Category: Strategy

Agile = legitimised panic

The ‘agile business’ is very much of the moment. Wherever you look you find consultants promoting it and business leaders adopting it (or at least exhorting their troops to become it). The need for agility is usually linked to the ‘rapid pace of technological change’ and that other concept du jour ‘disruption’ (the need to either avoid it or become it).

Here is a slightly disruptive thought. What if our obsession with agility is a present day manifestation of the fact that in the past, not enough organisations spent enough time thinking about the future?

Here is another one. Businesses don’t become successful by being disruptive, they become disruptive by being successful.

I wouldn’t disagree with the claim that we are living through a technological revolution, but we have had this thing called the internet for more than 20 years now. For sure, it has caused huge changes – but they have panned-out over that period of 20 years. Most of the fundamental forces that have shaped those changes have been apparent from the earliest times – if people chose to study them. The problem has been that many organisations have spent their time ignoring what has been going on and therefore find themselves now living in a state of perpetual crisis management – a condition which they have sought to dignify with the term agility.

The real problem is that the future is not what it used to be. Dealing with a changing future does not depend on agility, it depends on thinking. In writing this I am reminded of a piece I wrote almost exactly 12 years ago (The future is not what it used to be). This was a series of ten, semi-serious predictions designed to get people thinking about how the digital revolution might change things. Almost none of these have panned out exactly as predicted (or within the time-frame predicted), but I look at them quite proudly because they did a pretty good job at nailing the fundamental direction of required thinking. If, as a brand, you had spent some time thinking in this way 12 years ago, you wouldn’t currently find yourself looking down the barrel of disruption while desperately trying to do the agility dance.

Businesses that think about the future don’t need to be agile. Agility is something we have invented to put a positive spin on panic. It is time we started to Think.

Marketing: it’s just a joke

Following the publication of my Stop and Think (think) piece I have been having an email conversation with Stan Magniant. Stan is Digital & Social Communications Director, Western Europe, for The Coca-Cola Company – i.e. a player. I used to work with him at Publicis when we were both bright-eyed early adopters of the whole social digital thing.

One of the issues we got into was the question of what constitutes an audience and specifically what size an audience is. As Stan put it “ to marketers, an audience is synonymous with scale: as big a group of people as I can expose to my brand, synchronously or asynchronously. I’m not clear, in your argument, whether you invite brands to explore new creative ways to gather large audiences (through paid or earned tactics? Likely both), or whether it’s all about aggregated niche audiences (a more “long tail” approach).”

This was a good question and in trying to answer it I stumbled into the analogy of joke telling. The point I was trying to make is that an audience is not defined by size, it is defined by behaviour and/or context. The reason that, to marketers, it has become synonymous with scale is a question of conventional mass-marketing economics.

If you are telling a joke, the person or people you are telling it to is an audience. This is something that implicit in the nature (behaviour) of joke telling. What is also implicit is that a joke, even if told to only one other person, is based on an element of universal relevance. A joke that only one person finds funny isn’t really a joke, even if you are telling it to the person who is meant to find it funny.

So, the audience for a joke can be one person, or millions of people. However, when it comes to deciding the optimum size of the audience, this is down to the money. If you are a stand-up comedian who has invested time and effort in developing a set, you need to get as many as people as possible into your audience. Brands are like stand-up comedians. Their material (campaigns) is time consuming and expensive to produce – which is why a brands definition of an audience has become synonymous with scale.

The joke analogy also helps explain why the concept of aggregated niche audiences doesn’t work. As a stand-up comedian you wouldn’t tell a series of five jokes, each of which would appeal to only 20 percent of the audience. The only way this would work is if you first dis-aggregated (segmented) the audience into those five groups and put each into a separate room – so that when you told the joke 100 percent of the people in each group would find it funny. An audience of aggregated niches may look like an audience in terms of size, but it doesn’t behave like an audience in terms of how you make it laugh.

As a brand you can have an audience of one, but not if you then try to create a joke that only that one person will find funny – which is essence is what most ‘mass personalisation’ strategies try to do (one reason I view these with scepticism). Mass (joke telling) is important, personalisation is important – but mass personalisation could be one of those things Seth Godin has called a ‘meatball sundae (ice cream)’.

But to be the thing we call a brand, you need to make people laugh. Which is why preserving the concept of an audience remains critical. Most social media campaigns (and many digital strategies) are the equivalent of a stand-up comedian telling their jokes to people one person at a time – i.e. a waste of time.

Anyway – a brand manager, an advertising executive and a consumer walked into a bar …

Lies on the line: why MP Lucy Powell’s bill won’t solve the problem of online hate or fake news

Summary: Institutionalised forms of content regulation rest on the realistic assumption that all published content can been monitored and made to conform. If you can’t establish this expectation, this form of regulation becomes instantly redundant. That is why applying the old, publication-based regulatory model to Facebook et al is a distraction that only serves to make politicians feel good about themselves while actually increasing the dangers of online hate and fake news.

In the UK the phrase of ‘leaves on the line’ is firmly established within the national conversation as an example of an unacceptable corporate excuse. It is an excuse rail operators use around this time of year to explain delays to trains. The reason it is deemed unacceptable is that leaves fall off trees every year and have done so for quite some time and thus there is a realistic expectation that this is a problem rail operators should have cracked by now.

Which brings me to another problem where an expectation is building of a corporate fix: fake news and all forms of inappropriate online content/behaviour. This has clearly become something of big issue in recent times to the extent that governments are under considerable pressure to Do Something. And the Thing they are mostly looking to Do is to turn around and tell Facebook, Google, Twitter et al that they need to Do Something. In essence what governments are looking for them to do is assume a publishers responsibility for the content that appears on their platforms. The most recent example of this is the private members bill just introduced by the UK Member of Parliament, Lucy Powell (of which more in a moment).

You can see why this is a popular approach. In the first instance, it allows government to deflect responsibility away from itself or, at the very least, create an imagined space where established regulatory approaches can continue to have relevance. It is an approach which finds favour with the traditional media, which has to operate under conventional publication responsibilities and resents the fact that these new players are eating their advertising lunch while avoiding such constraints. To an extent, it even plays to the agenda of Facebook and Google themselves, because they know that in order to attract the advertising shilling, they need to present themselves as a form of media channel, if not a conventional form of publication. Facebook and Google also know that, despite all the regulatory huffing and puffing, governments will not be able to effectively deploy most of the things they are currently threatening to do – because the space they are trying to create is a fantasy space.

The trouble is – this approach will never work. Worse than that, it is dangerous. Continue reading

Ritson versus Sharpe and a story about geomorphology (and a tsunami)

I have just received an email with the confirmed line-up for this year’s Festival of Marketing. My first reaction to this was that I can’t believe it is nearly a year since the last one. It also reminded me that the headline event last year was a battle of the professors between Byron Sharpe and Mark Ritson. Unfortunately I missed it, but for those not in the know the basis for said battle is Sharpe’s advocacy of mass communication versus Ritson’s focus on targeting and segmentation. I was also reminded of this conflict because Byron Sharpe was featured on Adam Fraser’s EchoJunction podcast a couple of weeks ago.  I must confess I haven’t read Sharpe’s famous book ‘How Brands Grow’ so was hopeful that the podcast might give me a shortcut. I also availed myself of the opportunity to listen to the Prof. Ritson’s appearance on the same podcast some time previously.

On the basis of the podcasts, I would say I came out more of a Ritsonist. Of course, as Ritson himself has pointed out, it is not a question of either/or. A brand has to be able to address its entire audience and its ability to do this essentially defines it status as a brand. But an audience is not homogeneous, either in terms of attitudes or behaviours over time – which creates the requirement for targeting.

In fact, according to my theory of the future of marketing in a digital world, brands face two challenges: first is redefining the concept of an audience (and indeed a segment of such) and becoming more adept at convening these audiences rather than renting access to them; and the second is understanding how to create value from relationships with consumers as individuals (the world of distribution and the world of connection).

I guess the reason I came out on Ritson’s side was because I very much liked his scathing view of social media and assessment that most marketers have simply been jumping on a series of digital bandwagons, but also because there was something in Sharpe’s absolutist approach that I was uncomfortable with. First was his contempt for the idea of the niche and his dismissal of a niche brand as an unsuccessful brand. We are entering a time when the competitive advantages associated with being big are reducing and the ability to be small is increasing. Many big brands are facing the long-term challenge of death by a thousand niches. Second, while I am all in favour of developing a more rigourous, data driven approach to marketing I couldn’t help but get the feeling the Professor Sharpe was restricting his field of analysis according to the ability to gather or analyse the available data and disregarding evidence outside of this, not because the data was telling him to do this, but because the data was not available (or not available to measure in the way he wished).

It reminded me of a story about data, measurement techniques and assumptions that was doing the rounds back when I was studying for my degree. I studied geography, with a specialism in geomorphology (rivers, erosion and stuff). At the time, geomorphology had a problem in that we could look around and see evidence that erosion had happened, but couldn’t see it, and measure it, actually happening. (This is a bit like the issue of knowing that half of the marketing budget works, but not knowing which half). The assumption was therefore that erosion was a very slow process – water dripping on a stone – and the reason we couldn’t detect it was that we hadn’t had sufficiently sophisticated techniques or equipment to measure it.

Geomorphology had another problem in that it was, at heart, an observational science: knock-kneed bearded blokes in hobnail boots and khaki shorts wandering around with notebooks looking at things and thinking about stuff. This was deeply unfashionable back in the 60s and 70s at a time when computers were becoming established in academia. You couldn’t be a proper scientist if you didn’t run what we then thought of as large amounts of quantitative data through computer programmes.

So an attempt was made to address these two problems by wiring-up a hill slope (geomorphologists were, and probably still are, obsessed with slopes) with all the latest detection equipment, feeding all the data into a computer, pressing the button and finally nailing the causes of erosion. This slope was going to be so closely monitored that an ant couldn’t fart without us knowing about it. Who knows, perhaps farting ants would be revealed as the culprits?

Anyway, the equipment was put in place, turned on, and revealed precisely nothing. A total flatline. No erosion was taking place. And so it continued for weeks on end until after a prolonged period of heavy rain a landslide washed all the equipment away. It was as though the slope was saying “so you wanted to measure me? Well measure this sucker”.

Of course the real issue was one of false assumptions (erosion as a slow process), a restriction of the field of investigation to those areas from which data could be extracted, a desire to use new bright shiny techno things, plus a distaste for conventional, less data-driven, analysis. Geomorphologists have subsequently realised that erosion is often not a slow process, but an an infrequent, catastrophic process. The slight irony is that an old fashioned knock-kneed bloke with a certain level of experience, wandering around with a notebook, looking at stuff, noting slope angles, digging some holes to determine soil depth and composition and sticking a finger in the ground to get a sense of soil moisture levels could actually develop a much more effective functional understanding of what was going on, what had previously happened and what was likely to happen in the future that someone possessed of all the latest measurement techniques and data.

This is not to say that we should eschew evidence-based marketing, but we need to take about what assumptions we make, what evidence we seek and, crucially, not discard evidence simply because it is difficult to measure or crunch through an analysis programme. 

And also, in relation to his dismissal of the niche, I have a suspicion that Sharpe’s book may come to be regarded more as a piece of historical analysis than as a guide to the future. Perhaps it should be renamed “How Bands Grew”.

However, there is a geomorphological post-script to this story which does favour Prof. Sharpe. In relation to catastrophic geomorphological events, we now know that the east coast of Australia was once devastated by a massive tsunami with waves in excess of 100 metres high. Ths was caused by the collapse of one of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago – a phenomena know as a long run-out landslide. And the bad news is that this is going to happen again in the not too distant future, geomorphologically speaking. So Prof. Ritson in Melbourne could be in trouble, but Prof. Sharpe around the corner in Adelaide should be OK especially if he sets up house up in the Flinders Ranges.

 

Stop and Think: a note to marketing leadership about the digital revolution

I often say I’ve seen more change in the past five years as chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever than I did in the 25 years I was in business before that, and it’s not a statement I make just for dramatic effect.” So said Keith Weed, the chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, in an article published in Marketing Week in May 2018.

Anyone with any experience in marketing must feel that we are living through a period of rapid change that qualifies as a revolution. It is a revolution in information and communication that is transforming the world of brands (as well as the world of pretty much everything else).

Here is a question. Does anyone really feel they are on top of this: that they have cracked the code? Continue reading

It’s time to talk about Blockchain

Presentation1One of my big ‘things’ about the social digital revolution is the fact that it is changing the nature of trust, shifting it from institutions into (often community-based) transparent processes. This has enormous implications, given the importance of trust in creating both brands and societies. If you look at platforms such as Wikipedia, Ebay, Uber, Trip Advisor, Amazon, Airbnb and even Google (search) itself their operation and success all have roots in forms of community-based processes.

Therefore, when I first came across Blockchain a couple of years ago I realised it had the potential to change the world – simply because Blockchain is all about process-based trust. In fact it has been labelled a trust engine. I therefore knew it was going to be important, before I knew how it was going to be important.

In the intervening time I haven’t been able to delve sufficiently deeply into the technology (mostly because I don’t really understand it) to get a handle on how Blockchain is going to change the World. Neither, I suspect, had many others. However, this is now changing, and smart people are starting to work-out the Blockchain applications.

Which brings me to Jeremy Epstein. My faith in the significance of Blockchain was re-inforced when I heard that Jeremy had moved from Sprinklr, one of my favourite marketing technology platfroms, to set up Never Stop Marketing – a consultancy focused on helping busnesses understand Blockchain. Jeremy is someone who has always been at the leading edge of digital change and who ‘gets it’ in terms of understanding its core principles. As a rule, if jeremy is on to it, it is worth getting on to. He has just released an e-book “The CMO Primer for the Blockchain World“. I have read this once and need to read it at least two more times. It contains some reassuring endorsements of the Blockchain concept from some leading marketers, but the most important bit is the section in the middle, where Jeremy starts to map-out potential practical applications of Blockchains in marketing, backed up by many linked examples.

I would thoroughly recommend this e-book as mandatory summer reading. I am going to use it as my staring point for, finally, getting my head around Blockchain.

Deception, Deflection and Disruption: the new rules of political communication

This is a post I have been meaning to write for at least 18 months. When first conceived it was in part a prediction. Recent events have conspired to make that prediction a reality, which has encouraged me to get it out there. It is post about the three Ds of modern political communication: Deception, Deflection and Disruption.

Deception

It all started with Deception. Many people have accused UK Prime Minister Tony Blair of being a liar. In truth, he was far too clever to deserve this label. Calling Tony Blair a liar is a bit like calling a successful poker player a liar. What Tony Blair and a successful poker player have in common is that the practice of deceit is fundamental to their success. Indeed the whole New Labour project was built upon deception. There was, of course, the grand deception designed to create support or justification for the Iraq war but at a more prosaic level there was the deception that New Labour was a party that was going to deliver on any of its promises, when in fact all they were doing was kicking the can down the road – just another variant of TINA (There Is No Alternative) politics. Labour confused being a party of opposition with being a party in opposition, a problem which exists to this day – but that is another story.

The Conservative-lead government of David Cameron learned a lot from New Labour. Continue reading

A focus for marketing in 2017

I notice that I last posted in June last year and that this wasn’t even a proper post, just a reference to a speech I had given in Istanbul that was conveniently YouTubed. In my defence, I have been busy doing other things such as building a house and involved in an interesting experiment in online education. Interestingly, my blog views haven’t decreased dramatically over that time, which I think says something instuctive about the whole content thing. It suggests that content is not a volume game, where frequency or even timing of posting is key, rather it suggests that content is a relevance game that is not driven by the act of publication, but driven by the act of search. This is why content socialisation is far more important that content publication. As I have said before, spend only 10 per cent (or less) of your content budget actually producing content and the remaining 90 per cent on socialising that content. Socialised content is the gift that carries on giving. Once it is out there it will carry on working for you without you having to do anything else. And this socialisation has to start with an understanding of what content (information) people actually want from you – identifying the questions for which your brand is the answer. Remember, the social digital space is not a distribution space where reach and frequency are the objectives, it is a connection space where the objectives are defined by behaviour identification and response.

Here endeth the predictable critique of content strategies.

Given that it is still January I believe I have permission to resume posting with a 2017 prediction piece. I was prompted to do this by reading Ashley Freidlin’s extremely comprehensive post on marketing and digital trends for 2017. This is essentially a review of the landscape and it its sheer scale is almost guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of every marketing director. Perhaps because of this, Ashley’s starts with saying that the guiding star for 2017 should be focus, so in that spirit I shall attempt to provide some basis for focus. Continue reading

Success in the digital future: talk at Digital Age Summit 2016

IMG_6708A few weeks ago I was in Istanbul speaking at the Digital Age Summit. A video of my presentation is now on YouTube and I have finally got around to posting it.

See also below the summary slide, which pretty much covers what I said. Some other soundbites include, why a mobile is not a channel but is a behaviour detection device, why consumers don’t want content, why marketing has been in the Ice Age and why the algorithm is the most powerful instrument of social control invented since the sword.

Digital Age 2016 minus video

Also – check out the presentation by Matt Wallaert from Microsoft for a new way of thinking about your business / market and competition.

I especially like the idea of creating value by reducing levels of engagement, given the senseless chase for ‘engagement’ in social media. It correspond to my idea of a brand as a waiter – just tell me about the specials, take my order, bring my drinks but at all other times just stay out of my life – don’t think that because you are a waiter you have a right to ‘join my conversation’. (I don’t think I got into this in my presentation – there was probably already too much in there).

Marketing technology: it is confusing but it is going to be big

This post is a marker.  It is post-it note that says “remember to watch this space and try and get your head around it because this is going to be big”.  It also is an excuse to log what I think is a very useful, if slightly mind-bending post by Scott Brinker.

My current mantra for marketing folk is that the future of brands involves getting your head around three things: the shift from the audience to the individual, the fact that community is becoming the new media, and the emergence of the world of the algorithm (i.e. Big Data).  I also continually bang-on about social media being a process, and of course, one of the things we use technology to do is management of process.

To a large extent, eveything that Scott is talking about in his post plays against these  issues.  To manage relationships with individuals at any sort of scale will require a process supported by technology.  Scott also talks about tag management – which (as I have already written about) will become the foundational process for the operation of communities.  Likewise, it is clear that the algorithm will become the tool that makes sense of the data that could be seen to live within the marketing cloud.  And, as Scott points out, Amazon is already starting to offer algorithmic products to do just that.

Scott also observes that things are currently very complicated and confused.  Or, as I flagged in my previous post, this stuff is ‘legitimately difficult’.  I definitely do no know enough about it – but from what I can see, I think I know enough to say that this is the future.  Technology is going to play a huge role in the management of the relationship between brands and consumers – because technology facilitates process, and this future relationship is going to be defined by process (behaviour identification and response) not by channel and message.

I think I can also predict that the key to really embracing this future is to shed yourself of the snakeskin of the past.  Big data is totally different to small data, to the extent that you can’t build your way to a big data future from a small data starting point or mindset.  Likewise, current marketing technology deals with stuff like CRM but the only way you will be able to deal with the new marketing technology is to free yourself from a CRM mindset (and possibly your CRM people).  If you look at this new stuff through the lens of the old stuff, you will probably fail to see or understand its potential.