The Ghost In The Machine

‘By our spirits are we deified’
William Wordsworth/ Resolution and Independence

Over recent years the marketing and communications community has raced to build a ‘new marketing model’ for the digital age; a model that is more connected, more agile and less wasteful; a model that transforms the way we market brands to consumers. The industry has made real progress and the opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness seem limitless. But the model should not become an end in itself. Once we’ve built the perfect marketing machine, we’ll still need ideas to animate it; and ideas will remain largely intangible, irrational and irregular. We still need to plan for the Ghost in the Machine.

Fundamentally the age of technology affords us an opportunity to harness the vehicles of persuasion (advertising) more directly to the mechanics of consumption (purchase) and of relationship management (CRM). Modern brands will be built around data rich, adaptive digital platforms that take consumers on a seamless journey from seeing relevant content, to selling an experience, to securing a relationship.

Through enhanced customer knowledge and more accurate targeting, the new model promises the elimination of communication waste. In the twentieth century waste was presumed to be a necessary cost of marketing. (A belief best expressed by the familiar maxim attributed to various mythical magnates: ‘I know half of my advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.’)

The emergent paradigm is a marketing machine that is more targeted, more knowing and more efficient; something that learns, creates, adapts and distributes in real time.

It has been interesting to note that the pioneers of the new model have been service and retail brands: banks, airlines, supermarkets, telecoms and tech companies; businesses whose very existence depends on digital platforms. The FMCG brands that wrote the marketing textbooks of the twentieth century have lagged; perhaps because their businesses still revolve around physical products distributed through physical stores.

The new marketing model is also precipitating a consolidation of agency services. In recent years clients have developed new specialist agency partnerships for every emergent technology. But this fragmentation of suppliers has caused an escalation in cost and management stress. There’s now a drive to glue things back together.

Inevitably the new marketing model has required clients and agencies to hire engineers and technologists to build the connections, to design the interactions, to calculate the algorithms. Marketing and communications have become more scientific and we have all become increasingly concerned with agile processes, seamless user journeys and real time data.

Some have indeed argued that the brands of the future will be defined primarily by the fluency and intuitiveness of the interactions consumers have with them. I suspect this is only partially true. I’m concerned that mechanical models can be mimicked; rational experiences can be replicated; fluid user journeys can be followed.

To my mind success will revolve around our ability to design experiences that have personality as well as fluency; interactions that have spontaneity as well as utility; propositions that express sentiment as well as value. Above all we need to remember that great brands are fundamentally built on ideas. The new marketing machine needs imaginative, differentiating, ownable ideas to animate it.

This entails creating an alliance of art and science in the marketing mix. We need to protect the role of creativity in our culture, people and processes. We need to be as mindful of personality as of performance; of feelings as of functionality. Occasionally we need to stop making sense.

So the new marketing model represents a great leap forward for the industry. But however much we may mechanise our marketing, brands, relationships and experiences will retain an emotional dimension. We should respect The Ghost in the Machine.

First published in The Guardian - Media and Tech Network 5th August 2015

No. 40