The worst of all sins in marketing, in my book at least, is the use of that hoary old quote often incorrectly attributed to either John Wanamaker or Lord Leverhulme. You know the one with the apocryphal line that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half”. If it crops up in a presentation, marketing article or debate – with the exception of this masterpiece you’re reading at the moment – it signals an almost inevitable journey to cliché and obviousness in equal measure.
But there is another problem with that quote these days: it’s not just a cliché, it’s also wholly inconsistent with the current way in which we discuss anything in marketing. Gone is the uncertainty and open, plaintive thinking of an earlier age in marketing when we queried with honest introspection what does and does not seem to be working. That’s been replaced by a form of tribal combat in which different sides hammer each other with exactly the opposite point of view constructed from equal parts of wobbly data and fake news.
Rather than Lord Leverhulme bemoaning his uncertain advertising spend, today’s equivalent axiom would have him boasting “I’m spending all my money on digital and it’s working 180%”, followed by his arch nemesis Lord Beaverbrook retorting “shut your face Leverhulme, your money is being wasted because you don’t understand content marketing like what I do”.
Everywhere you look in marketing there isn’t just debate about what is and isn’t the right approach, there is vehement and unyielding certainty that my way is correct and yours is total balls.
Polarisation complicates marketing
Take the debate about brand safety for example. Depending on who you listen to it is either a massive threat to brand equity that has infected a significant proportion of global advertising, or it’s a tiny issue that was drummed up by the traditional media to inflict maximum damage on Google and other digital platforms and has been largely forgotten. Clearly it can’t be both, so which Is it?
If we ran a poll here on Marketing Week’s home page and asked readers to rate the degree to which brand safety is a serious threat to your brand on a scale of 1 (no threat) to 10 (huge threat) I am betting that we’d derive an average of around 5 but that the answers would be polarised at either end of the spectrum.
And it’s that polarisation that afflicts and affects seemingly every dimension of marketing. It makes for fabulous arguments on social media, juicy debates at conferences and several emotional comments at the foot of Marketing Week columns. But it also complicates the act of doing marketing tremendously.
Marketing debate is tribal combat in which different sides hammer each other with views constructed from equal parts of wobbly data and fake news.
It has never been a more exhilarating or exhausting time to work in this discipline. Never before has so much happened in marketing with so little consensus around what is and isn’t working. We do our business on what appears to be a continually moving and undulating platform of knowledge that constantly contradicts and reverses itself as we cling on for grim life.
Look at the act of targeting. I can spend a morning with a client that is convinced of the merits of micro-targeting using digitally enabled options such as lookalike modelling and A/B testing, and then the afternoon with a second company that follows the sophisticated mass-marketing approach and now believes (incorrectly) that it can go after everyone with a pulse. Depending on how you look at it you either target no one and let the computer do it for you, or everyone.
Take the optimum length of digital video advertising on Facebook. I can cite extremely persuasive men and women who tell me not to worry about sub-two-second exposures because that is more than sufficient to influence consumer decision making, and who then remind me that digital video is more complex than simply putting overly long TV ads online. Just as I am nodding and starting to get my head around two-second exposure models someone else pops up and says: “Bollocks! We are getting incredible results from three minute films.”
Or how about viewability? It seems logical to assume that 100% viewability is the gold standard for digital media. If consumers can’t see the bloody ad then clearly it’s not going to be impactful. So surely 100% viewability is the way forward?
Well not necessarily. It turns out that chasing 100% viewability often leads to much more expensive programmatic prices, opens you up to far greater risk of ad fraud (you always get 100% viewability from a bot) and generally ensures that the overall impact of advertising is lessened. Depending on who you ask, 100% viewability is either the only acceptable way to ensure effectiveness or a guaranteed way to reduce it.
You see what I mean? As soon as we develop even the semblance of marketing best practice, someone turns up, turns it upside down and claims the opposite. You need marketing training; you don’t need marketing training. Artificial Intelligence is dangerous; artificial intelligence is essential. Marketing needs to get back to basics; marketing is changing dramatically. Content marketing is a crucial new development in marketing; content marketing is just a bunch of fancy names for stuff that has existed for 50 years.
I could go on – trust me – and on.
Loss of nuanced debate
Surely you have seen it yourself. You read an article on a marketing concept and then, in the comments section, another marketer not only disagrees, they go out of their way to completely refute the whole nature of the original argument and supplant it with the exact opposite perspective.
My favourite current example is programmatic. There are only two clear and overriding observations we can make about programmatic in mid-2017. First, it’s growing like the clappers. Second, it’s unavoidable given the plethora of new channels that now exist and exceed human capabilities. More contentious is the current state of programmatic and whether the murky media supply chain and the multiple commissions it takes renders it inefficient.
I certainly think that’s the case and have been very – ahem – vocal on the subject. That has resulted in an entirely typical marketing response.
Two very senior, very smart media professionals have responded to my wailings in the same Australian marketing site independent of each other. One of them agrees wholeheartedly with me. The other disagrees completely and, very politely, suggests my argument is nonsensical.
I read both articles, and was persuaded mightily by both articles, even though they perfectly contradict each other. My point is not to dwell on the respective arguments of my two commentators but to suggest that this is the nature of marketing these days. Everything is up, unless you think it’s down.
Maybe the answer to all the quandaries is: it depends. That was usually the right answer in marketing in the olden days. We would look at the brand, the target segment and the objectives, and these factors would direct us to the make the right choice from the potential options in front of us.
But that’s not how contemporary marketing works. There is no room for ‘it depends’ anymore. It’s either totally wrong if you belong to tribe A or, if you belong to tribe B, entirely and completely correct.
We seem to have lost nuance, relativity and context. In our search for definitive answers to marketing’s big questions we’ve created chaos. It’s an exciting, fast-moving and emotional chaos. But it’s chaos nonetheless. And I wonder if things will ever calm down again.
But why bother asking you? Given you are also a marketer operating in 2017 I already know what your response will be. This column is nonsense and my point of view ridiculous. There is no issue with polarisation within marketing; we are all completely and utterly aligned.
Unless, that is, you disagree.