Thomas Barta: Marketers must stop being digitally naïve

The label ‘digital’ makes marketers throw all leadership rules overboard. They shouldn’t.


I love technology. When new tech stuff comes out, I immediately fall victim to the ‘wannahave’ mentality. For some it’s shoes. For me it’s gadgets. But too often, the adrenaline kick is short-lived: great idea, no real use. There go my Apple Watch, fitness belt, smart charger and pocket drone. My ‘uncool drawer’ is full of items like these. But hey – worst case, I’ve burned through a couple of hours of my time (and a few pounds worth of cash).

How do you make a room full of marketers ditch all rules and follow you blindly? It’s simple. Get on stage, say the word ‘digital’ 10 times and then follow it up with a flashy movie. Not a single marketing conference goes by without some guru trumpeting random digital assertions at their nodding audiences. What worries me more than my own habits is the digital wannahave mindset these talks create.

The rise of the ‘digital naïve’

Let’s face it: around the globe, marketers spend big bucks on digital marketing tools and advertising without any real strategy (let alone business goals). When challenged, people throw out buzzwords like ‘customer experience’ or ‘buying journeys’ in order to mask what is often a mindless digital shopping spree. It is puzzling. Don’t get me wrong: I believe digital tools are crucial for business success – in fact they may even transform your brand’s customer experience. But blindly jumping on the latest digital bandwagon doesn’t make anyone a digital native – in reality, that’s just digitally naïve.

It was refreshing to read recently that Procter & Gamble is cutting $100m from its digital advertising budget. According to the company’s finance chief Jon Moeller, that spend was largely ineffective.

READ MORE: Will other brands follow P&G’s lead and cut digital ad spend?

Just to be clear, he did not say that digital marketing is ineffective, or that P&G will stop digital marketing altogether (they won’t). And for a firm that spends $2.45bn per year on US advertising alone, $100m is pretty much peanuts. What is marvellous about P&G’s move is the leadership message it sends: we tried this and it didn’t help the business, so we are changing course.

There is much to learn from the P&G case, and here is what I would advise you to take from it.

1. Begin with the end in mind

There is one (and only one) reason why your marketing department exists: your organisation wants to sell more stuff to more people at a profit. When brilliant marketers pick tools, they want maximum bang for their buck. Unfortunately there’s now so much digital dust clouding their view that some don’t see the wood for the trees.

If you step back for a moment, what exactly is the business problem that you are trying to solve with digital? How much additional revenue and/or cost reduction are we talking about? If you are unsure, then ask yourself: How will this tool help us to reach or serve people better? That answer goes in the effectiveness bucket. And how will this tool help us to reach or serve people at a lower cost? That one goes in the efficiency bucket, or in some cases in both.

For example, I love checking in for a flight online. Choosing my seat from a visual map betters my travel experience and the airline saves tonnes of money. That’s a win-win scenario.

What is marvellous about P&G’s move is the leadership message it sends: we tried this and it didn’t help the business, so we are changing course.

Digital may well be the magic touch your organisation needs in order to leap forward. But you have to put down your magic wand and pick up a calculator instead. P&G did the maths and figured out that the $100m it has since cut from digital advertising was delivering neither growth nor cost savings. The obvious conclusion: uncool drawer.

Doing your digital maths is now urgent. When digital marketing was new, you got away with spending blindly. But in many C-suites patience is now running out. People want to see results. Perhaps your digital suppliers won’t like putting together a business case as their goal is simply to sell to you, but just imagine you set financial goals together, achieve them, and spread the word. It may save their business – and yours.

2. Try, don’t lie

As a marketer you’re always going to face a trust gap. Why? Because marketing is about future business. It’s way easier to trust a finance bloke who’s adding up yesterday’s numbers. Build credibility in your organisation by being honest about what you know and where you’re simply experimenting. Even a tough chief finance officer will understand when you say: “We are trying this new digital tool; we hope it will deliver X, but it’s a test.” To stay credible, never sell a digital experiment as a proven method for success.

3. Have the courage to course-correct

P&G gave digital advertising a try – big time. It hasn’t quite worked out for them yet, so as a result they are changing course. To me this isn’t failure, but rather an example of strong leadership. If customers don’t hear your digital message, what’s wrong with checking out TV or direct mail again?

Here’s the issue: too many marketers don’t dare to challenge digital because it’s a wannahave item for them (or worse, for the CEO). But as a marketer you must have the courage to learn and at times change direction.

Digital marketing may be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve customers better – and to make the an internal business case for investing in the customer with real data. To get digital right, begin with the end in mind, experiment honestly and have the courage to course-correct.

So, are you a digital native, or are you digitally naive?
Thomas Barta is a professional keynote speaker, marketing leadership expert, and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ with Patrick Barwise.

Hide Comments2 Show Comments
  • Joe Stevens 19 Sep 2017 at 8:55 am

    I think a lot of the problem lies in education and managing expectations. Digital marketers have to be clear about what additional tools and spend will do before everyone thinks it’s a fix-all solution. I would love to know more about which aspects of the digital marketing budget this $100m was cut from?

  • Pete Austin 19 Sep 2017 at 10:36 am

    Re: There is one (and only one) reason why your marketing department exists: your organisation wants to sell more stuff to more people at a profit.

    Now that *IS* naive. Marketing has many other advantages, including that a well-regarded company has a higher valuation and can recruit staff more easily.

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