Mike Fromowitz
Mar 13, 2017

Our risky obsession with digital

I'm a big fan of digital marketing. But I fear we're losing the art form that is strategy coupled with creativity.

Our risky obsession with digital

"In a world where everyone is digital marketing-crazy there is a certain majesty to being the salmon that swims against the stream. Yes, you may get eaten by a bear, but you also get to spawn."
—Neil St. Clair, Chief Growth Officer for Vestorly

I’ve been wrestling with the direction that the marketing industry is going in—especially with its over-investment of budgets and resources in all the various digital channels. Much of the creative content I see online, be it social, mobile, or video makes me wonder if we are losing the art of brand building. Has digital marketing disrupted the clarity of strategic planning and the consistency of brand messaging?

Market leaders have started a long-term reduction of their reliance on television and other traditional media, and are shifting budget towards digital with a fairly significant portion of their spend. They’ve been drinking the digital Kool Aid—listening to the daily avalanche of hype about new tech and new trends the digital advocates are throwing at them. They are plagued by a nagging fear that they could be missing out and losing relevance if they don’t play in the same sandbox.

Marketers seem obsessed with all the new shiny digital technology. They can't get enough of it and are now spending more than a quarter of their budgets on it with the hopes of increasing efficiency and effectiveness. A risky obsession I think. What’s more, much of the digital content being produced on their behalf does not convey a consistent brand strategy. Brands are trying their hardest to be innovative, but doing it in all the wrong places, spending money on superficial initiatives that are more about PR and optics than addressing the real needs for real users.

Strategy: Like last year's lapels?

As brands focus more and more on digital marketing, and less on strategy and branding, what frightens me most is the fact that strategy is falling out of fashion. Some marketers are dismissing it as old fashioned, too slow for these fast­-moving digital times.

Far from being obsolete, strategy is now more necessary than ever. As Harvard's Michael Porter has so eloquently put it:

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. And with so much shiny new tech to choose from—and so many forces conspiring to make it all so attractive—we all need to get better at choosing not to do things.

Strategy is an art. And too few in our industry know how to do it well. Strategies can help us refocus on our customers and engage them as human beings instead of just targets. Strategies can also help ad agencies rebuild their damaged credibility with clients. Strategy can immunise us from all the digital hype. Without it, marketing is just a waste of good money.

"Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. "
—Sun Tzu

Creativity no longer drives the message.

This laser focus on all things digital comes at a cost. With the focus on mastering data, creativity no longer drives the message. Creative work in digital media looks much like clients are throwing just about anything up against the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.

It’s a case of brawn over brains. More and more, senior executives are addicted to the numbers and have become dependent on analytics. They rely on data to make their decisions for them and to tell them what works. They’ve practically stopped thinking about why consumers engage. This approach fails to understand what truly motivates customers, and worse yet, diminishes the brand’s identity.

"A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world: a corner of someones’s mind." 
—John Hegarty

Marketing should tap into consumer emotions, play into popular culture, and break through the clutter with creative insights. But when marketers concentrate too much on optimisation, they overlook creativity and brand-building ideas that can result in serious returns. This unrelenting obsession with data can lead to metrics tunnel vision, shifting brands away from a creative offensive that can truly enhance consumer engagement.

A brand’s offensive strategy should take the higher road with a big-picture perspective that begins with a strong creative idea. Not with “We must do digital!”

"Everything familiar that we have known for years will very soon cease to exist and objective reality will become distorted beyond recognition." 
—Anastasiia Bilous, Chief Strategy Officer at Thync.

Data plus creativity: The perfect balance

Just because we can deliver marketing messaging through automated platforms and hyper-targeted contextual methods, do we need to be discarding all the good that traditional media like TV, radio, print, and OOH does to connect customers with the brand?

Don’t get me wrong. I remain a big fan of digital marketing. I believe it should be used to extend the reach of a brand’s traditional marketing efforts. The fundamentals of advertising success never change, whatever the medium. Reaching the right audience, generating brand lift and driving a customer reaction is what the job is all about in achieving marketing success, be it digital, TV, radio or print.

Marketers used to demand “brand ads with big ideas” from their agencies. I am reminded of those from Apple, Nike, VW, Old Spice, Coca-Cola, Singapore Airlines, Levis, Absolut, McDonalds, Benetton, Johnny Walker, Pepsi, and more. And marketers demanded them for good reason. For one thing, the big brand idea is highly memorable. For another, it meaningfully and succinctly separates one brand from another. A well-articulated brand idea makes immediately clear, either directly or by implication, the one thing that meaningfully differentiates the brand.

Yet, focusing on creative doesn’t mean ignoring data. In fact, data plays an important role in uncovering insights and formulating the creative brief that directs the creative work. The combination of both data and creativity provides the necessary balance between insight-driven ideas and compelling execution.

MSW/ARS Research demonstrates just how important it is to get the creative strategy right from the start:

More than half of a campaign’s sales impact relies on creative. A company can have the best data in the world, but its campaigns will fail without good new ideas. After all, optimisation will never win a marketing award. When you use data to supplement strategy—not substitute it—brilliant creative will power digital success.

On John Gruber’s site, Daring Fireball, the author makes note of a comment from American technology journalist Walt Mossberg:

Lousy ads are ruining the online experience. I wanted to look at the highlight video of a football play using the NFL [the US National Football League] app on my iPad. To watch that 14-second clip, I had to suffer through a 30-second ad for something so irrelevant to me that I can’t even recall what it was. A preroll ad twice as long as the actual video clip is absurd. [These digital ads are] nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and benefit sites that might care less about quality. So backwards, so shortsighted. A plague that benefits no one.

Is creativity on the wane?

Popular opinion among digital believers is that the computer and the Internet have been a creative boon for creative people. That’s nonsense. It has created sameness. Laziness. Search and steal, for the most part. Digital claims that it can be more targeted and more exclusive by focusing on specific channels. But the net result is one whereby the brand’s importance is diluted and its marketing communications activity becomes wallpaper.

As brands create more and more digital content, we’re now being flooded with it. And consumers are reacting by switching off, and turning away from brands that annoy them. Which brings up another question.

Marketers are hiring on so many different marketing suppliers—makes you wonder how in the world your advertising, PR, digital, social, mobile, analytics, experiential, content, and direct agencies can all work together holistically to deliver communications that is ‘on strategy’, ‘on brand’ and part of a seamless brand story? Marketers should be asking themselves if all these digital activities are doing them good, or are they fast destroying their brand and the basic brand values needed to convince consumers that the brand is authentic and can be trusted?

I admit it: I was provoked into writing this

I'll admit that I was provoked into writing this article after a recent conversation with an advertising peer of mine, David Kan, one of Ogilvy & Mather’s most respected creative directors and copywriters, who now resides (as do I) in Canada. I found David’s opinion to be quite revealing. This is what he had to say on the subject:

Before digital media became so popular, advertising was a sales-oriented business focused on branding and marketing. Advertisers and their agencies tended to navigate in a tightly defined strategic direction. Those were the times when ads broke new ground. And when brands remained truthful to their identities and their value propositions. Digital media did not just remodel the advertising landscape, it changed the way we think (or stopped thinking) as advertisers, and how we behave as consumers and media users.

Unlike television or newspaper, digital media can be immersive and addictive. It’s an ever-present environment that actively engages (or subconsciously numbs) one’s senses and infuses one’s judgement.

A digital-media community is like a big party. Everyone is having a great time and nobody wants (or dares) to spoil the fun. Advertisers and agencies in their normal daily lives are active partygoers too. They get emotionally involved like everyone else. They know too well what pleases the crowd and when they design their digital work, they follow the crowd instead of adhering to marketing strategy or what the individual brand stands for. This is the time when ads are dictated by the likes and dislikes of the masses. And creative goes with the tide.

That explains why so many creative ads in digital media are crowd pleasers and me-too look-alikes. When Brand A’s tear-jerking three-minute film gets thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, Brand C makes a similar tear-jerking 4-minute film that also gets thousands of likes and hundreds of shares. At the peak of viewers’ applause, both brands get drowned. Nobody cares who’s A and who’s C. The party goes on.

I'm certainly not advocating that marketers drop digital in favour of going with traditional media. On the other hand, I think you need to use both opportunities. Digital advertising is big business after all. In reality, however, this grand experiment of digital marketing has so far failed us in providing its promised ROI. Need some proof?

A Microsoft Econometrics study of the effectiveness and ROI of digital advertising states that digital outperforms TV, print, radio and outdoor. On the other hand, comScore and Econsultancy show that more than half of digital ads (54 percent) are never seen by consumers. It’s a colossal waste, and demonstrates the need for brands and marketers to make sure (for ROI) that ads are viewable. Their recommendation: make the creative more compelling and relevant to the content and the consumer.

Google, working with Dove, explored the impact of online advertising on in-store sales. The study found that online advertising was most effective when used in synergy with TV, a combination that led to a 11 percent sales uplift.

If that’s not all, in interviews by Fournaise with 1,200 CEOs, management and marketing decision makers, 90 percent of global marketers are not trained to calculate ROI, and 80 percent struggle with being able to properly demonstrate to their management the business effectiveness of their spending, campaigns and activities.

To another extent, digital is also optically simpler. Yet, marketers spend extensive time strategising, analysing the data and crafting programmatic volume-based plays, that in the end, digital is for the most part, out of the marketers control, with little value-add, that perhaps the marketers efforts ought to be redirected elsewhere.

As marketing budgets in the digital age have expanded, we've also seen an increase in overall personnel. This seems odd granted that digital marketing should be more efficient and improve our ROI. What this tells us is that the explosion of "marketing automation" related to volume-based digital marketing has created an increase in the need for staff to strategise, plan and execute—and with such low ROI, I contend that we've reached a height of inefficiency in the marketing world.

What’s the answer?

1. Ask your ad agency to create big branding campaigns to cut through all the clutter.

2. Use digital to extend your reach and continue your brand story in order to build relationships through different channels, touchpoints and formats. And keep the extensions true to the brand positioning.

3. Create amazing consumer experiences, growing your brand and the bottom line of your business by satisfying your consumers.

4. Move away from marketing at the lowest cost, and evolve to measuring marketing performance on value.

5. Don’t believe in everything they tell you about “clicks”. Most people who click don’t read. In fact, a stunning 55 percent of people who clicked on a site spent fewer than 15 seconds reading articles they landed on.

6. Consider the advice of famous ad man David Trot:

When you choose an agency, you’re not guaranteed a better result because they’ve got more technology and more data. Your best bet is always people with brains and experience. It’s never about technology and data, it’s always about people.

Mike Fromowitz., a longtime Asia-Pacific ad man, is now partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising in Toronto. He is also the author of the one of the most consistently popular articles on this website, a 2013 post entitled, "Cultural blunders: Brands gone wrong".


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