The New Age of Marketing

Don Draper is making a comeback

He’s been on a hiatus. We’ve come a long way from the catchy jingles and campaign tag lines spun by the likes of Don Draper and Peggy Olson from the golden age of advertising. They gave personalities and lifestyle attributes to products. Long before Facebook, they built a following of people who chose what car they drove, soda they drank or detergent they washed with because the brands went beyond utility. Product brands became an extension of the lives people wanted to lead.

In the era Before the Internet, companies couldn’t get off the ground without a lift from a genius marketing campaign. Everyone watched the same three TV stations, listened to the radio, read the morning newspaper and commuted to and from work. Television and radio commercials, or print newspaper and magazine ads, were clear pathways for connecting with consumers. They were the way brands became the kings that dominated the supermarket and department store shelves. The cost of entry for newcomers was, by and large, prohibitive.

I can attest to the power of great advertising. In 1984, I saw the aired-only-once commercial for the Apple Macintosh during Super Bowl XIV. A dystopian future was portrayed, with rows of enslaved people staring blankly at a giant screen with a barking head of Big Brother. A revolutionary came running into the room and smashed the screen, freeing and enlightening the people. I’ll never forget the visceral effect that ad had on me, and I will always associate Apple with revolution.

But once the internet came along, that kind of creative advertising started taking a backseat to technical smarts. The internet leveled the playing field, and now two geeks in a garage could start the next big company. These men or women could create something new, and the magic of search engines could bring it to the masses — with no marketing dollars. The SEO Age flattened the universe, and all of a sudden those two geeks could start a huge company with a good idea and their technical know-how. For many brands (including my first startup, Expedia), great advertising lifted them further — but it was not the only way to lift the company.

There are many examples of companies that thrived in the SEO era: Yelp, Wikipedia and TripAdvisor are a few that truly mastered the SEO machine. Trulia, which is in the Zillow Group portfolio, is another example of a company that mastered the dark arts of SEO.

Today, SEO is still incredibly important. Companies spend tremendous time and resources trying to keep their search results in the top slots of a Google search. But times, they are a-changing. Desktop web searches are in decline, and Google is dominant. As Google stretches for revenue growth, they have slowly, but surely, annexed the natural search results and converted this valuable real estate to advertising. They are turning free-riders into taxpayers. Their paid advertising results are so good and relevant that it’s debatable whether they are poisoning the consumer well, which would leave the door open for companies whose search results are “natural.” Some of my smart colleagues hope so, but I’m not so sure. In the travel vertical, for example, Expedia is big enough to pay for those top search results, so when a person searches in Google for a flight from Seattle to New York and sees a great fare from Expedia front and center, why do they care how it got there?

SEO and natural search results are in decline. And, as alternative search paradigms (mobile, Alexa, AppStore) grow, and as Facebook/Youtube/Snapchat radically increase the volume and diversity of “avails,” I would argue that we are entering a new golden age of marketing and branding.

Queue the return of Don Draper — or, more accurately, his grandson — who loves a good tagline, but also appreciates the beauty of a well-built spreadsheet. The future is a diverse and modern marketing team, made up of the clever analytical marketer who uses big data to make smarter decisions, the public relations expert who finds ways to help the brand tell great stories, the social media guru who knows how to stay on top of the latest channels and engage directly with consumers, and, yes, the artist/storyteller who can move people to tears. Marketing is back. Aspiring startup engineers take heed: Marry a marketer.

I’m lucky enough to be involved with many companies who have done marketing and branding right, but one that figured this out early was Zillow. We launched Zillow in 2006 when the web was still a vast, flat playing field refereed by Google. We were wary of both SEO and SEM from the beginning, as we didn’t want to get hooked on Google’s oil. We wanted to drill our own wells (find our own customers) and make sure they knew they were on Zillow being empowered and enlightened and not just “on the web.”

We didn’t have much money, though, and we couldn’t invest in advertising, but we knew the most important “P” of the Marketing Mix 5 P’s is “Product.” So, we built a highly provocative product (with the Zestimate), and married that to a brilliant PR plan conceived by our head of communications, Amy Bohutinsky (now our COO).

On day one, so many millions of users showed up that tipped over for a day and half. For years after that, product and PR were our bread and butter. Only after we had 50 million users per month and a business model did we layer on traditional brand advertising, including TV. Our marketing took us to household-name status, and now Google users search for the term “Zillow” more often than the term “real estate.”

The lesson here is that Amy, representing marketing, was a full partner and strong voice in the room from the earliest days. Take heed: Bring in a great marketing partner early. And listen.

Branding is back, folks. Geeky grandson of Draper is here. If you’ve been living unhealthily off SEO and are feeling the pinch, go hit the gym. Start building new muscles. Your arms are skinny from disuse. Performance marketing. Social media marketing. PR. Branding. Look at your unaided awareness numbers. If you don’t know what that means, go figure it out. Start bulking up. Oh, and you’ll probably need money, too. Good luck.