How Vision and Strategy Can Kill a Marketer’s Job Security

“Apparently, marketers today are losing confidence in their ability to meet key goals, like reaching the right customers with their marketing efforts, or being able to understand or evaluate the ROI of their marketing plans.”

Dave Morgan – Why Are Marketing Losing Confidence in Their Ability to Do Their Jobs?

“I think marketing is going to be getting much, much easier over the next couple of years.”

Cory Treffiletti – CMOs’ Vision Crucial to their Success

A couple of weeks ago, my fellow Spinners offered these two seemingly contradictory prognoses of the future of marketing. The contradiction, I believe, is in the conflation of the ideas of media buying and marketing. Yes, media buying is going to get easier (or, at least, more automated). And I agree with Cory’s prediction of consolidation in the industry. But that doesn’t do much to ease the crisis of confidence mentioned by Dave Morgan. That’s still very real.

The problem here is one of complexity. Markets are now complex. Actually, they’ve always been complex, but now they’re even more complex and we marketers can no longer pretend that they’re otherwise. When things get complex, our ability to predict outcomes takes a nosedive.

At the same time, an avalanche of available data makes marketers more accountable than ever. This data, along with faster, smarter machines, offers the promise of predictability, but it’s a dangerous illusion. If anything, the data and AI is just revealing more of the complexity that lurks within those markets.

And here is the crux of the dilemma that lives between the two quotes above. Yes, marketing is becoming more powerful, but the markets themselves are becoming more unpredictable. And marketers are squarely caught on the horns of that dilemma. We sign on to deliver results and when those results are no longer predictable, we feel our job security rapidly slipping away.

Cory Treffiletti talks about vision – which also goes by the name of strategy. It sounds good, but here’s the potential problem with that. In massively complex environments, strategy in the wrong hands can become a liability. It leads to an illusion of control, which is part of a largely disproven and outdated corporate mindset. You can blindly follow a strategy right into a dead end because strategies depend on beliefs and beliefs can dramatically alter your perception of what’s real. No one can control a complex environment. The best you can do is monitor and react to that environment. Of course, those two things can – and should – become a strategy in and of themselves.

Strategy is not dead. It can still make a difference. But it needs to be balanced with two other “S’s” – Sense making and Synthesis. These are the things that make a difference in a world of complexity.

You have to make sense of the market. And this is more difficult than it sounds. This is where the “Strategy” paradox can creep up and kill you. If your “Vision” – to use Cory Treffiletti’s term – becomes more important to you than reality, you’ll simply look for things that confirm that vision and plunge ahead, unaware of the true situation. You’ll ignore the cues that are telling you a change of direction may be required. The Sense Making cycle starts with a “frame” of the world (a.k.a. “Vision”) and then looks for external data to either confirm and elaborate or refute that frame/vision. But the data we collect and the way we analyze that data depends on the frame we begin with. Belief tends to make this process a self-reinforcing loop that often leads to disaster. The stronger the “vision,” the greater the tendency for us to delude ourselves.

sensemaking2

Sensemaking: Klein, Moon and Hoffman

If you can remain objective as possible during the sense making cycle you then end up with a reasonably accurate “frame” of your market. This is when the Synthesis part of the equation takes over. Here, you look at your strategy and see how it lines up with the market. You look for new opportunities and threats. Knowing the market is unpredictable, you take the advice of Antifragile author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, minimizing your downside and maximizing your upside. You pull this together into a new iteration of strategy and execute like hell against it. Then you start all over again.

By going through this cycle, you’ll find that you create a wave-like approach to strategy, oscillating through phases of sense making, synthesis and strategic execution. The behavior and mindsets required in each of these phases are significantly – and often diametrically – different. It’s a tough act to pull off.

No wonder marketers are having a tough time right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Comes After Generation Z?

We’re running out of alphabet.

The latest generation is Generation Z. They were born between 1995 and 2012 – according to one demographic primer. So, what do we call the generation born from 2013 on? Z+One? Do we go with an Excel naming scheme and call it Generation AA? Or should we just go back to all those unused letters of the alphabet. After all, we haven’t touched A to W yet. Thinking along those lines, Australian social researcher and author Mark McCrindle is lobbying for Generation Alpha. It’s a nice twist – we get to recycle the alphabet and give it a Greek flavor all at the same time.

Maybe the reason we short-sightedly started with the last three letters of the alphabet is that we’re pretty new at this. Before the twentieth century, we didn’t worry much about labeling every generation. And, to be honest, much of that labeling has happened retroactively. The Silent Generation (1925 – 1942) didn’t call themselves that right off that bat. Being Silent, they didn’t call themselves anything. The label wasn’t coined until 1951. And the G.I. Generation, who preceded them ((1901 – 1924), didn’t receive their label until demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe affixed it in 1991.

But starting around the middle of the last century, we developed the need to pigeonhole our cohorts. Maybe it’s because things started moving so quickly about that time. In the first half of the century we had the twin demographical tent poles of the two World Wars. In between we had the Great Depression. After WWII we had the mother of all generational events: the Baby Boom. Each of these eras brought a very different environment, which would naturally affect those growing up in them. Since then, we’ve been scrambling madly to keep up with appropriate labels for each generation.

The standard approach up to now has been to wait for someone to write a book about a generation, which bestows the label, and then we all jump on the bandwagon. But this seems reactive and short sighted. It also means that we get caught in our current situation, where we have a generation that remains unnamed while we’re waiting for the book to be written.

We seem hooked on these generation labels. I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere any time soon. Based on our current fascination with Millennials, we in the media are going to continue to lump every single sociological and technological trend into convenient generationally labeled behavioral buckets. So we should give this naming thing some thought.

Maybe we could take a page from the World Meteorological Organization’s book when it comes to naming hurricanes and tropical storms. They started doing this so the media would have a quick and commonly understood reference point when referring to a particular meteorological event. Don’t generations deserve the same foresight?

The World Meteorological Organization has a strict procedure: “For Atlantic hurricanes, there is a list of male and female names which are used on a six-year rotation. The only time that there is a change is if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate. In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in a season, any additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.”

I like the idea of using male and female names. This got me thinking. Maybe we combine the WMO’s approach and that of the wisdom of crowds. Perhaps the male and female names should be the most popular baby names of that generation. In case you’re wondering, here’s how that would work out:

Silent Generation (1925 – 1942): The Robert and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers I (1946 – 1954): The James and Mary Generation
Baby Boomers II (1955 – 1965): The Michael and Lisa Generation
Generation X (1966 – 1976): The Michael and Jennifer Generation
Millennials (1977 – 1994): The Michael and Jessica Generation
Generation Z (1995 – 2012): The Jacob and Emily Generation
Generation ??? (2013 – Today) – The Emma and Noah Generation

The sharp sighted amongst you will have noticed two problems with this. First, some names are stubbornly popular (I’m talking about you Michael and Mary) and span multiple generations. Secondly, this is a very US-Centric approach. Maybe we need to mix it up globally. For instance, if we tap into the naming zeitgeist of South Korea, that would make the current generation the Seo-yeon and Min-jun Generation.

Of course, all this could be needless worrying. Perhaps those that affixed the Generation Z label knew something we didn’t.

The Rise of the Audience Marketplace

Far be it from me to let a theme go before it has been thoroughly beaten to the ground. This column has hosted a lot of speculation on the future of advertising and media buying and today, I’ll continue in that theme.

First, let’s return to a column I wrote almost a month ago about the future of advertising. This was a spin-off on a column penned by Gary Milner – The End of Advertising as We Know It. In it, Gary made a prediction: “I see the rise of a global media hub, like a stock exchange, which will become responsible for transacting all digital programmatic buys.”

Gary talked about the possible reversal of fragmentation of markets by channel and geographic area due to the potential centralization of digital media purchasing. But I see it a little differently than Gary. I don’t see the creation of a media hub – or, at least – that wouldn’t be the end goal. Media would simply be the means to the end. I do see the creation of an audience market based on available data. Actually, even an audience would only be the means to an end. Ultimately, we’re buying one thing – attention. Then it’s our job to create engagement.

The Advertising Research Foundation has been struggling with measuring engagement for a long time now. But it’s because they were trying to measure engagement on a channel-by-channel basis and that’s just not how the world works anymore. Take search, for example. Search is highly effective at advertising, but it’s not engaging. It’s a connecting medium. It enables engagement, but it doesn’t deliver it.

We talk multi-channel a lot, but we talk about it like the holy grail. The grail in this cause is an audience that is likely to give us their attention and once they do that – is likely to become engaged with our message. The multi-channel path to this audience is really inconsequential. We only talk about multi-channel now because we’re stopping short of the real goal, connecting with that audience. What advertising needs to do is give us accurate indicators of those two likelihoods: how likely are they to give us their attention and what is their potential proclivity towards our offer. The future of advertising is in assembling audiences – no matter what the channel – that are at a point where they are interested in the message we have to deliver.

This is where the digitization of media becomes interesting. It’s not because it’s aggregating into a single potential buying point – it’s because it’s allowing us to parallel a single prospect along a path of persuasion, getting important feedback data along the way. In this definition, audience isn’t a static snapshot in time. It becomes an evolving, iterative entity. We have always looked at advertising on an exposure-by-exposure basis. But if we start thinking about persuading an audience that paradigm needs to be shifted. We have to think about having the right conversation, regardless of the channel that happens to be in use at the time.

Our concept of media happens to carry a lot of baggage. In our minds, media is inextricably linked to channel. So when we think media, we are really thinking channels. And, if we believe Marshall McLuhan, the medium dictates the message. But while media has undergone intense fragmentation they’ve also become much more measurable and – thereby – more accountable. We know more than ever about who lies on the other side of a digital medium thanks to an ever increasing amount of shared data. That data is what will drive the advertising marketplace of the future. It’s not about media – it’s about audience.

In the market I envision, you would specify your audience requirements. The criteria used would not be so much our typical segmentations – demography or geography for example. These have always just been proxies for what we really care about; their beliefs about our product and predicted buying behaviors. I believe that thanks to ever increasing amounts of data we’re going to make great strides in understanding the psychology of consumerism. These  will be foundational in the audience marketplace of the future. Predictive marketing will become more and more accurate and allow for increasingly precise targeting on a number of behavioral criteria.

Individual channels will become as irrelevant as the manufacturer that supplies the shock absorbers and tie rods in your new BMW. They will simply be grist for the mill in the audience marketplace. Mar-tech and ever smarter algorithms will do the channel selection and media buying in the background. All you’ll care about is the audience you’re targeting, the recommended creative (again, based on the mar-tech running in the background) and the resulting behaviors. Once your audience has been targeted and engaged, the predicted path of persuasion is continually updated and new channels are engaged as required. You won’t care what channels they are – you’ll simply monitor the progression of persuasion.

 

NBC’s Grip on Olympic Gold Slipping

When it comes to benchmarking stuff, nothing holds a candle to the quadrennial sports-statzapooloza we call the Summer Olympics. After 3 years, 11 months and 13 days of not giving a crap about sports like team pursuit cycling or half heavyweight judo, we suddenly get into fist fights over 3 one hundredths of a second or an unawarded Yuko.

But it’s not just sports that are thrown into comparative focus by the Olympic games. It also provides a chance to take a snap shot of media consumption trends. The Olympics is probably the biggest show on earth. With the possible exception of the World Cup, it’s the time when the highest number of people on the planet are all watching the same thing at the same time. This makes it advertising nirvana.

Or it should.

Over the past few Olympics, the way we watch various events has been changing because of the nature of the Games themselves. There are 306 separate events in 35 recognized sports that are spread over 16 days of competition. The Olympics play to a global audience, which means that coverage has to span 24 time zones. At any given time, on any given day, there could be 6 or 7 events running simultaneously. In fact, as I’m writing this, diving, volleyball, men’s omnium cycling, Greco-Roman wresting, badminton, field hockey and boxing are all happening at the same time.

This creates a challenge for network TV coverage. The Olympics are hardly a one-size-fits-all spectacle. So, if you’re NBC and you’ve shelled out 1.6 billion dollars to provide coverage, you have a dilemma: how do you assemble the largest possible audience to show all those really expensive ads to? How do you keep all those advertisers happy?

NBC’s answer, it seems, is to repackage the Olympics as a scripted mini-series. It means throttling down real time streaming or live broadcast coverage on some of the big events so these can be assembled into packaged stories during their primetime coverage. NBC’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, was recently quoted as saying, “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

So, how is this working out for NBC? Not so well, as it turns out.

Ratings are down, with NBC posting the lowest primetime numbers since 1992. The network has come under heavy fire for what is quite possibly the worst Olympic coverage in the history of the games. Let’s ignore for a moment their myopic focus on US contestants and a handful of superstars like Usain Bolt (which may not be irritating unless you’re a international viewer like myself). Their heavy-handed attempt to control and script the fragmented and emergent drama of any Olympic games has stumbled out of the blocks and fallen flat on its face.

I would categorize this as a “RTU/WTF” The first three letters stand for “Research tells us…” I think you can figure out the last three. I’m sure NBC did their research to figure out what they thought the audience really wanted in Olympics game coverage. I’m positive there was a focus group somewhere that told the network what they wanted to hear; “Screw real time results. What we really want is for you to tell us – with swelling music, extreme close ups and completely irrelevant vignettes– the human drama that lies behind the medals…” And, in the collective minds of NBC executives, they quickly added, “…with a zillion commercial breaks and sponsorship messages.”

But it appears that this isn’t what we want. It’s not even close. We want to see the sports we’re interested in, on our device of choice and at the time that best suits us.

This, in a nutshell, is the disruption that is broadsiding the advertising industry at full ramming speed. It was exactly what I was talking about in my last column. NBC may have been able to play their game when they were our only source of information and we were held captive by this scarcity. But over the past 3 Olympic games, starting in Athens in 2004, technology has essentially erased that scarcity. The reality no longer fits NBC’s strategy. Coverage of the Olympics is now a multi-channel affair. What we’re looking for is a way to filter the coverage based on what is most interesting to us, not to be spoon-fed the coverage that NBC feels has the highest revenue potential.

It’s a different world, NBC. If you’re planning to compete in Tokyo, you’d better change your game plan, because you’re still playing like it’s 1996.

 

 

 

Happiness as a Corporate Metric

Costa Rica is the happiest place on earth. The least happy place on earth? That would be Botswana.

At least, those are the results according to by the things measured by the Happy Planet Index. The index is a measure of three factors, life expectancy, Experienced Well Being and Ecological Footprint. Western nations tend to do very well on the first two measures, but suck at the third. The index is looking for balance – being happy without raping and pillaging the earth. Here in North America, we still have a ways to go in that department.

In another study – the 2015 UN’s World Happiness Report – a different weighting of factors treated the western world a little better. When we tip the balance towards individual happiness and away from the environment and sustainability; Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada topped the rankings. Apparently, snow is good for the soul. At the bottom of the list were Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi (it’s hard to believe anywhere scored worse than Syria – mental note: stroke Burundi off my travel bucket list).

Jigme-Singye-Wangchuck

The 4th King of Bhutan: Jigme Singye Wangchuck

In 1971, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was so enamored with the idea of happiness as a goal that he introduced a new measure of a nation’s worth: Gross National Happiness. He believed that the western world’s obsession with materialism represented by Gross National Product shouldn’t be the sole measure of progress. Things like sustainable development, care for the environment, good governance and preservation of culture deserved to be measured as well. In the 45 years since the idea of Gross National Happiness was first floated by his Royal Dragonship, it’s been slow to take, but perhaps it’s time has come. By the way, in the UN survey, Bhutan was in the middle of the pack for happiness, ranking 84th out of 157 countries.

Happiness should be important with companies as well. There’s even an investment fund that invests exclusively in companies with happy employees. But happiness can be an elusive goal, especially when we try to wrestle it to the ground in the way of a hard performance metric in a corporate environment. What exactly are we measuring when we measure happiness? And who’s happiness are we measuring? Our customers? Our shareholders? Our employees? All of the above?

Let’s single out employees. Companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have tried to make employee happiness a metric that matters. But what makes an employee happy? Perhaps we can find a clue in a recent survey from Ypulse that asked Millennials which companies they’d most like to work at. The top 10 answers were:

  1. Google
  2. Apple
  3. Disney
  4. Non-profit/charity
  5. School/community/university
  6. Hospital
  7. U.S. government
  8. Myself/my own company
  9. Amazon
  10. FBI/CIA

It’s an interesting list. It’s not the list you’d expect from a generation that simply wants to get rich quick. You don’t work at a hospital or the FBI if you want to make big bucks. This is a list that comes from people who want to make a difference. They want meaning. In the words of Steve Jobs, they “want to put a ding in the universe.”

I get that. I recently discovered just how hard happiness is to pin down. After selling my company, I was fortunate enough to achieve financial independence and retire at 51. I should have been deliriously happy, right? Well, I wasn’t suicidal by any means, but I would say my level of happiness actually decreased after I tried retirement. I was at the other end of my career path from Millennials, but meaning remained just as important to me.

In a study of retirement satisfaction published in the Journal of Financial Counselling and Planning, Sarah Arsebedo and Martin Seay found that psychologist Martin Seligman’s positive psychological attributes, referred to as PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, [Family] Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) – don’t go away when we retire. These things are necessary to happiness. For men in particular – and increasingly so with women – we rely on our jobs to provide many of these. This was certainly true for me.

It’s good we’re paying more attention to happiness. But it’s also important that we understand what we’re talking about when we refer to happiness. It has little to do with monetary measures of success. Whether we’re talking nations, corporations or employees, it turns out that happiness means a sense of interconnectedness, contribution and personal values. It means living beyond ourselves and leaving some footprint that won’t fade when we no longer walk this earth.

Ultimately, it means doing stuff that matters.

 

Ex Machina’s Script for Our Future

One of the more interesting movies I’ve watched in the past year has been Ex Machina. Unlike the abysmally disappointing Transcendence (how can you screw up Kurzweil – for God’s sake), Ex Machina is a tightly directed, frighteningly claustrophobic sci-fi thriller that peels back the moral layers of artificial intelligence one by one.

If you haven’t seen it, do so. But until you do, here’s the basic set up. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at a huge Internet search company called Blue Book (think Google). He wins a contest where the prize is a week spent with the CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at his private retreat. Bateman’s character is best described as Larry Page meets Steve Jobs meets Larry Ellison meets Charlie Sheen – brilliant as hell but one messed up dude. It soon becomes apparent that the contest is a ruse and Smith is there to play the human in an elaborate Turing Test to determine if the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is capable of consciousness.

About half way through the movie, Bateman confesses to Smith the source of Ava’s intelligence “software.” It came from Blue Book’s own search data:

‘It was the weird thing about search engines. They were like striking oil in a world that hadn’t invented internal combustion. They gave too much raw material. No one knew what to do with it. My competitors were fixated on sucking it up, and trying to monetize via shopping and social media. They thought engines were a map of what people were thinking. But actually, they were a map of how people were thinking. Impulse, response. Fluid, imperfect. Patterned, chaotic.”

As a search behaviour guy – that sounded like more fact than fiction. I’ve always thought search data could reveal much about how we think. That’s why John Motavalli’s recent column, Google Looks Into Your Brain And Figures You Out, caught my eye. Here, it seemed, fiction was indeed becoming fact. And that fact is, when we use one source for a significant chunk of our online lives, we give that source the ability to capture a representative view of our related thinking. Google and our searching behaviors or Facebook and our social behaviors both come immediately to mind.

Motavalli’s reference to Dan Ariely’s post about micro-moments is just one example of how Google can peak under the hood of our noggins and start to suss out what’s happening in there. What makes this either interesting or scary as hell, depending on your philosophic bent, is that Ariely’s area of study is not our logical, carefully processed thoughts but our subconscious, irrational behaviors. And when we’re talking artificial intelligence, it’s that murky underbelly of cognition that is the toughest nut to crack.

I think Ex Machina’s writer/director Alex Garland may have tapped something fundamental in the little bit of dialogue quoted above. If the data we willingly give up in return for online functionality provides a blue print for understanding human thought, that’s a big deal. A very big deal. Ariely’s blog post talks about how a better understanding of micro-moments can lead to better ad targeting. To me, that’s kind of like using your new Maserati to drive across the street and visit your neighbor – it seems a total waste of horsepower. I’m sure there are higher things we can aspire to than figuring out a better way to deliver a hotels.com ad. Both Google and Facebook are full of really smart people. I’m pretty sure someone there is capable of connecting the dots between true artificial intelligence and their own brand of world domination.

At the very least, they could probably whip up a really sexy robot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Marketers Love Malcolm Gladwell … and Why They Shouldn’t

Marketers love Malcolm Gladwell. They love his pithy, reductionist approach to popular science – his tendency to sacrifice verity for the sake of a good “Just-so” story. And in doing this, what is Malcolm Gladwell but a marketer at heart? No wonder our industry is ga-ga over him. We love anyone who can oversimplify complexity down to the point where it can be appropriated as yet another marketing “angle”.

Take the entire influencer advertising business, for instance. Earlier this year, I saw an article saying more and more brands are expanding their influencer marketing programs. We are desperately searching for that holy nexus where social media and those super-connected “mavens” meet. While the idea of influencer marketing has been around for a while, it really gained steam with the release of Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” And that head of steam seems to have been building since the release of the book in 2000.

As others have pointed out, Gladwell has made a habit of taking one narrow perspective that promises to “play well” with the masses, supporting it with just enough science to make it seem plausible and then enshrining it as a “Law.”

Take “The Law of the Few”, for instance, from The Tipping Point: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” You could literally hear the millions of ears attached to marketing heads “perk up” when they heard this. “All we have to do,” the reasoning went, “is reach these people, plant a favorable opinion of our product and give them the tools to spread the word. Then we just sit back and wait for the inevitable epidemic to sweep us to new heights of profitability.”

Certainly commercial viral cascades do happen. They happen all the time. And, in hindsight, if you look long and hard enough, you’ll probably find what appears to be a “maven” near ground-zero. From this perspective, Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” seems to hold water. But that’s exactly the type of seductive reasoning that makes “Just So” stories so misleading. You mistakenly believe that because it happened once, you can predict when it’s going to happen again. Gladwell’s indiscriminate use of the term “Law” contributes to this common deceit. A law is something that is universally applicable and constant. When a law governs something, it plays out the same way, every time. And this is certainly not the case in social epidemics.

duncan-watts

Duncan Watts

If Malcolm Gladwell’s books have become marketing and pop-culture bibles, the same, sadly, cannot be said for Duncan Watts’ books. I’m guessing almost everyone reading this column has heard of Malcolm Gladwell. I further guess that almost none of you have heard of Duncan Watts. And that’s a shame. But it’s completely understandable.

Duncan Watts describes his work as determining the “role that network structure plays in determining or constraining system behavior, focusing on a few broad problem areas in social science such as information contagion, financial risk management, and organizational design.”

You started nodding off halfway through that sentence, didn’t you?

As Watts shows in his books, “Firms spent great effort trying to find “connectors” and “mavens” and to buy the influence of the biggest influencers, even though there was never causal evidence that this would work.” But the work required to get to this point is not trivial. While he certainly aims at a broad audience, Watts does not read like Gladwell. His answers are not self-evident. There is no pithy “bon mot” that causes our neural tumblers to satisfyingly click into place. Watts’ explanations are complex, counter-intuitive, occasionally ambiguous and often non-conclusive – just like the world around us. As he explains his book “Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer”, it’s easy to look backwards to find causality. But it’s not always right.

Marketers love simplicity. We love laws. We love predictability. That’s why we love Gladwell. But in following this path of least resistance, we’re straying further and further from the real world.