Redux: Are Marketing Zombies Leading Our Industry?

By Jack Myers ThinkTank Archives
Cover image for  article: Redux: Are Marketing Zombies Leading Our Industry?

The following commentary was originally published a year ago. I’m pleased to report that legacy media are beginning a resurgent period and regaining their rightful place at the top of the marketing pyramid. But the unfortunate truth remains that, even as our business thrives and expands, we continue down self-destructive paths.

It's time once again for my annual end-of-summer rant to the industry, a tradition in which I hope to shake up the status quo. For years, the word "change" was my mantra in these commentaries, as I pushed for a more aggressive embrace of corporate change. This tradition dates back to my days at CBS in the late 1970s, and my presentations to both my colleagues and to the community focusing on the importance of embracing the then-new technology of cable-TV. Months ago, I took the word "change" out of my vocabulary, writing: "Change is not a strong enough word to describe the differences between our business today and our business a decade from now. We are moving beyond transformation… beyond transition… beyond evolution... beyond change. We are an industry that is shedding its skin and preparing to give birth to a completely new and different form of life. Metamorphosis. We can only imagine the future."

So it's ironic that the thematic refrain following the recent and very successful Association of National Advertisers conference, Advertising Week in New York, and myriad industry events over the past several weeks has been "how we are embracing and responding to change." Speaker after speaker has offered self-congratulatory insights on how their companies and colleagues are adapting to the industry changes imposed and empowered by technology. A colleague who has been known throughout his career as a change agent commented, "they've finally embraced the reality of change… just a decade too late."

We are suddenly hearing speech after speech and presentation after presentation focusing on "change" as if the speakers and presenters have discovered the holy grail. They share their culture-and-corporate-changing campaigns and innovative solutions with the conviction that they are now on the path toward salvation – they are now embracing the future, applying new technologies, and all is well in their world once again. They and their corporate colleagues believe they have faced down the specter of technological upheaval, forced through transformative new relationships and embarked on a voyage into the digital future with all sails at full mast and a strong wind at their backs. Press coverage of the ANA would have us believe we've entered a new age of marketing in which television is all but forgotten, radio and out-of-home are virtually non-existent (except as the underwriter of the best industry parties), and only digital media has a place at the marketing table of the future.

Unfortunately, most of the campaigns and initiatives touted at these events were put into motion more than a year ago. Most are already outdated and only marginally inform the campaigns and programs that will be needed in the future to address the collapsing traditions of the marketplace. As I wrote several months ago, "Futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, and other futurists believe that in just the next decade we could see the equivalent of the past 100 years of technological change. Again, 'change' does not do justice to the vision of another 100 years of technological advances in media – all packed into the next decade. In the next few years a cornucopia of mind-boggling advances will alter our lives. Get ready for the media metamorphosis that technology is about to unleash, starting with the public release of Google Glass and continuing at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future. The Internet of Things; voice and motion detection and instant translation; infinitely energized always-on devices that are embedded under our skin; three-dimensional projections that incorporate all five senses; non-stop media and marketing interaction controlled completely by the consumer; commerce, gaming and social advances that radically alter the economic ecosystem. This list includes only what already exists or is in late stages of development."

Marketers and agencies pronounce innovative initiatives and relationships as if they are their passageways to nirvana. Yet marketers remain embedded in a culture that invests more than 95% of their marketing budget into tried-and-true. Marketers lock their agencies into obsolete compensation programs defined by procurement officers and that fail to empower or reward true forward-thinking innovation. Marketing, advertising and media business models and currencies are all measured in the rearview mirror. Marketers invest at most a miniscule share of their budgets in futuristic media ventures, have no organized model to separate the wheat from the chaff, and rarely invest meaningfully in any media solution that fails to conform to pre-existing measurement standards. While their initiatives deserve awards and recognition, they often seem outdated even before they've run their course.

While investing small budgets in "change," many marketers are simultaneously shifting larger and larger budgets into programmatic and automated media buying models designed to achieve little other than maintenance of a reach/frequency/awareness status quo. They congratulate themselves on identifying digital solutions to achieve traditional objectives, while ignoring companies that offer true future-directed solutions. Visit the average large corporate marketing and advertising department and while the top executives sing the praises of change, they preside over restrictive sick wards where zombie-like advertising and marketing strategies are nurtured and cared for. Idea birthing centers, if they exist, are poorly funded and the survival rate of even the most successful ideas is dismal. Like our health care system, far too much is spent on sickness and far, far too little on preventive medicine. And like our health care system, the need for change is embraced while the institutions battle to retain the status quo.

At next year's ANA, let's revisit all the innovative campaigns and "change-centric" marketing initiatives presented at this year's event. Let's bring back the presenters to share if and how these campaigns were advanced and count how many have survived. Let's ask CMOs to share a plan for incorporating the Internet of Things into their marketing budget; their plans for a mobile-infused consumer-led future; their strategies for television and video investments in a radically fragmented addressable universe.

Yes, digital is capturing a larger share of the budget and marketers are focusing on innovative new ideas. But as technological advances accelerate at a rate that the corporate process of change simply cannot keep pace with, how many companies can truly claim to be preparing proactively? How many are even asking the right questions?

Agents of change can only result in increasing chaos and instability within companies. Agents of change typically respond to tech advances that have already taken place. Companies need executives with the skills and vision to innovate with a true looking glass into the future, and they need to be empowered with budgets that enable them to invest meaningfully in that future.

Our industry has the advantage of having a few of these visionaries in our midst. They are usually either independent or outliers within their organizations. Let's hope their voices are heard, their importance in the corridors of power elevated, and their role in the future of our industry advanced.

[Image courtesy of cooldesign/]

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