Festival Of Marketing 2016: The march of the machines
Technology has never been so present in our daily lives and in the practice of business. It is no surprise then that it has been an overwhelming presence in the talks, panels and company stands at the recent Festival Of Marketing 2016 (FOM16). As this festival progressed, I found my awe at the technological advances offered by machine learning and augmented intelligence being countered by a renewed concern that the technical wizardry that is automating so many aspects of modern marketing is also making us forget our real purpose as Marketing professionals. This blog post will address these concerns and review some of the highlights from the Festival. A second post (Part 2) will look at how a better use of technology can address some of these concerns with additional FOM16 highlights.
Festival Of Marketing: Dark social
The Festival started strongly with a headline speech from Keith Weed, Global Chief Marketing & Communications Officer of Unilever. He addressed both sides of the title of this article: the need for marketing departments to ingrain digital skills into their outlook and normal working practices (“tooling up”) and the need to build brands that are human and responsible (“brands with purpose”).
He also underlined what seems to be a growing trend amongst the world’s largest marketing companies – investing directly in marketing technology start-ups in order to gain new skills more quickly and match the speed with which consumers are adopting new ways of interacting with each other, with brands and with the purchase process. Almost as an aside he gave an interesting nod to a growing buzzword, “dark social” – the part of peer to peer communications that occur on platforms that are, so far, impervious to the reach of tracking and advertising such as Whatsapp. Dark social, in the words of Weed, represents what we would normally refer to as private conversations. Now that it is dark social, we already have market research companies and start-ups offering services to measure it.
Festival Of Marketing: Personalisation
This minor comment is a good introduction to an underlying theme that emerged throughout the day: how far and how intensive will the all pervasive reach of marketing tech become and does it have a positive effect on consumers and their perception of brands?
This question was addressed by a panel on the challenges of personalizing marketing with senior managers from Mondeléz, Accenture and the British Direct Marketing Association. The key theme revolved around how to offer personalized and relevant messages to people at specific moments, without causing rejection by overstepping the bounds of acceptable tracking and entering into the realm of “digital stalking”. Without explicitly recognising it, the panellists hit on two fundamental contradictions that are currently not well-addressed by the marketing profession and the marketing tech industry.
Firstly, in order to provide truly personalized and relevant marketing communications there is no other option than to digitally “stalk” people. The reason is simple. Being contextually relevant requires not only using behavioural data stored in cookies but also understanding why a particular person is performing a specific behaviour at a specific moment and through a specific channel. To do this, we need to cross various data sources (difficult) and recognize a particular buyer (potentially very intrusive). So either we stick with broader relevance across a target (not at all bad as a principle of marketing) or we cross the bounds into what people consider “creepy”.
Secondly, marketing continues to use technology in a very mechanical mindset. We focus on consumers and not people, pushing people through “sales funnels” and “customer journeys” rather than focussing on providing human value i.e. real value for people. A poignant example was given by the panel when talking about the trade-off people might be prepared to make in terms of giving their data willingly in a value exchange: the only “value” mentioned was price promotions. Is that really the best we can do? A huge investment in machine intelligence, data and automation just so that we can sell our products and services more cheaply?
Festival Of Marketing: Content marketing
Concerns over the effect of excessive automation were also addressed by James Dunne, Planning Director of Epsilon, in a very critical view of the current state of another buzzword of modern marketing – “content marketing”. Proliferation of channels and technology, accelerated by the automation of digital marketing, has led to an undeniable glut of irrelevant, mediocre marketing “content” inundating all channels. Something referred to by P&G’s Chief Brand Officer as “the crap trap”: a large proportion of the content selected by algorithms and served through programmatic media or other automated processes is not up to the standards that a marketer with a little professional pride and respect for her customers would wish to maintain. This has caused a totally predictable fall in “engagement” rates with the commercial communication we produce in all channels.
The previously mentioned sessions addressed these questions from an essentially technical perspective. A deeper perspective was provided late in the first day by well-known British philosopher Alain de Botton. His speech – “What Marketing can learn from Philosophy” – addressed the core issue of how business, and by extension Marketing, currently interprets “value”. He strongly criticized the fact that marketing uses higher level human needs (connection, freedom, self-esteem, etc.) to sell products that in fact only meet very basic human needs (food, transport, basic communication). In fact, we totally ignore those very same higher level needs in the tangible value that our products and services provide. In other words, we connect with people’s values at a higher level in order to sell them low value products and services. From de Botton’s perspective, this both explains the rising discontent with capitalism and indicates a vast expanse of latent opportunities for companies to provide value.
For an experienced marketing professional, this should give immediate cause for concern because it is nothing new. It is supposedly at the core of our profession and was very clearly expressed and built into practical frameworks in the 1980s by psychologists (Gutman et al) and brand specialists (van Franzen). The fact that we have either ignored it or have been unable to convince companies that this is what being “customer-centric” truly means, is an indictment of the value marketing has created for companies and their customers.
First, the code
The themes identified here were also repeated in the closing speeches from two authentic big names: Sir Martin Sorrell, President of WPP, the world’s largest marketing services group, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.
I will talk about more about Wozniak’s comments in part two of this blog because it was Martin Sorrell who reaffirmed the concerns mentioned here. Having underlined the oversupply of marketing services companies and the problems this leads to, he was very precise when asked what skills newcomers to the profession should develop: “Two languages – code and Chinese”. Clearly two very useful skills and undoubtedly these are two of the skills that his companies will be looking for. The fact that “code” comes first is also a reflection of current business reality and the tactical and transactional mindset that aids a de-humanised and transactional use of “tech”. No mention was made of value beyond economic value, nor of skills such as insight into human behaviour and needs. Let the machines march on.
Post written by Antony Poole, EADA International Master in Marketing director