I’ve had a ringside seat to one of the most riveting parts of the advertising ecosystem. If I were to extricate myself from my position and develop temporary amnesia, I believe I would find the entire ‘ecosystem’ comedic—though many would argue that the sums of money involved are anything but a laughing matter.
The ad-tech ecosystem has given rise to the popular belief that tech is easy. And when I say tech, I am including data, which is almost inseparable in today’s landscape. The ‘tech is easy’ hypothesis comes from the belief that it’s all as simple as the flick of a switch, elimination of full-time employees and improvement of efficiency (with cheaper costs to boot). And while some of that is accurate, most of it is not.
The tech falls short of the sales story. Walled gardens don’t help. Tagging restrictions, inventory availability and other such artificially imposed but very real obstacles make it worse.
Imagine getting invited to a concert with the promise of a perfect Beethoven symphony. It turns out that all the violins play together beautifully, but in order to get the trombone going, the conductor has to physically tap the player on the shoulder to get her started. On top of that, the trombone player comes from the school of Bach—she can’t play Beethoven at the same level—and it’s Beethoven that the crowd actually paid for. Far short of a perfect symphony, right?
In an insult to tech’s ambitions, many consider it to be ‘non-working’ media. ‘Working’ media would rank right up there in concepts I don’t understand much, right after differential calculus.
But here is a truth that I find very hard to admit but is backed by some fact: tech is hard. As an industry, we love talking about how seamless tech is or how it would drive smartness to the point that we often skip past the realities of process or implementation. It is hard to automate and harder still to sustain while managing change.
And this problem exists in the intersection of tech solutions with marketing and advertising.
There exists a fundamental, philosophical disconnect between the marketing/advertising and the technology worlds. Most tech companies operate on an agile basis when they build products. And the agile philosophy centers on building products that are constantly improved upon and the belief that the product will always get better. As my head of product would put it, a product manager lives in the future. I cannot quibble with him. The future he paints is the future I want to be in.
Minimum Viable Product is not well understood on Madison Avenue. The agency/client dynamic is built on Maximum Delivery Plus today. Learning through development, beta versions, sprints and scrums, etc., don’t fit in with either the sales process or the nature of expectations. Unless they are small, mistakes are often not tolerated and missed deadlines can make or break careers. Problem solving is not the objective; executing a perfect go-to-market strategy is.
I often witness conversations where in play are two vastly different organizational philosophies and structures competing for attention and resources. Marketers want to reduce risk and uncertainty and maximize gain. They are under pressure to do so today, while tech companies are looking to maximize future earnings through innovation by taking some risk and creating new markets or products that they hope will eventually lead to returns.
Part of the problem is in figuring out who needs to adjust and by how much. The reason that tech solutions are attractive and produce results is because they break old models and change rules. However it doesn’t work very well when you have a new model on one side and an attempt to shoehorn it to an old way of working on the other.
Most of the conversation around tech and data that you find in the trade press and panels talks ad nauseam about the inability of agencies or solutions to address problems or transparency. Very little conversation is about what marketers need to manage on their end, how their colleagues in different departments struggle to understand or adapt to new approaches or how the company has to reshape itself in order to get any real benefits out of the changes that tech has bought in.
So tech is hard. There is no industry that has been touched by tech with a few parts of an ecosystem carrying on as before. Ultimately I believe that you either get complete disruption or you don’t. There is no sort-of.
And that is the big miss. Marketing today is being presented with a cost challenge because the belief is that usage of tech and data reduces costs. It does but it also fundamentally changes the way marketing works with the rest of the organization.
Today we ask ourselves questions around making programmatic and other consumer data sets available to planning within an agency. But the question to also ask is this: Should data that sits within a marketing department around consumers and their behaviors, their offline profiles and their social chatter, not also be available to product R&D or indeed the entire leadership of the company?
The distance between marketing and the rest of the company can be reduced, and that might also help address the questions that most CMOs get asked all the time: What’s the return on the marketing budget?
If we believe in the transformative potential of technology, it behooves us to embrace that change throughout our entire organizations. Perhaps a compromise could exist, where a few things change and a few things do not. But that would be such a waste of the potential we’re fighting for, wouldn’t it?