Evolution in the Face of Adversity

First published January 15, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I am an unrepentant Darwinist, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone who reads my columns on a regular basis. The whole topic of evolution and emergent behaviors in complex systems constantly fascinates me. As Steven Johnson pointed out in his recent book, “Emergence,”  the theme of patterns rising from complexity is  ubiquitous and could well define the 21st century.

The World is a Cruel Place – Get Over It!

One of the most interesting things about evolution is that the pace of evolutionary change picks up in the face of adversity. The more hostile the environment, the faster the wheels of evolution roll and the quicker we adapt. Of course, we do so in a pretty ruthless way. The weak get culled faster. There are no consolation prizes in this lottery. Winner takes all. Richard Dawkins didn’t call genes “selfish” for nothing.

Which led me to apply the rules of biology to our current marketplace. We are going into what may be the most hostile environment for marketers in recent memory. Expect losers to die faster and winners to adapt quicker. But it’s just such an adverse environment that ultimately decides the survival of the fittest. After all, our marketplace is just one more complex system where emergence again plays out.

When the Going Gets Tough

We’ve seen the groundswell of change wash over marketing in the last decade or so. Inexorably, the digital sea change has already started to determine winners and losers, but when ad budgets were fatter, there was more room for everyone. Now, as those budgets are dramatically scaled down, advertisers are forced to make tough decisions.  Channels have to prove themselves against tougher standards. There will be fewer winners and more losers and the evolution of the marketplace will pick up dramatically.

In the end, this will be good for most of the digital marketplace, especially search. Already with our client list, we’ve seen tough budgeting decisions dramatically impact more traditional channels but leave search relatively unscathed.

Scarcity Eliminates Stupidity

Another outcome of the financial meltdown will be that only the smartest marketers will survive. A few years ago, I remember someone from one of the largest advertisers in North America once saying to me, out of frustration with  their marketing program, “We’re so big we can afford to be stupid.”  No more. Today, only the smartest will survive. Size is no longer a guarantee of survival, nor a justification for stupidity, as we’ve seen in a number of particularly painful examples.

Smarter marketers will make smarter decisions, including the painful ones.  They will be ruthless about culling out the losers. Which means chronic mediocrity will become acute failure;  the mortality rate will rise substantially. This will drive our marketing models into the future much faster.

Strategies for Survival

How do you emerge on the winning side of the Darwinian lottery? Based on what I’ve seen, you won’t go far wrong if you concentrate on the following:
–    Accountability for and transparency in delivering on advertising objectives.
–    Understanding the intent and behavior of your target market.
–    A ruthless focus on efficiency in getting the right message to the right person at the right time.
–    Effectively leveraging a fundamental understanding of how the marketplace is shifting due to technology.
–    The ability to map out the most effective prospect touch points, and strong integration between all the channels found at these touch points.
–    The ability to collect and utilize all possible intelligence sources.
–    An ability to brutally assess the reality of the environment and execute quickly and effectively against these realities.

It’s the last of these factors I’d like to focus on for my final thoughts on this topic. In a hostile environment, negativity comes with the territory. The winners will seek out negativity as an important indicator of the true situation and will use it to adapt. In this case, the fittest will see things as they are, not as they wish they would be. In coming months and years, the difference between these two viewpoints will be critical.

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