Smart marketing: A guide to change that matters

7 minute read

It’s easy to be delirious about change, especially if you work in marketing. We witness almost endless thought leadership about the accelerating pace of change, and we’re told everything is different now. On a calm day, we’ll hear that millennials don’t want to buy stuff anymore, that media is fragmenting fast, that TV and brands are dying. It’s not unusual to see a Lunascape that includes 5,000 marketing technology firms or to be told Alexa will change everything. All this without even getting into Blockchain, quantum computing or the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence.

The beauty of my role as Head of Innovation at Zenith Media is that I get to travel. And, while it’s nice to see markets in Mumbai, car dealerships in Seattle, farming in Tuscany and restaurants in Auckland or Shenzhen, what’s important to me is I get to be up in the air. That’s where I escape Wi-Fi and find perspective. I am able to see change in context, both at home and away. I have the luxury of working out which changes actually matter and – most importantly – what should stay the same. And I get to assess what all this means in the relatable terms of everyday life. I get paid to make things simpler, not to stir up a panic and get people to invest in a solution for the sake of it. My role is to both reassure and provoke, not whip up a frenzy.

Does technology truly lead to progress?

I find it best to view change in the context of the past. The first steam engines didn’t replace the waterwheels that powered factories. Instead they pumped water to power the very same wheels. The first radio shows read from newspapers. The first TV shows were live action plays with TV cameras pointed at them. Likewise, in our digital behaviour, we’re replicating old models when we introduce new technology. We may augment them with some innovative garnish and invent new business models, processes and products around them but, fundamentally, they remain rooted in the past. Not convinced? Why do we still have to print out most ‘e-tickets’? How come your passport stores biometric data in a paper book?

Early-stage internet

In the early 2000s our focus was largely on the desktop. First we saw the internet as a channel for written content, before visual content also became popular. Its presence didn’t expand media time as a whole, and we didn’t see TV use decline. Instead, the internet cannibalized time with newspapers and, to a lesser extent, radio. While we may think this era created Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia, our lives didn’t really change that much. E-commerce grew steadily, but we saw few dramatic changes in how we lived most aspects of our lives.

The life-altering changes brought on by the internet

The greatest shifts happened between 2006 and 2011. The smartphone turned every spare moment into a time to consume media, and no cup of coffee was left unphotographed. We started sharing moments, locations, thoughts – changing the meaning of being social and in touch. The mobile phone didn’t so much eat other media, but grow the pie.

Apps proliferated – from listening to music anywhere, to tracking friends and paying for meals. We witnessed the birth of Snapchat, Uber, Airbnb, Tinder, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, WhatsApp and Kickstarter. These companies changed how we behaved, and what we expect of them. They influenced business models and led to the disappearance of many incumbent companies. The Nest thermostat ushered in the smart home. Now we think about devices not as products but systems that learn our habits and adjust accordingly. The iPad encouraged us to think less of media channels, and more of black rectangles that serve us content.

3G brought us speed, and more of us became smartphone users. Both led to massive increases in e-commerce – and spontaneity. HotelTonight and Google Flights made last-minute travel plans simple. Yet simplicity, speed and responsiveness created consumers that are demanding, impatient and unforgiving. If Spotify allows me to listen to all the music ever created, why can’t I watch the TV I love when I’m in London?

Are dramatic marketing strategy changes coming?

The last six or so years have seen remarkably little change. Of course, Teslas got more popular, we spent even more time on our phones, newspapers successfully introduced paywalls, Amazon stocked more products. Iteration and incremental improvements, but few paradigm shifts. Casper, Allbirds, Away luggage and Bonobos started off with simple, online product offerings before opening stores. Not revolutionary, but a new twist on last-century direct retailing. Birchbox and Blue Apron introduced us to subscription commerce. Again, not life-changing, but augmenting how we cook or the way we discover new things.

"We keep assuming what's new is better and what's old doesn't work."

If we are honest with ourselves, most of the western world remains surprisingly unchanged. My wallet contains the exact same cards and IDs it did in 2004. I don’t use my face to enter buildings or pay for goods. My TV set still wants me to browse by TV channel and time. Remarkably, my local grocery store, clothing outlets and car dealerships are much the same. Most of all, there’s really nothing substantively new in advertising and marketing. We’ve merely bolted digital or social specs onto the same production process.

Rethinking marketing and how we do business

The biggest changes have come from companies who are truly rethinking business. Seamless or Deliveroo have offered sensible ways for takeaway food joints and restaurants to sell their food via an app. The next stage is to rethink the industry, and use the virtual branding of Dark Kitchens (also known as ghost restaurants) to serve up a model and premises built for purpose. Lemonade Insurance isn’t just a nice new app that allows you to buy home insurance, it’s a complete rethinking of the pricing process and the claims flow oriented around behavioral economics, AI and your phone’s camera. We see Starbucks, Burger King and McDonalds reimagining their locations around mobile ordering and pickup, as well as offering digital kiosks.

The need for innovative marketing today

In the world of marketing and advertising we’ve altered traditional forms of advertising – added components to suit the digital realm, but we’ve done remarkably little rethinking.

Do physical retailers today look remarkably different from pre-internet retailers? They may have staff with iPads or a buy-online-pick-up-in-store program, but has the experience been rethought? We can now sell CPG products on the internet, but aren’t we photographing the same products and stacking them on digital shelves? We’ve taken TV ads and stuck them on YouTube, taken newspaper banner ads and put them on mobile phones. We’ve not created a single new ad unit since the 60s.

We’ve become obsessed with what you can measure most easily. We believe that unless you click on an ad it’s a waste of time. We’ve become obsessed with technology and targeting, and stopped dreaming big with ideas. We favour spending money on the ads closest to purchase, because they show the clearest attribution, not because they necessarily work better.

We keep assuming what’s new is better and what’s old doesn’t work. We’ve become obsessed with plausible deniability, and risk not using the power of novelty to make wonderful new things possible.

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An amazing new world for marketing experts

Much like oil paint tubes allowed the impressionist art movement to form, and the invention of elevators was the birth of skyscrapers, technology is the most empowering and liberating force for change. Here are some ways to embrace it:

Scale your business with B2C marketing experts

The rise of digitally native vertical brands is often seen as a threat, but they’re actually creating an amazing new playbook. For strong consumer brands, there has never been a better time to work with the plethora of companies that can help you sell direct to consumers and increase your margins. The marketplace is now packed with thin horizontal layers of expertise that make it easy to avoid areas where you lack experience. From logistics to payment layers, data providers to affiliate models, prototyping organizations to experts in expanding into new countries like China, it’s never been easier, less risky and faster to scale.

Share shoppable content

Shoppable content is any type that provides a direct purchasing opportunity and allows consumers to add products to their cart from an on-screen view. For years, we’ve assumed ads can either build brand equity or convert awareness, likeability and other brand metrics into action. Now rich, premium, well targeted ads on platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter allow brands to do both. The purchase funnel has become as simple as a swipe.

Connect with consumers through new screens

For so long, screens have gotten smaller and closer to us. The end point appears to be the mobile phone – the most personal and tactile screen the world has ever known – and the best place ever to advertise. Yet it seems likely that new screens will soon proliferate. From projected surfaces to smart mirrors, home hubs and car-based screens, we’re going to see a lot of black mirrors in more places. Connected to the internet, they’ll serve rich, real-time ads that can be personalized. A whole new canvas to explore. I hope we start out using gif-like premium images, instead of cutting down 60-second TV ads.

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Connect the online and offline world with your content

We need to start seeing the world less as online and offline, and more as the amalgamation of the two. How can we use image recognition or QR codes to bridge printed advertising or catalogues directly to e-commerce sites? How can every outdoor ad become a chance to interact – perhaps to search Airbnbs in the area, find places to go, look for flights home.

Optimize ads with insight

Programmatic has long been associated with remnant inventory and dubious pricing models, when it really means using software, data and code to find, buy, place and create ads more intelligently. We can now use data and real-time triggers to make ads that are either more relevant to the audience or the moment in time. Perhaps anti cold sore medications during the first cold snap, placement of Rolex ads on days the stock market soars, ads featuring local imagery or using news headlines. A lot will soon be possible. We’ve always used programmatic to buy audiences. Now we can use it to buy contexts as well as people. We can see how ads perform, then optimize in real time and serve units sequentially.

Use experiential marketing to connect with consumers

We’ll soon be able to see ourselves not as product makers but as experience creators. How can gyms become wellness centers designed around many aspects of modern health instead of places to use workout machines? How can banks move from places to keep money to financial gateways and the owner of payments, financial recommendations, budgeting, loyalty points, even keep copies of receipts for guarantees and price matching?

Parting thoughts

Not everything is changing, but we must rethink everything. Let’s avoid being dazzled by distractions or overly focused on technology and change. As Marshal McLuhan said, “First we shape our tools, then they shape us.” We have the best tools we’ve ever known, so we need to find a way to use them to reshape and reimagine what we do – leveraging the best of our online and offline worlds. Instead of waiting for change, we need to lead it. Think about how people exist and interact. That’s the key to reaching them. Be excited and curious about technology. But, more than anything, be obsessed with people – because customers are the people who matter most.

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Tom Goodwin
Tom Goodwin is EVP and Head of Innovation at Zenith Media. His role is to understand new technology, behaviours and platforms and ideate and implement solutions for clients. An industry provocateur and commentator, he’s a regular contributor to The Guardian, Inc, GQ, TechCrunch, Forbes, Ad Age, Ad Week and Digiday, and his work has featured in The New York Times, The Economist and The Times. Voted the #1 voice in Marketing by LinkedIn, and one of 30 people to follow on Twitter by Business Insider, Tom joined Zenith after founding Tomorrow, an agency to provide innovative advertising and marketing solutions for the post-digital age. He has an MEng in Structural Engineering and a BArch in Architecture from the University of Sheffield, U.K.Read more by Tom Goodwin