Vltava river in Prague, photo by Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash

I am in love with Mark Ritson, and I’m dying to work with Dan Ariely. The stuff I heard from these two guys last Friday has already started to change my life, and it might change yours, too.

Mark and Dan were part of a great lineup of 9 speakers at this year’s Marketing Festival, which took place in Prague on March 20–22, 2019. All of them made some excellent points, which collectively set the tone of the wider discussion on where marketing stands right now, and on what is relevant in terms of brand strategy and what isn’t.

The speakers at this year’s festival were:

Dan Ariely, Mark Ritson, Christopher Wylie, Wil Reynolds, Samuel Scott, Jono Alderson, Josef Havelka, Kirsty Hulse and Stéphane Hamel.

This is my attempt to provide a super-condensed summary of the essence of the conference, as I personally understand what was discussed, and as I translated this material right after the conference, into valuable, actionable guidelines for myself.

I can assure you that the amount of original, ground-breaking thinking you get exposed to during this event cannot be put to words or summarised in a document, however extensive and detailed. What you read here is only a glimpse of the whole experience.

Please bear in mind that what follows has been filtered through my own views, so feel free to disagree, and please let me know if you do :)

The theme of Marketing Festival’s talks in 2019

This year’s talks unavoidably shared a common, recurring theme, which I believe should make us re-evaluate the way we do our job in all marketing-related professions and roles.

The theme of the event can be summarised as follows:

If you only focus on one thing in your marketing efforts from now on, this should be to understand and react to how humans think, behave and make decisions. This must be every marketer’s number one priority, or they are throwing their clients’ (or their own) money in the trash.

Let me explain.

Although the internet for the past 10–20 years has hugely affected the way marketing is delivered, as well as the way marketers think and act, we now need to seriously re-think our priorities.

This super-targeted and detailed way of reaching the right people, monitoring their actions online with precision and evaluating our success in selling stuff to them, will soon die if it’s the only thing we do.

It’s actually already as good as dead if you are currently focusing on this more than anything else.

Instead, we should be investing most of our effort and resources in investigating and understanding things such as how people live, work and spend their spare time, what makes them happy, how they express their preferences and what it is that resonates with them the most.

Then we should consistently care about these people and interact with them based on these findings.

Not now, not this week or for the next six months, but every single day.

For the rest of their lives.

What we discover about human behaviour may often not make much sense, because us humans are complicated creatures who do not always behave rationally or as would normally be expected. To overcome any uncertainty, we need to trust our data and apply methods that have been proven to work and bring results in practice.

In my view, the most important points to take away from this year’s event are the following.

Data is your single most valuable asset.

The more you have, the better. Never base your marketing decisions on assumptions on any level, even if you have 20 years of experience. Always make sure your decisions are informed by actual data. Collect it, store it and organise it properly over the years for each of your clients (and/or projects).

However, please give serious consideration to the following two points:

1. Study your data extensively, to deeply understand human behaviour

Don’t just interpret data on the surface. Spend time analysing it, discovering connections between findings, and drawing conclusions about what people are really after, and why.

If you don’t interpret actual human behaviour and if you don’t detect people’s real intent, Google (for example) will detect natural human signals and penalise you for not giving people what they actually want.

If your blog post about “things that can get you high on Google rankings”, for example, gets a gazillion clicks, make sure users haven’t been visiting your blog because they were just looking for ways to get high.

On top of that, automated services such as booking systems, guides or shopping assistants cannot suggest what you’re offering to the right people, unless you are able to understand what your customers like and how they actually behave. This understanding enables you to communicate the right messages to people who are similar to your desired customers, which triggers behaviours and reactions, which in turn informs AI systems about your desired customers’ common attributes.

Only then are AI algorithms able to make informed decisions about who is most likely to buy your stuff, and sell it to them.

2. Would you be tempted to use a huge amount of super targeted, personal user data immorally, if you had it at your fingertips?

No? Are you sure?

Think again.

Also, at what point does data collection become immoral, and what are we, the users of the internet, doing to control this? Are we giving our consent to too much (and too personal) data collection?

Google at some point “forgot” to mention Nest home alarms they sold to us contained microphones. Weather apps collect your location data every 3 seconds. Who is responsible for all the data that is being given away? These companies or us?

Branding is everything. Above and beyond anything else.

Long-term branding and communication of values to wide audiences is far more important than short-term, narrowly targeted advertising for conversions.

“More important” as in “allocate most of your budget to long-term branding, or you’re screwed”.

A suggested 60% of your total marketing budget should go towards communicating to the masses your brand values, why they are important, and why people should care. These messages are not product — focused, but entirely emotional, aiming to ensure that your brand’s mission and role in this world resonates with people on a deeper, subconscious level.

This must be an ongoing process that never stops. This is what prepares people for your product-specific messages they come across. Conversion-oriented actions have a very-very short lifecycle and are not on their own capable of keeping people interested for any significant period of time. ROI-driven activities cannot survive unless you have been playing the long game long before you start with all the “buy now”, “read more” and “request a quote” business.

To do branding properly, have a go at implementing a structured, step-by-step strategy, even if you’re not that confident with it — it’s much better to get it somewhat right than not having a go at all. This takes months of thinking, but should be dead simple.

Less is more.

Go for less brands, have less strategic objectives, pick only 3 or 4 codes (or elements) to accompany your logo as part of your brand identity, communicate no more than 3 fundamental ideas.

Strategy is deciding what NOT to do.

Use these principles to tell stories about the brand’s values and its vision, give lifestyle advice, solve people’s problems, and build brand preference long before you start hunting for conversions. You need to influence your customers’ decisions early, before they even know they’ll need to make a decision at some point in the future.

“Content” is dead. No, seriously.

When people use the term “content”, they may refer to a number of things that have been uploaded online. This is wrong.

Things often described as “content” include:

Blog posts
Videos
Movies
Images
Podcasts
Live streaming
Interviews
Infographics

…and even a whole bunch of offline stuff, such as TV shows or Radio shows.

Why have we ended up labeling anything that we produce as “content”? When did that happen and what purpose does it serve?

60 years ago, or even earlier than that, a newspaper article that was sponsored by a brand and included a call-to-action cut-out coupon at the end, was called an advert. Why is now a blog post that includes a call-to-action “content”?

Why is a branded, promotional video “content” and not a promotional video?

When did an uploaded press release suddenly become “content” and stopped being a press release?

Let’s start calling things what they actually are, because this way we may start using them for their intended purpose. Build trust with your audience by telling them the truth, instead of hiding behind trending terminology.

Added bonus: we also don’t confuse ourselves, the people we work with and the people who actually pay for all these things to be produced.

Wrapping up…

I have been contemplating all these issues for quite a while now, and have been seeking ways to improve and fine-tune the way I work in these areas.

As of tomorrow, the way I do strategy and the way I work within my team is changing, to reflect reality as it was illustrated during this event and summarised here. I would strongly recommend you should also consider making changes to the way you work, if the brands you promote are to survive the next few years.

Having listened to these 9 talks carefully for the best part of a day, it’s obvious that they all point quite solidly towards a very specific conclusion.

Don’t just focus on conversions and ROI, don’t follow trends unless you can back up your decisions with data, and worry less about day-to-day tactics.

Instead, aim to study and understand humans, talk to them in a language they get, and explain to them what they have in common with your brand. Put more of your money on this and less on selling.

See you in Prague next year ;)