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Giles Keeble: is modern marketing any better than the marketing we used to know?

About six months ago I was about to write a piece prompted by a McKinsey article about ‘Modern Marketing’ and what had to change. Well, everything has changed since then, not just for marketing but for advertising, the part of marketing we know best.

But before I step into the unknown, a few references to the McKinsey piece. One thing that stands out, apart from the language, is the sense that this is more of an academic exercise than based on deep experience, perhaps similar to the early cost consultants that looked at the budgets for shooting ads without ever making a film, or the civil servants who tried to cut lawyers’ legal aid fees without ever sitting in court.

Here’s a brief excerpt: rather than an “over-reliance on agencies” modern marketing will “attract, retain, train and up-skill talent and manage inter-connected agency ecosystems with best-in-class expertise.” There are, of course, some good tips such as “everyone needs to operate as if the money they are spending is their own.” I used to ask myself what I would do if it was my own business: what was the real issue and could advertising help to solve it?

McKinsey and co.

In the McKinsey piece it is not long before ‘insights and analytics’, ROI, KPIs and algorithms appear. Brand vision and strategy should be informed by ‘real-time insights’ and content should be ‘driven by analytics and data, dynamically created, augmented by AI.” It is worth reflecting that we have a tendency to measure what can be measured rather than what needs to be; and also that an algorithm is basically a recipe. What you put in inevitably affects what comes out.

Algorithms enable pattern recognition, and are increasingly a helpful part of daily life not just to tell us that ‘people like us also bought.’ When backed up with intuition they can lead to interesting conclusions, such as the connection quoted in Hannah Fy’s excellent book ‘Hello World’ that buyers of fresh fennel were less likely to make home insurance claims. Algorithms are here to stay, but how they are programmed and used needs careful thought, as the recent UK exam fiasco has shown.

If you can get past the language then some of this is worth thinking about: how does it affect advertising as well as marketing? McKinsey talks about ‘agile marketing’ and if this can be successfully achieved then it will need to be matched by agile advertising, though whether it will be any good is another question. I’m not sure how Mckinsey (slogan ‘Change that matters’) would implement it. Analysis can be done quicker, but as always it depends on what is being analysed and why.

I have written before about ‘insights’ and how I believe many people in marketing and advertising don’t really know what a real insight is and disappear up the anatomy they cannot tell from their elbow as they try to find things that may be ‘unique’ to their brand but of no interest to the customer.

A good human observation is better than an invented insight; and though that observation may apply to other products, it is then the job of advertising to make it the brand’s own. Another issue is how long the process takes, and once again this depends on the kind of advertising and the role of the advertising, and what kind of response is required. It is crazy not to know whether your advertising is ‘successful’ but it is equally mad not to agree what the criteria for that success is.

The ultimate aim of advertising (as part of marketing) is sales, but that may not be the specific role of a particular campaign, which could be to communicate a new positioning or a new image or ingredient. I guess that a lot of quick turn-around advertising is aiming for a quick response: a link to click on, a message without an idea. I remember the line (attributed to Frank Lowe I think) about the time needed for great work: something like ‘do you want something great or do you want it now?’ New media channels may not have that luxury.

This touches on other issues, some of which I feel unqualified to discuss in depth. Short-termism may have satisfied investors but sometimes at the expense of the long-term business. Some companies see advertising as a cost not an investment, and this influences the kind of advertising they get, even if it’s not what they need.

There is also the central question of creativity. McKinsey talks about content being ‘dynamically created,’ whatever that means. My own experience suggests that while the whole process can be collaborative the actual creative idea does not come that way, even allowing for the psychology of ‘not invented here.’ In certain circumstances and for specific reasons, brainstorming can be useful but I doubt that it is the way to get great work. It may be useful to assign different creative teams to very different briefs (as it can be within a business to look at different scenarios) but even then, it is usually one creative person or team that comes up with an idea, hopefully helped by a good brief.

And what about the quality of the work? Many old campaigners bemoan what they see is a dearth of great work compared to what BMP, CDP, AMV, Saatchis et al were doing in their heyday. Many of those ads would not be allowed today because they would be considered politically incorrect, like Yorkie or Cinzano or the moccasins ad for Timberland (below.) But I still maintain that as long as the business attracts talented creative people- and that’s another question- there will still be great work. It may be harder to do and it may be different – especially because of the different channels used.

That was then. This is now. Consumer habits have changed. Consumers have changed: in another McKinsey report, it is claimed that ‘millennials are four times more likely than older consumers to say that they resist buying mass brands.’ Many businesses have collapsed. The ones that have prospered are those whose business is online, or related to it. Apple is now the first trillion dollar company. Many retailers have lost their face-to-face customers. The need for offices is being questioned. What will happen to the businesses and brands that agencies depend on?

In a more recent survey on the ‘next-normal consumer’ McKinsey says ‘trusted brands’ are important, so how many businesses will view advertising as an investment rather than a cost, especially when they aren’t making money and people are being laid off? Agencies as businesses face the same predicament.

Just recently two big financial companies have decided everyone can work from home. The counter-arguments have been that people need the social interaction, but as someone commented, he didn’t need that interaction 9-5, 5 days a week. Agency people need a mixture of interaction and space, creative teams especially. Zoom-type meetings will increase, but I am not convinced you can present creative work without being in the room to pick up the the body language and sense the atmosphere. This may also apply to media and strategy companies.

Maybe this is the time for the ‘virtual agency’ I tried to set up in the late 90s: three key people – creative, business and strategy – with access to other talented people when required in whatever the necessary discipline. Will this work for the ‘new marketing’? I don’t know. Things have changed irreversibly but we have to hope it leads to a period of new thinking and new solutions.

Algorithms and analytics need human understanding and intuition as well as maths. Businesses, and society, need creative thinkers. Let’s hope advertising can be a breeding ground for them. Advertising will be different. Advertising is dead……long live advertising?

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