The End of The Disruption Era
Recently I sat down with some colleagues for an impromptu working dinner at Spruce Restaurant in San Francisco. Naturally, the topic of conversation was focused on the New Year. Over drinks, one colleague who heads up the Client Services department for an agency based in South East Asia pointed out to us that 2015 is the Year of the Goat in Chinese Astrology. People born in a “Goat year” are believed to be mild-mannered and gentle or even shy. They tend to be stable and sympathetic with a strong sense of justice. They are thought to be creative, perseverant and able to acquire professional skills easily. It is said that although they look gentle on the surface, they are resilient and tough on the inside, with excellent defensive instincts and willing to take a stand for their own opinions. We wondered how such characteristics would play out in the coming year for business. It wasn't a surprise to find that our attitudes and forecasts for 2015 varied widely.
We did all seem to agree that 2015 would signal a reversal from the past several years—the opposite of the Goat’s thoughtful yet strong approach. In consideration of this self-reliant, creative and more stable business attitude, my colleagues and I believe that CMO’s will rely less on consultants and vendors—who often cannot build and lack fulfillment support—and will begin to search for right-sized agency partners who can both think strategically and build tactically. We definitely came to the consensus that if you are a CMO looking for cohesion and coherence in your branding efforts, then you might not want to delegate the executions out to marketing consultants, developer-vendors and social-tech experts piecemeal. You don’t have to take my word for it; CMO's with whom we have spoken indicated that they needed both seasoned strategic mentorship and project management to make them feel more secure in building the kinds of complex systems that can address today’s omni-channel media market.
Drop “Disruption” from Your Corporate Lexicon
With the outgrowth of Social and ad-tech vendors, many CMO's are simply tired of marketing-speak and fragmented professional services. More often than not, their own internal teams are broken into segments: e-commerce, branding, sales-enablement, analytics, etc.
The major challenge facing CMOs and corporate marketers is finding seasoned, high-level strategists who understand the necessity of cohesion between these units of business and whom have the ability to create holistic systems that allow them to collaborate and compliment one another.
Expect corporate CMO's to shy away from the notion of "disruption" and remove it entirely from their vocabulary. Look for businesses this year to begin to trend towards more cohesive strategies that provide solid, inter-connected brand architecture and fewer one-off projects and gimmicky social conventions provided by opportunistic, inexperienced social marketing consultants billing themselves under the "disruption" moniker. My colleagues and I all agreed that our clients had grown weary of this strategy, and that most of them—especially corporate clients—seemed desperately in need of solutions that linked together their assets and platforms, as well as senior mentorship to help them understand the overall value of these solutions and the impact they would have on their brand and their business.
Single vs Multi-Source Solutions
We all knew more than one CMO who had gotten burned entrusting their hard-earned equity to people with no formal training or experience in marketing. They were taken in by agencies or individuals who either had a good sales pitch or who promised they could build cheaply. Neither option is good for your brand. Don't do either. The key is to view and evaluate their agency and technology needs as one problem to see if you can get them solved in one place.
2015: The Year of Integration
Good branding in 2015 is based on building solid foundations and support systems that ensure each communication reaches its intended audience. When your branding and marketing communications have actual value in the lives of your audience, they are more likely to share those meaningful communications on your behalf. More importantly, they are converted into an engaged, interested, repeat consumer. Today’s successful agencies, individual consultants and vendors have a firm grip on how to build a brand like a house: start with the foundation first.
Relevancy, Coherency, “Share-ability”, Utility and Conversion
The key differentiators for brand experiences today are relevance, coherence, ease of use and the ability to share the experience easily in real time. Brands with these differentiators enjoy increased conversion rates over brands that don’t. The reason why companies like Uber, Apple, and Airbnb work is because people very easily get all five of these needs met in every experience they have with the brand. Not every brand meets that mark. CMO’s seeking to improve their brand experience need guidance, so they turn to agencies for help.
Just about anyone with an MBA and a quirky name for their firm can claim to sell professional marketing services. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean they know the first thing about how brand—product and value proposition—come together, or the kind of support required by holistic or connected digital architecture. The kind of thinking and building CMO's need right now is that which protects equity and guides their brand though challenges dictated by both the market itself, and pressured by consumer's shifting attitudes and behavior in order to deal with current consumer behavior.
The Hyper-connected Marketplace: Adapt or Die
Transparency in advertising has never been more important. Today, Social and Mobile not only connect consumers to brands in real-time, they provide the vehicle to make or break a brand: instant, real-time reviews. Media fragmentation in and of itself makes messaging less effective and increases the chances that marketing communications may not penetrate all of the noise and generate awareness. Smart CMO’s are courting consumers with transparency—and they’re being rewarded for it.
A brand can be a lot of things in the marketplace, but because of the sheer enormity of digital white noise, its message has an ever-decreasing chance of reaching the consumer to begin with—no matter how disruptive or provocative your marketing may be. If your marketing hasn't got certain indicators baked into it, consumers will miss the cues and drift in and around your offering like a fish swimming past a lure.
One thing everyone agreed on was that neither Social nor Mobile has yet to come to fruition in an appreciable way because the consumers’ attention is fragmented beyond imagination. Returning to my earlier point about so-called disruptive marketing communications, the risk to the brand in what I call the "Ask Economy" is that a pithy ad might not pass the "So what?” test. Consumers can be put off very quickly and easily if you haven't spent the time with seasoned professionals to vet the right creative or message for your brand. Being cautious right now is critical: tactical errors today can be incredibly costly.
Since 2007, the takeaway for branding and marketing has been that brands should start preparing strategies for expanding into new channels. The concept is simple, but is often poorly executed. In short, even if you build it, they might not come. I wrote a book about this that still gets a fair share of downloads for a reason. By now, every brand that’s going to be on Facebook or Twitter has pretty much gotten there. But consumer behavior continues to change and platforms like Instagram and Tumblr are becoming the new proving grounds for brands. Either way, Social simply hasn't translated into the launchpad for brands that many of us believed it would. With different demographics and different ways of interacting, marketers will have to develop new ways of engaging their fans.
Rethinking Agency Dynamics
The top two things CMO's want is seniority in client-relations and project management. In other words, we are finally beginning to see the backpack many of us expected post-recession when agencies were cut out of Senior Marketing executives’ budgets and were replaced with more targeted—and presumably less expensive—Social-savvy millennials. The result was that CMO’s hired people willing to work 60-70 hours for half as much money, but who brought no client-facing experience with them, and the "disruptive" acumen that they touted turned out to be more damaging than strengthening as a brand strategy.
You might think twice about handing your brand off to someone who talks a great game but hasn't any campaign experience. Years ago, when asked at the SIC conference what kind of person I'd hire for social marketing, I said:
“Hire someone who loves your brand—not social media. Just about anyone with half their brain working can work a dashboard 4-5 hours a day and curate content. The question is, do they understand your value proposition as it functions in the marketplace and with relationship to the consumer? Moreover, is the content they create or curate actually useful? There is a lot of benefit in having a seasoned, strong, traditionally trained Creative Director in house who has seen brand campaigns from start to finish. Why? Because by seeing the lifecycle of brand all the way through discovery, audit, reformation, out-going brand awareness and campaign iterations, they understand the dynamic relationship between the marketplace-consumer and brand.”
Takeaway: Make sure you vet marketing consultants and vendors by asking if they have full branding and campaign experience. More often than not, they do not possess a thorough understanding of branding and have only a few good, "disruptive" ideas. More importantly, they may never have actually executed a brand campaign. Be careful. I expect some brands to reconsider their in-house strategy, and hire fewer consultants who cannot support fulfillment and leverage the power of creative agencies.
In the end, my colleagues and I all agreed on one thing: the rapidly changing ecosystem that comprises digital and omni-channel marketing and the unique challenges of managing a Professional Services team forced us all to consider that the pendulum will swing back to hiring seasoned smaller shops than big agency chops. At our agency, we believe that an intersection of creative talent, brand marketers, and technology developers is going to provide the right mix of services for our corporate clients.