On the Future of Digital Media (Intro to 3/3)

An Introduction

We live in the age of the architected moment.

We are, if you have not noticed, in almost perpetual economic virtuality. Some people think this is a good thing. I think it is the way we have evolved the world around us. That is, to serve endless consumption and drive demand. Whether or not that is susceptible or sustainable (neither are in my view), is for another discussion entirely.

Many of us naively believe that the new economic reality we live in is being designed from moment to moment with fluid conscientiousness. This too is incorrect. As a side note, Victor Frankl’s advice that we seek meaning, and not material has never been more poignant. We must search to discover and create meaning because we are inundated by falsity on an almost never-ending basis. I have talked about this before, but in the context of discussing the responsibility of advertisers and marketers, Frankl’s insistence on a “greater conversation”, seems portent.

Most former advertising executives, like myself, will tell you that our job is not to bother you. Our job is to grab your attention during certain opportune moments. Otherwise mundane moments, like when you are in your car, sitting on the couch in between innings or quarters or waiting for the next episode of your current mini-series absorption to load. Digital marketers, in particular, are keen to catch you enjoying that ever-increasingly common disassociation from reality epitomized by a person scrunched over a six-inch screen. We marketing folk capitalize on the numbing numbness that comes along with staring at a screen of varying size too frequently, and too readily.

Advertisers work to imbue that blank space, any blank space, (otherwise known as your frontal lobe) with something else. The most grandiose and least attractive notion to an advertiser, (and I assure you anyone with a conscious will loathe to admit this), is that a great ad is meant to help the consumer remember something they never needed to know to begin with. Brands are imbued with the qualities or feelings we feel we lack, though we most likely do not. “Brand” is now proxy for joy, utility, fun, meaning or even distraction itself.

Regardless of your comfort level with this ethical conundrum, more and more, marketers work to ensure that something remains consistent at every touch point in the “consumer trajectory.” There is nothing novel about this notion really. However, with the advent of the IoT, and the surge of ad-blocking tools available to the consumer, it means that advertisers will now find stealthier ways to sneak into our lives and ensure that economic opportunities are presented directly and made relevant to our immediate experience. If they are good at it, they will appeal to our better senses and add limited value to our lives. If they are bad at it, they will ruin a perfectly good cup of coffee or interject the meaningless into the meaningful. Right now most efforts are falling in the latter category.

When I survey my own habits, I feel I am lucky. All of the content I consume “regularly”, is uninterrupted. I consume it where, when and how I want to. Of course, I pay for it. Apple iMovie, Netflix, Spotify, the NY Times, the FT, the Economist, Atlantic, New Yorker, and even LinkedIn do not pepper-spray me with ads because I pay them not to. I have shut down Facebook, Instagram and any other platform that sucks time from me or that I cannot control, or that uses my data for nefarious purposes.

It comes as no surprise then that many of my big agency advertising colleagues are eyeing the exit signs and considering wine-making or embroidery.

More than one-third (37%) of employees in a recent Campaign US poll described morale in their shop as “moderate” or “dangerously low,” and 70% said they are “actively job seeking.” Another 60% of all survey respondents said morale is lower at their agency or corporate ad department than where they were previously. This locates big agency job satisfaction somewhere between how a trial lawyer might describe their job, or how James Altucher’s sounds every day.

After spending the initial decade of my own career in corporate advertising strategy, I can tell you that rumors of a very high strain of self-loathing and dissatisfaction in the ad business are quite real. If you ask a staffer about this, you will hear then vacillate between absolute morbidity and spouting nonsensical, arcane techno-babble. Either way, ad people are generally not “happy” people; and big agencies are not “fun” places to work.

I came into the business sideways, like a breech birth. I quit Law School and spent a few years at a boutique investment bank on the East Coast. I was adept at analyzing new tech stocks, and then somehow, I stepped off into the deep end in 2002 and started working for agencies on the West Coast. I avoided the bull, but got the horns, as it turns out. At first, I thought it was very cool, with all the cool creative stuff going on. But, I was not hired to be a cool, creative person. I was hired to be an analytical, rational person. Agencies in the early 2000’s realized they could use otherwise dull persons who could analyze consumer behavior and find actual value for their clients. We could strategize.

I was good at it. I am good at it.

I moved from Boston to Los Angeles, to NYC to Chicago to San Francisco, to Sydney and finally Kuala Lumpur before I figured out just how much I loathe big agencies. Granted my job for over a decade was to simply advise Fortune 500 clients about which emerging media they should be most worried about not having room in their budget for. I sat around and read most of the time, and then occasionally they would roll me into their client’s offices, and we’d discuss what they planned to refuse to do in digital for the coming year. I have seen this world change in my ‘favor’. Now, everyone wants digital, but they are still saying no to the right things and yes to the wrong things.

That is, yes towards the dull, analytical side, and now, no to the creative bits.

Big agencies suck at digital.

Rushed campaigns, poorly planned and managed projects can make an ad-staffer feel like they are on the Titanic. The single biggest complaint about big agencies (from the inside), is lousy management. This says much. Most people who stayed in the agency world (who are my age) didn’t get out of the agency box to see the market evolve, and so those still there are clueless. Worse, global execs who are feeling the pressure to evolve often get the brilliant idea to reorganize with an eye towards marketing technology without fully understanding the digital ecosystem as a whole. This is still a problem, to this day.

When we started our firm in 2012, we did not call ourselves an agency, and we do not chase marketing automation or marketing-tech gigs. We actually started with 160k in funding to create a predictive logic model for media and finance. We believe communications professionals (both client and agency) ought to understand their jobs better; they ought to understand finance and media. They ought to understand the entire modern context better and moreover, they ought to understand what the “not-an-agency,” agency of the future will look like.

Future non-agency people will not go to goofy conferences anymore. Forget Cannes, Forget SXSW. They will try to win awards. Awards are a waste of money, time and any client interested in winning awards is not paying attention to the market. The marketplace is data-driven but people-populated. If you cannot show me the data or why, or the how of your platform, then you will not compete. You will die off. Plenty of great creatives are still out there; robots have not replaced them, thank god. Give them free reign to engage the consumer as if they were speaking directly to them. Your data should tell them exactly whom they are talking to, so give them some free reign.

Agencies Cannot Predict the Future

Discovering the right segments or audiences is not enough if you are not uncovering potential customers. Predictive marketing will drive demand generation because it uses data and analytics to determine what target to focus on next, making your marketing efforts anticipatory, and not reactive. I say this hopefully so that anyone with a business plan and a brain cell will eschew the “marketing-tech as second coming” phase and save themselves alot of time and money.

As to creativity, there are no prizes for “pretty good” regarding content marketing. In CMSWire, Carter Hostelley is adamant, “Writing outstanding content is only half the battle.” To thrive in the full world of content marketing in 2016, distribution, syndication and repurposing are just as important as writing the content itself. This requires data agility and creative chops.

Small Is Better

Rightfully so, the bigs are worried.

Mckinsey and Company reports that 75% of marketers recently polled have a grave concern about the impact of threats from existing competitors who are agile. Small agencies can and will scale faster in this economy, and outpace competitors. Being small, being powerful and accelerating demand generation via more data-driven decision matrices depends on an organization’s ability to be agile and adapt to fast-paced changes, yes, but it also depends on the personalities and intent of those people in that organization. I can do more in one day with one strategist, and one creative than a big agency can do in a week with an entire battalion of social media automation “experts”.

I pissed off a few folks in Cupertino a few months back when I wrote: “The iPhone is a gadget, not an economic plan.”

In the same way, marketing automation is not a strategy; it is a technology. In the last year, the number of marketing technology companies has nearly doubled, rising to close to 2,000 in 2015. Conversely, ad-inventory, meaning the amount of room on the page for content, is massively oversold and faces an embarrassingly high failure rate of around 60 percent. According to the Sales Benchmark Index, three out of five marketing automation installations or programs fail, meaning they are under-utilized, not used at all, or eventually canceled.

Why are so many companies investing in marketing automation — from the likes of such market leaders as Hubspot, Marketo, Salesforce Marketing Cloud (formerly ExactTarget), Pardot (owned by Salesforce), Oracle Marketing Cloud (formerly Eloqua), Silverpop, Act-On and SharpSpring-and still failing at such high rates?

The single most vexing issue facing marketers today is that we are too confident of technology, most especially that it will meet the complex, ever-changing, never-ending needs of the modern market. 87% of marketers polled recently say they “got better ROI” from automation tools than traditional methods”, yet at the same time, consumers report that they are more likely to deploy ad-blocking tools or ignore ads altogether. I would venture to guess one of these two is cooking their numbers, and it’s not the consumer.

The truth is plain and simple.

Many marketers invest in marketing automation hoping it will be the answer to all of their problems, without a deep understanding of marketing itself, without having defined whom they wish to market to, and without a clear idea of how which content would serve that prospect best. Marketing automation can enable marketers to understand better prospective buyers by analyzing their online interactions and then, supposedly deliver customized content more efficiently- like blog posts, e-books, industry reports, white papers, checklists, articles, infographics, videos, webinars.

That’s only 1/2 the battle.

Before you “buy” into marketing automation, here are the questions to ask yourself:

  • How do you plan to generate customers without alienating them?
  • How will you responsibly use the data you capture from the consumer?
  • How will you interpret the results and leverage them creatively and respectfully?

The million dollar question is: How will you optimize your business, and continue to succeed in a world that is more and more fragmented, attention deficient, and lacking in real human meaning?


Louis D. LoPraeste is a former corporate strategist (2003–2012) and founder of www.quodfatum.com. You can support critical analysis of our society during these turbulent times by buying his new book today: http://bit.ly/vagueapoc.