I didn’t write much this year. I had some other things to do.
I had started a new job in January, gotten to know the team and the opportunities, and then promptly got hit with a global pandemic. Working for an agency with roots in experiential marketing meant that we felt an immediate hit even faster than some others did; from March 13th until late summer was essentially one very long sprint, with a lot of highs and lows. Early morning and late evening meetings, dealing with layoffs and last minute projects, took a lot out of me.
In that same timeframe, we conceived our first child. We struggled with infertility for years, so this was both the best news possible but also an added layer of stress and fear to literally everything - navigating a pandemic was tough, but doing so when random exposure could mean being cut off from fertility treatment or potentially harming the baby we’d been praying for... I didn’t see a lot of people, even for outdoor distanced things. It wasn’t worth the risk, even if I know some people took it personally.
Late summer we bought a house, fall we closed and moved in, winter we dealt with (are still dealing with, really) a flooded basement, and on Valentine’s Day our baby boy arrived. In the weeks since then, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to just focus on figuring out how to be a parent.
I’ve been thinking about advertising, branding and marketing a lot this year. But I had other (to say the least) things to deal with, and this newsletter didn’t make the cut very often.
But, I now spend a nice chunk of time sitting in a nursery holding an infant that is usually falling asleep or not contributing a ton to the conversation. So, some of this stuff ends up in my notes app.
(Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash)
I’m always hesitant to speculate on the future - I feel like people use it as an excuse to not try to understand or master the present - but I feel like there are some obvious bets worth making. We’re midway through a truly global event and will be dealing with the fallout for years. As such, here’s some stuff I expect to see.
I expect less tolerance for bullshit. Turns out a pandemic does a great job showing which emperors are actually nude, and a decade of “purpose-driven” work didn’t amount to much when all of the chips were down. Bullshit is: claiming principles you don’t live up to, trying to reframe marketing as something else, making questionable claims in an attempt to forge differentiation. When the media buy is bigger than the donation, it may be time to admit it’s not about purpose, it’s a philanthropy as a marketing strategy.
(Hey, it worked (temporarily at least) for the Sackler family. Maybe other types of bullshit will thrive, but “we run our multi-billion dollar business because we really love people” was never particularly convincing, tbh.)
I expect less reliance on targeting. Not just because Apple and Google have decreed it, but because we’ve made privacy a privilege rather than a right, and ironically that’s what’s going to make it non-negotiable. People have always been willing to sacrifice their rights if the argument is good enough. It’s the privileges people won’t give up without a fight.
I expect budgets to go up, but only where it counts. Not because times are getting better; because it’s getting ugly out there and more markets are going to become winner take all. Advertising and marketing are (if we’ll be honest) maintenance activities for most brands. They invest to avoid losing market share as much (if not more) than they invest to gain - that’s why they pick the safe idea rather than the risky one. But when competition intensifies and the world goes even further online, advertising is going to be a key way for brands to protect what’s theirs.
I expect a bloodbath in performance marketing. Mostly because the amount of click fraud and questionable attribution is astronomical, but also because a hell of a lot of performance marketing is really just optimizing to get credit for attribution. Too much performance marketing is aggressive spend to take control of the narrative in the lower funnel. If you are creating *new* sales or revenue, that’s performance, to me. But I question how much digital lower funnel stuff creates *new* awareness, consideration, or conversion. Clients who want harder working budgets will eventually need to really test this stuff... by not doing it (or as much of it) and seeing the bottom line impact.
(If someone types your brand or product name into Google, clicks a link, and buys something, attributing that to your targeted search buy is asinine. More CMOs are realizing this.)
I expect less advertising, but also more advertising. Smart platforms are realizing the traditional ad-supported model doesn’t work for them. But I also expect more money to be spent. So I assume that money is going to create more super old school advertising - creating your own entertainment or experiences to get people to engage with your brand. I also think most of this will be about mental availability and broad associations rather than physical availability and generic proof points. If people remember that your brand exists, and something genuinely interesting about it, they’re more likely to buy.
(My medium-spicy take: Physical availability is effectively a solved problem in a world of near-total e-commerce, and hammering non-differentiating proof points isn’t an issue in a world of omni-present information and consumer reviews. Search solves both nicely, as well. Why are we paying a huge portion of global marketing budgets to solve problems that aren’t actually problems for customers? Because someone gets rich by trying to optimize outcomes at the end rather than getting the inputs (products or services) right at the beginning.)
I expect we’ll finally accept that brands aren’t and shouldn’t be “human”. If you want human, feature the leaders, the employees, or a spokesperson. Pretending brands are human springs partially because we shifted from people confusing a logo for a brand to people confusing a tone & manner document for a brand, but also from the idea that all things exist to be vectors for advertising, (and from social media platforms not having a better business model available than trying to encourage this mistaken perception.) If brands were human, they’d have acted differently in the greatest crisis in a generation. Brands are constructed personas for businesses - and that’s okay.
(Yes, I know that the big social platforms have data that shows it’s the right thing to do, but they’ve consistently been shown to provide misleading data that happens to justify paying them money. Every good strategist or analytics person knows that you can make the numbers tell a lot of stories; consider the ethical and moral history of the source.)
And lastly, I expect more industry consolidation, more ‘legendary’ agency brands to be retired, and more competition for cornerstone accounts. As we accept that it’s not that complex to identify the mythical 50% that’s wasted, we will eventually contract to reflect the massive chunk of industry money that has been redirected to ultimately unhelpful pursuits. Those that remain will be able to sell something more tangible than a TED talk, but also more meaningful than a paid search ad on a an owned, branded keyword.
I haven’t ranted about this stuff for a while, and my editor (okay fine, my very brilliant wife) pointed out that each of the above ‘expectations’ could easily be an article unto itself, but I sometimes prefer to throw a lot of stuff out there and see what starts a discussion or an argument.
One last thought - in an effort to defend marketing as a line item, we’ve gone through a long era of “marketing exists to sell products” which, to me, sounds a lot like “a car exists to drive you places”; technically true, but completely ignores the non-literal elements of why people choose a specific agency or automobile. Marketing sells stuff, at a minimum. Done right, it should help you sell stuff, build assets that allow you to sell at a better price, to a broader market, or to sell different stuff.
Anyone who tells you that marketing is just about selling probably unconsciously believes that products are sold solely on price or that relationships are based entirely on convenience.
Now, on to other things.
Loved this! Welcome back :)