This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Catching Travel by the Long Tail

It’s been 13 years since then-Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson wrote his book “The Long Tail.” His analysis of the “Amazon Economy” completely flipped our notions of supply and demand. In theory, The Long Tail should have ushered in a democratization of the marketplace, spreading the wealth among a greater number of participants. And, in a perfect implementation of the Long Tail, that would be true. But bits and pieces of Long-Tail economics have ported over to a number of markets — and sometimes, an imperfect fit creates some undesirable consequences.

Long-Tail Economics

In order to create an effective Long-Tail market, three conditions have to be met.

Unlimited inventory: Products that can be delivered digitally with no manufacturing costs free markets from the physical restraints of production and warehousing. Inventories are unlimited and fulfillment can be on demand.

Unlimited shelf space: Similarly, products in the digital domain allow for infinite shelf space — simply because no actual “space” is required. Spotify, Netflix and Amazon can make millions of digital copies available.

Perfect information: The last requirement is sometimes the most problematic. In order for the Long Tail marketplace to be the most effective, consumers need perfect information about their options. They need to know everything about anything that’s available and be able to make their choice accordingly.

This is impractical in the real world. Even the most effective search platform falls well short of providing perfect information.

Theoretically, if all three prerequisites are met, demand flows down from the head to the tail, shortening the first and extending the second. But Long-Tail economics don’t necessarily apply equally to every marketplace. Take travel, for instance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In a recent MediaPost column looking at marketing travel, Harvey Chipkin outlined the problems being felt worldwide by “overtourism.”  Barcelona is a cautionary tale of what happens when consumers are deluded by the illusion of a Long-Tail market and suppliers are dealing with the realities of an infrastructure held back by physical constraints.

First, let’s deal with the delusion. We travel a lot differently than our parents did. Back in the ’80s, travel to Europe was the sole domain of the rich and famous. If one of us mere mortals did hit the continent, chances were we were doing the European Bus Tour Trifecta: London, Paris and Rome. For most of us, Disneyland was about as exotic and adventurous as our travel plans got.

But then we started craving authentic experiences. We wanted the thrill of unearthing the hidden gem. That was about the time we discovered Barcelona.

No one went to Barcelona in 1990. But then the city hosted the Olympics in 1992. This exposure on the world stage boosted tourism, effectively doubling it by 2000. Barcelona was cool, it was hip — and, most importantly, our next-door neighbors had never been there.

But it was the Long Tail of travel that really broke the back of Barcelona when it came to tourism. From 2000 to 2010, with the advent of the web and the explosion of available travel information, tourism to Barcelona again doubled and almost tripled.

Today, about 20 million annual visitors flock to a city with a population less than one tenth that number. The city is groaning under the weight of all those sun-burned bodies desperately searching for authenticity, to the point that Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, is threatening to slam the door on those gringo turistas in order to make the city livable again.

The delusion of the Long Tail leads us to believe there’s a smorgasbord of authentic travel options just waiting for us. But the reality falls far short of that. If we look at the prerequisites of a Long-Tail market, we begin to see why.  We can argue that there is unlimited shelf space. There is no corner of the world we can’t travel to if we have the budget and inclination. Destinations we never heard of just a few decades ago are now the new hot spots.

Perfect information is a little more of a challenge. When the options are limitless, we run into the limits of our own cognition. Working memory being what it is, we can’t endlessly juggle potential destinations. We rely on a search and suggestion engine like TripAdvisor. And there we run into the realities of the Matthew Effect: The rich tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. This can be otherwise stated as the Rule of Google: “No one goes past the first page.” Shelf space may be unlimited, but screen real estate is anything but.

Finally, as Barcelona is painfully discovering, there are definite limits to the inventory of authentic, one-of-a-kind travel experiences. Once, visiting La Sagrada Familia Basilica was an awe-inspiring, soul-stirring spiritual journey. Today, it’s a highly manufactured tourism machine that usually sells out for the day by 9 a.m.

This means that rather than the trickle-down effect we would hope to see in a Long-Tail market, demand tends to bunch up due to network effects. A new “authentic” experience climbs to the top of the listing and is suddenly inundated with new demands.

As Chipkin said in his column: “After a few people get the privilege of cooking with a Contessa in her ancestral home or taking in a remote tribal village … these “authentic” locals (and their neighbors) begin to catch on and think like entrepreneurs. In come the value engineers and the souvenir shops … and out goes the authenticity.”

Seeking Sustainability

The Barcelona effect is beginning to be seen everywhere, including my own little corner of Canada. Forward-thinking tourism marketers are trying to get ahead of the deluge by finding ways to push traffic to the less-popular margins, artificially creating a Long-Tail effect. Labels like “slow tourism” and “immersive travel” are emerging to try to encourage a different mindset among visitors. But, in the end, most tourism operators are still trapped within the tyranny of TripAdvisor mindset, hoping to climb to the top of the rankings. They feel the potential trade-off is worth it.

To them, being “too popular” sounds like a tomorrow kind of problem.

Photos: Past, Present and Future

I was at a family reunion this past week. While there, my family did what families do at reunions: We looked at family photos.

In our case, our photographic history started some 110 years or so ago, with my great-great grandfather George and his wife Kezia. We have a stunning  picture of the couple, with Kezia wearing an ostrich feather hat.

George and Kezia Ching – Redondo Beach

At the time of the photo, George was an ostrich feather dyer in Hollywood, California. Apparently, there was a need for dyed ostrich feathers in turn-of-the-century Hollywood. That need didn’t last for long. The bottom fell out of the ostrich feather market and George and Kezia turned their sights north of the 49th, high-tailing it for Canada.

We’re a lucky family. We have four generations of photographic evidence of my mother’s forebears. They were solidly middle class and could afford the luxury of having a photo taken, even around the turn of the century. There were plenty of preserved family images that fueled many conversations and sparked memories as we gathered the clan.

What was interesting to me is that some 110 years after this memorable portrait was taken, we also took many new photos so we could remember this reunion in the future.  With all the technological change that has happened since George and Kezia posed in all their ostrich-feather-accessorized finery, the basic format of a two-dimensional visual representation was still our chosen medium for capturing the moment.

We talk about media a lot here at MediaPost — enough that it’s included in the headline of the post you’re reading. I think it’s worth a quick nod of appreciation to media that have endured for more than a century. Books and photos both fall into this category. Great-Great Grandfather George might be a bit flustered if he was looking at a book on a Kindle or viewing the photo on an iPhone, but the format of the medium itself would not be that foreign to him. He would be able to figure it out.

What dictates longevity in media? I think we have an inherent love for media that are a good match for both our senses and our capacity to imagine. Books give us the cognitive room to imagine worlds that no CGI effect has yet been able to match. And a photograph is still the most convenient way to render permanent the fleeting images that chase across our visual cortex. This is all the more true when those images are comprised of the faces we love. Like books, photos also give our minds the room to fill in the blanks, remembering the stories that go with the static image.

Compare a photo to something like a video. We could easily have taken videos to capture the moment. All of has had a pretty good video camera in our pocket. But we didn’t. Why not?

Again, we have to look at intended purpose at the moment of future consumption. Videos are linear. They force their own narrative arc upon us. We have to allocate the time required to watch the video to its conclusion. But a photo is randomly accessed. Our senses consume it at their own pace and prerogative, free of the restraints of the medium itself. For things like communal memories at a family reunion, a photo is the right match. There are circumstances where a video would be a better fit. This wasn’t one of them.

Our Family – 2019

There is one thing about photos that will be different moving forward. They are now in the digital domain, which means they can be stored with no restraints on space. It also means that we can take advantage of appended metadata. For the sake of my descendants, I hope this makes the bond between the photo and the stories a little more durable than what we currently deal with. If we were lucky, we had a quick notation on the back of an old photo to clarify the whos, whens and wheres.

A few of my more archivally inclined cousins started talking about the future generations of our family. When they remember us, what media would they be using? Would they be looking at the many selfies and digital shots that were taken in 2019 and try to remember who was that person between Cousin Dave and Aunt Lorna? What would be the platform used to store the photos? What will be the equivalent of the family album in 2119? How will they be archiving their own memories?

I suspect that if I were there, I wouldn’t be that surprised at the medium of choice.

Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

The Dilemma of the Middle Aged Marketer

Today is my birthday. I still call myself middle-age, but truth be told, I passed being middle-aged some time ago. I would more accurately be called two/thirds-aged (hopefully).

 That’s not the only half-truth I’m hanging on to.

When new people I meet ask me my profession, I like to say I’m a “reformed marketer.” In addition to being somewhat untruthful, I also realize now that this response is pretentious on many different levels.

First of all, it gives off this “holier than thou” vibe that’s a little off-putting.

Secondly, if I regret being a marketer so much, why am I still hanging on for dear life to that particular epithet? The people I’m being introduced to now often have no idea of my past. The fact that I once called marketing my career has no relevance to them. They could care less. I’m just saying it for effect.

That’s a little sad.

If I dig way down to the truth, I have to admit being a marketer defined me for most of my life. I loved influencing people. I adored my career. And I’m not ready to let that part of me go.

Calling myself a reformed marketer gives me the illusory comfort of still hanging on to something important to me, but holding it at arm’s length, like a disease I’ve recovered from. I’m trying to play both ends against the middle.

And thus comes the Middle Aged Marketer’s Dilemma. It hit me in my 40s.

In last week’s column, I started talking about “Why” vs the other 4 Ws: “Who, What, When and Where.” I have a love/hate relationship with “Why.” It was that damned “Why” that ushered in the Dilemma.

As I said, I loved “What” I did as a marketer. It was endlessly challenging and fascinating. And if you love “What” enough, you don’t really care so much about “When” and “Where.” You’ll work ridiculously long hours in whatever location your career takes you.

I even came to terms with “Who.” I loved most of my clients. The few I didn’t, I managed to either cut loose or build a big enough buffer so that they didn’t make my life too miserable for too long. Those 4 Ws allowed me to carve out a pretty fantastic life for myself.

But then came along that damned “Why.” It was innocent at first. My “whys” had a limited and very applied scope. They were specific to the work I did for my clients. They allowed me to add another dimension to the market research we were doing for others. The more I asked “why,” the more I wanted to learn about how people ticked. I loved “what” I was doing even more.

Then my “why” flipped on me and went for the jugular. It has a habit of doing that. I made the mistake of asking myself why I was doing what I did for a living.

It’s a tough question. I don’t think many of us want to go gentle into that good night without having sussed for ourselves a pretty good reason why we have lived our lives.  And when middle-aged marketers asks themselves “why,” a satisfying answer does not immediately spring to mind.

“So I could help profit-obsessed companies sell more shit to people who don’t need it” is not exactly a sterling argument for canonization.

And yes, I did just toss everything about marketing into the same over-generalized bucket. Quibble if you will. I know there are exceptions. If you navel-gaze long enough, you’re sure to find them. But I’ll stand by my struggle with “why,” if you can stand by yours.

Today, I’m still struggling with the Dilemma. The fact that I’m still writing this column week after week speaks to my inability to let the past go. I remain totally in love with the “what” of marketing, but have ethical issues with the “why.”

I do believe marketing is built upon the questionable edifice of consumerism — and I’m not sure there’s a lot of moral high ground we can lay claim to.We work (or, in my case, did work) in an industry that depends on humans having baser instincts.

The Inevitability of the Pendulum Effect

In the real world, things never go in straight lines or predictable curves. The things we call trends are actually a saw tooth profile of change, reaction and upheaval. If you trace the path, you’ll see evidence of the Law of the Pendulum.

In the physical world, the Law is defined as: “the movement in one direction that causes an equal movement in a different direction.

In the world of human behavior, it’s defined as: “the theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

Politically and socially, we’re in the middle of a swing to the right. But this will be countered inevitably with a swing to the left. We could call it Newton’s Third Law of Social Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Except that’s not exactly true. If it were, the swings would cancel each other out and we’d end in the same place we started from. And we know that’s not the case. Let me give you one example that struck me recently.

This past week, I visited a local branch of my bank. The entire staff were wearing Pride T-shirts in support of their employer’s corporate sponsorship of Pride Week. That is not really a cause for surprise in our world of 2019. No one batted an eye. But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s parsecs removed from the world I grew up in, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I won’t jump into the debate of the authenticity of corporate political correctness, but there’s no denying that when it comes to sexual preference, the world is a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago. The pendulum has swung back and forth, but the net effect has been towards – to use Steven Pinker’s term – the better angels of our nature.

When talking about the Pendulum Effect, we also have to keep an eye on Overton’s Window. This was something I talked about in a previous column some time ago. Overton’s window defines the frame of what the majority of us – as a society – find acceptable. As the pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, somewhere in the middle is a collective view that most of us can live with. But Overton’s window is always moving. And I believe that the window today frames a view of a more tolerant, more empathetic world than the world of 50 years ago – or almost any time in our past. That’s true every day. Lately, it might not even be true most days. But this is probably a temporary thing. The pendulum will swing back eventually, and we’ll be in a better place.

My question is: why? Why – when we even out the swings – are we becoming better people? So far, this column has little to do with media, digital or otherwise. But I think the variable here is information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said “Information wants to be free.” But I think information also wants to set us free – free from the limitations of our gene bound prejudice and pettiness. Where ever you find the pendulum swinging backwards, you’ll find a dearth of information. We need information to be thoughtful. And we need thoughtfulness to create a more just, more tolerant, more empathetic society.

We – in our industry – deal with information as our stock in trade. It is our job to ensure that information spreads as far as possible. It’s the one thing that will ensure that the pendulum swings in the right direction. Eventually. 

Data does NOT Equal People

We marketers love data. We treat it like a holy grail: a thing to be worshipped. But we’re praying at the wrong altar. Or, at the very least, we’re praying at a misleading altar.

Data is the digital residue of behavior. It is the contrails of customer intent — a thin, wispy proxy for the rich bandwidth of the real world. It does have a purpose, but it should be just one tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, we tend to use it as a Swiss army knife, thinking it’s the only tool we need.

The problem is that data is seductive. It’s pliable and reliable, luring us into manipulation because it’s so easy to do. It can be twisted and molded with algorithms and spreadsheets.

But it’s also sterile. There is a reason people don’t fit nicely into spreadsheets. There are simply not enough dimensions and nuances to accommodate real human behavior.

Data is great for answering the questions “what,” “who,” “when” and “where.” But they are all glimpses of what has happened. Stopping here is like navigating through the rear-view mirror.

Data seldom yields the answer to “why.” But it’s why that makes the magic happen, that gives us an empathetic understanding that helps us reliably predict future behaviors.

Uncovering the what, who, when and where makes us good marketers. But it’s “why” that makes us great. It’s knowing why that allows us to connect the distal dots, hacking out the hypotheses that can take us forward in the leaps required by truly great marketing. As Tom Goodwin, the author of “Digital Darwinism,” said in a recent post, “What digital has done well is have enough of a data trail to claim, not create, success.”

We as marketers have to resist stopping at the data. We have to keep pursuing why.

Here’s one example from my own experience. Some years ago, my agency did an eye-tracking study that looked at gender differences in how we navigate websites.

For me, the most interesting finding to fall out of the data was that females spent a lot more time than males looking at a website’s “hero” shot, especially if it was a picture that had faces in it. Males quickly scanned the picture, but then immediately moved their eyes up to the navigation menu and started scanning the options there. Females lingered on the graphic and then moved on to scan text immediately adjacent to it.

Now, I could have stopped at “who” and “what,” which in itself would have been a pretty interesting finding. But I wanted to know “why.” And that’s where things started to get messy.

To start to understand why, you have to rely on feelings and intuition. You also have to accept that you probably won’t arrive at a definitive answer. “Why” lives in the realm of “wicked” problems, which I defined in a previous column as “questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough – for now.’”

The answer to why males scan a website differently than females is buried in a maze of evolutionary biology, social norms and cognitive heuristics. It probably has something to do with wayfinding strategies and hardwired biases. It won’t just “fall out” of data because it’s not in the data to begin with.

Even half-right “why” answers often take months or even years of diligent pursuit to reveal themselves. Given that, I understand why it’s easier to just focus on the data. It will get you to “good,” and maybe that’s enough.

Unless, of course, you’re aiming to “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs said in an inspirational commencement speech at Stanford University. Then you have to shoot for great.