Strategy in the Era of Brute Force Marketing

Will marketing strategists become the horse grooms of the 21st century?


Nice work if you can get it

Grooming horses probably seemed like a nice job in the 19th century.  After all, you got plenty of exercise and got to work with animals.  What’s not to like?

Well, in a word, Buicks.

Just as one form of technology destroyed the jobs of hundreds of thousands of horse grooms, another may lay waste to the jobs of thousands of marketing and advertising strategists.  As more and more digital marketing tools adopt optimization features, some of the core functions of the marketing strategist may begin to seem redundant.  However, I think that smart strategists will regard these tools not the way that John Henry regarded the steam drill but rather the way the first taxicab driver regarded a Model T.  That is, technology doesn’t take jobs away; rather, it makes them bigger.

Optimization tools: the potential threat to marketing strategists

At bottom, marketing strategists make their bones by improving advertising’s and marketing communications’ effectiveness.  That improvement may come from addressing consumers’ unmet needs, finding more impactful communications approaches or suggesting the right trend to surf off of.  Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves which approach works the best.

Nevertheless, an optimization tool could, at least in theory, take the place of strategists’ analysis and/or experienced judgment.  A marketer could feed a bunch of different ideas into an optimizable channel in the form of different kinds of messages, different segmentation approaches or even just different logo treatments.  Then, the optimization function could find the most effective version based on relevant metrics and call it a day.

In short, you wouldn’t need a human to offer an opinion; you’d have a machine render a decision.

For all the limitations of machine learning, not the least of which is evaluating emotional response, it seems clear to me that the possibilities range far beyond strategy judgment calls.  If a marketer knows that the machine can sort out the messy bits, he can also reduce other strategic tools like research with confidence.  After all, why bother answering big questions like “what do our consumers care about?” or “what makes our product special?” when the machine can simply try a bunch of different ideas represented in ads and answer the question of “what drives the best response?”

How smart strategists will adapt


No, I mean after that

In the horse-drawn carriage era, Hansom cab drivers faced some real limitations on how they could ply their trade, namely how far and fast their horses could pull.  Automobiles allowed cabbies to cover more ground more quickly, literally expanding their markets.  They also pooped less.

So, freed from task of placing bets on communications, how will strategists expand their markets?  I’ll argue that they’ll become marketing’s Gorilla Glue; they’ll expand to fill the cracks.

Hmm…where on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs do sticks go?

Even when optimization tools achieve the promised abilities to pick winners, they will never think through the whole process.  Even a (theoretical, for now) optimization tool that optimizes a suite of single-channel optimization tools will never understand the nuances of how actual people make actual decisions over time.

As a result, it will fall to the strategist to help align the optimized channels relative to one another, to determine what channels should be there if they aren’t and which ones represent distractions or misdirection.  A strategist will need to eyeball all the elements and decide whether they work together or in opposition.  This eyeballing requires, as always, a thorough understanding of the consumer and the buying process.

So, fellow strategists, don’t sweat the optimization platforms of the world.  Instead, let them help you understand the larger horses–I mean forces–at work.

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