End of story?

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

I’m a bit worried that everything I think I know is wrong. OK, that’s a bit dramatic. What I’m getting at is the way marketing communications is mostly still approached seems to be fundamentally flawed and no longer fit for purpose. Again, a bit dramatic, but I have a vested interest, and so do you.

When I think about it in a certain way, I’m not sure marketing exists anymore.

It obviously exists, in that vast quantities of time and money are still spent on what we traditionally understand to be marketing activities, such as: branding, research, advertising, wonderful creative expression, content production and loitering in railway stations being experiential. I mean the premise behind how marketing – and especially marketing communications – is traditionally understood to work, has, for a while now been increasingly less relevant, less fitting to how most of us live our lives and do our jobs.

The proliferation of mass broadcast media, the availability of affordable computer processing power and the explosion of interactive digital media have each taken marcoms through assorted stages of “wild west” anarchy, regulated main-stream, devastatingly disruptive existential threat and back to “wild west” frontier again.

According to the commentators, luminaries, analysts and pioneers, most comms stalwarts have been pronounced both “dead within a decade” and “the killer approach that you can’t do without”. Our ability to easily process data led some to believe direct marketing (beginning with mail) heralded the demise of advertising. The adoption of email in both home and office was to be the death of all printed items. Google (other search engines are apparently available) and social media have transformed advertising into a fiendishly clever hybrid lovechild born of all three; inheriting all the super-powers of each of its predecessors.

And so, with a wry smile, here I am reading the last rights over the whole lot. Well, not quite. A common thread that has united most comms activity in all that time is the intention to affect the audience, to manipulate the outcomes of interactions, to plant an idea, to kindle an emotion and sometimes unfortunately to exaggerate or even gaslight. We all know a sector or two where the main comms purpose is to create a problem, which could be said to be causing wider social and even psychological effects. Boardrooms and agency studios around the world have for decades rung with the cry “What problem are we solving?”

However, in the main, this has been the path to enlightenment. Substitute the narrow and unhelpfully negative idea of “solving a problem” with “helping achieve an ambition or goal” and suddenly the whole marcoms universe rearranges itself (or pivots, if you like business-speak. How about using leverage as a verb? No, quite!).

Marcomms activity has so far mostly been about placing a message in front of you. Admittedly, the level of relevance has progressed unrecognisably; for an extreme example, contrast on the one hand an ambient outdoor ad for Pall Mall cigarettes from the 50’s and on the other, a retargetting display format you saw yesterday on the Google network, having just been looking at that second hand car on Autotrader. The former relied purely on a predicted OTS number (opportunities to see) from the passing public, perhaps with some newly emerging thought to the demographic make-up of the local population. The latter was conjured into existence by you and for you individually; the outcome of a sequence of events, captured as you swiped about on your iPad on the sofa. Definitely the comms equivalent of what Einstein didn’t like about quantum mechanics; “spooky action at a distance”!

And it’s the action at a distance that I think forms that common thread; a thread that has broken. If marketing doesn’t exist anymore (at least within the deliberately reductive confines of this article) it’s the marketing that tries to persuade, to influence, to manipulate from afar. The marketing that keeps trying to show me ads for hunting knives in my Facebook feed.

Fortunately, it’s a case of “The king is dead; long live the king!”. Because a benevolent usurper is taking over, and it’s not trying to sell me anything.

Obviously it’s trying to sell me something. But it treads a very different path and comes from a place where sales, marketing, operations, R&D, HR and finance aren’t distinct and separate parts governed by discrete strategies and processes. Instead, they are all part of a continuous spectrum of activity with one ambition, which is to help people and organisations to achieve their ambitions.

If we’re killing off marketing then the customer is next. Instead of marketing trying to persuade people to buy products and thereby convert them into customers, think the whole organisation working on helping other people achieve things. In this new universe, marketing communications and products are just different locations on that same spectrum. To form relationships with people and assist them in achieving whatever it is they’re aiming for, all we have to do is simply start helping.

So, of course, marketing definitely still exists and is more important than ever. But don’t see it as things that you do; much better to see it as the way you think and the questions you ask to help you on your mission to help others.

That mission, of course, needs defining. You still need to choose your audience, and clearly you need to understand what they want to achieve. You then need to know how you can help them; what it is you can do for them, what you can give them, how you can advance them along their journey.

In this new universe, everything you say, do write, create and deliver is now “product”. All of it created and offered for consumption by others with the specific aim of the furtherance of their goals and all of it with accompanying opportunities to deepen the relationship, and for both parties to derive benefit. At first your benefit is that continued opportunity to be the one who they interact with in pursuit of their aims. At some point your benefit can also include financial reward because your role in their achievements provides value that you both recognise.

The value that you offer up to kindle and form those relationships, needing to be easily discovered when starting the journey, is of course best conceived and distributed digitally so that it can be searched for and accessed by others when and wherever suits them, according to the particular ambition and task at hand. It also enables them to engage with you to strike up a dialogue and see if you can help them with their aims even more. Furthermore, it allows you to gain intelligence from their consumption activity and further improve what you provide so that it is even more effective at its job of furthering their progress.

This new universe is already familiar to many. Call it content marketing if you like. I like the idea that it represents a new paradigm (urgh, he said paradigm).

So, if marketing doesn’t exist anymore what language shall we use? Well, we’ve already got a word that pre-dates marketing by a long chalk. “Promotion”, meaning to further the growth or progress of something, (since the 1510’s), seems much more appropriate don’t you think?

Less marketing of ourselves and our products, please, and much more promotion of others’ aims.

If you'd like some help promoting other people's goals, do get in touch.

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