running fascination with agency culture morphed into a general snarky attitude towards digital marketing and advertising as a whole?
I think so.
There are few forms of online acquisition that are not subject to snarkiness…
- Content marketing has its exasperated and spiky detractors, despite the fact that, as Andrew Girdwood says, “..brands are publishers now, whether they like it or not.”
- Display advertising is derided as a nest of snakes (opacity, mark-up, non-human traffic etc.).
- Some think SEO is not such a big deal – simply get your content right, and the rest will follow.
- Microtargeting and personalisation are seen by others as error-strewn (particularly across devices) and inferior to ‘big picture’ marketing.
- Social media and influencer marketing… well it hardly needs to be written.
Healthy scepticism is a good thing in any industry, of course – and it can also be entertaining. Ryan Wallman is retweeted in my Twitter feed because people recognise the banalities and platitudes that he mocks.
Mark Ritson and Dave Trott bring their experience to bear on the topic or campaign of the day – and this can involve more than a little plain speaking, particularly about digital. Though I would never presume to include myself in the same company as Ritson and Trott, I myself have written about consultancy jargon, marketing fallacies (twice), and my hatred for smart fridges.
Mark Ritson will be facing off with Byron Sharp at the Festival of Marketing (tickets here, by the way)
But is there something more than healthy scepticism at play?
Nobody is above criticism, but the world of marketing and advertising seems to be particularly ill at ease with itself.
This was evident, I thought, when Mark Ritson asked ‘Should marketing experts be better qualified?’ i.e. should they have some formal marketing education. The reaction in the comments was quite defensive, almost as though many marketers have long anticipated being called out.
All of this seems to suggest that a central part of digital marketing and advertising debate is about reminding ourselves of the levels to which we shouldn’t sink.
Does digital marketing deserve this?
Marketing has long been scorned, way before ‘digital’, as the engine of capitalism. Bill Hicks had an infamous routine in which he referred to people in marketing and advertising as ‘satan’s little helpers’ and ‘ruiners of all things good’, while suggesting they kill themselves.
Doing a bit of research for this declamation, I found an interesting article by Artem Zhiganov which uses Hicks’ routine as a hook. The article is titled ‘Let’s Prove Bill Hicks Wrong: The Role of Advertising in the Future of Planet Earth.’
The article says what perhaps all of the snark hints at – marketers must do better. Zhiganov argues that to do this, to engage customers that have an attention deficit, marketers must either entertain or be useful.
Okay, pull marketing (such as SEO/PPC) is already particularly useful to consumers, and content marketing may entertain, but how can marketers go further than this? Zhiganov makes three points:
1. Moving from a download culture to an upload culture
Zhiganov quotes Gareth Kay: “stop communicating products and start making communication products”. For Kay this means “useful, entertaining or memorable not interruptive experiences,” and “ideas that can be advertised, not advertising ideas.”
Kay’s presentation may be seven years old, but it feels fresh. It gives examples of some organisations getting people involved (“moving from a download culture to an upload culture”), such as Threadless, which allows users to score t-shirt designs. Kay also advocates for a politics that engages the voter, using not scaremongering ads but proper voter feedback, such as that encouraged by not-for-profit Vote for Policies, which allows users to do as its name suggests.
Kay also discusses brands that have a social mission such as Dove. There’s nothing wrong with a great advert, but shouldn’t marketing go further?
An image from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign
In order to get consumers involved like this, marketers need to rid themselves of campaign mentality and begin to thing about long-term processes and ideology. Lean methodology, dynamic briefs and closer collaboration with agencies can forge a more considered approach. Agencies, Zhiganov says, can be the “driving force behind the fundamental shift from propositions (i.e., ‘what does a brand have to say?’) to brand roles (‘how can a brand improve life?’) as the key element of communication strategy.”
2. Using gamification and emergent narratives
“Can we learn from video games?”, Zhiganov asks, “where a story has a much more powerful emotional impact if it’s not scripted, but emerges from the user’s interaction with other users within a sandbox of certain rules.”
Can customers interact with each other in this way “with non-linear outcomes”, leading to more attention and conversions? How can brands gamify their marketing?
Nike Fuelband promised this type of engagement, with users challenging each other and creating a feedback loop of sorts that played into Nike’s marketing of its running and training gear.
3. Managing data
The promise of multichannel marketing and the Internet of Things has always been the prospect of understanding user behaviour. How can brands accumulate enough information about customers to be able to serve them best.
If marketers can make so-called ‘communication products’, this can only create more useful data. The challenge is managing all this data to best effect.
What are the hygiene factors marketers must keep in mind?
Aside from the long-term strategic shift needed in marketing, what can marketers and vendors be doing day-to-day that helps their reputation? Here’s a list of just some stuff, much of it concerned with the digital side of the industry:
- Diversity needs to be prioritised – gender, age, ethnicity and disability.
- Martech vendors and agencies need to get better at explaining their propositions.
- Agencies need to learn how to refuse work which doesn’t fit with their heritage/expertise or where the client too often overrides the experts.
- Advertisers need to fight for transparency in advertising by withdrawing spend (like P&G).
- Adtech needs to ensure better education of clients (e.g. the Trade Desk’s Trading Academy)
- Marketers need to take hype with a pinch of salt, and beware using the latest tech fad as nothing more than a PR opportunity or a way to make the CMO look good.
- Marketers and agencies need to stop prematurely pondering the death of successful media such as TV.
- Vendors should not misrepresent the success of their products with spurious statistical analysis.
- Everybody has a duty to cut back on meaningless language. Not just consultant-speak and ‘millenials’. ‘Customer-centric’ is rapidly becoming trite and ‘digital transformation’ can be an unhelpful construct.
The snark is partly justified, and often from commentators who are simply too exasperated with a self-involved industry to remain courteous.
Marketers need to cut out the BS and focus on their long-term goals.
I realise an irony in this article – it may be pretty snarky itself, and some readers may scoff at the points made by Zhiganov and Kay, and think they are yet further example of self-indulgent agency-speak. I’m not so sure, I think they have a point, and perhaps I haven’t done them justice here. If they are right, perhaps marketers can earn respect for their profession yet.