Cheap will always look cheap

Put that goddam insight back into that goddam data!

"We’re about 20 years into the ‘Digital Revolution,’ and so far all of the things that have been revolutionized have gotten worse, not better. In advertising, to be stupidly and exaggeratedly reductive, digital has since it’s very outset, given clients and agencies an excuse to be cheap."

So says the fantastic George Tannenbaum in his blog post Ad Aged If you're not already a subscriber, why not?

It reflects a lot of the stuff I cover in my booklet "Putting the Analog Back into Insight​" - if you want a hard copy drop me a line and I'll send you a couple of physical books in the analog post

In it I suggest the attraction of digital isn't just about cheap (though it obviously is) but is also a function of:

  • 'What Gets Measured Gets Managed'

  • 'The Numbers Game'

  • 'The Analog Alien'

  • 'The Strategy Scrum'

Here are the highlights again:


For the past 10 years digital technology has been driving marketing and while that's been great for those brands with propositions based on convenience and integration, it hasn’t been quite so good for brands that rely on an emotional connection (i.e. most brands).

So if marketers and the brands they manage want to get back to creating meaningful relationships that generate loyalty and goodwill, they need to start finding ways to blend real-world, ‘analog’ insights into the vast amounts of data their online activities produce. 

Planning under pressure

Over the past 10 years, our ability to write powerful strategies has been brutally eroded. Firstly because digital agencies, with their access to vast amounts of data, have been the first port of call for clients looking for insights, but also because clients now expect the same quality of insights they get from traditional planning at the same price you'd charge for looking at a spreadsheet.

Traditional planning is under pressure and I’m not the only one to notice. I’ve discussed the problem with strategy heads at some of the best creative and digital agencies and with brand managers in the UK’s biggest brands and their feedback is the same. ‘Real’ planning is getting harder to do.

What's causing the pressure?

Traditional (analog / non-digital specialist) planners are being muscled out of the decision-making process by less expensive, more compelling influencers. 

There seem to be four main phenomena behind this, which I'm calling:

'What Gets Measured Gets Managed'

'The Numbers Game'

'The Analog Alien'

'The Strategy Scrum'

1.’What gets measured gets managed’:

Most of us assume Peter Drucker came up with phrase What gets measured gets managed but, in fact, the more likely source was Lord Kelvin who, in 1887, said:

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely…advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”

I think Kelvin’s version is superior to Drucker's because he’s saying we don’t just manage the stuff we measure, we also assume the stuff we can't measure is less important. Kelvin was discussing electricity in the 19th Century but he could just as easily be describing digital marketing in 2019.

Digital metrics have many merits; they’re tangible, cheap and good for tracking consumer activity. 'Analog' measures by comparison (such as qualitative research) seems vague, time-consuming and expensive. This has resulted in an over-reliance on numbers and less respect for ‘softer’ emotional values.

In some ways, that’s fine. Digital inputs mean brand managers get stuff they can feel certain about and, by the way, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, what tends to be overlooked is that digital information tends to result in insights based on observable behaviour (rather than beliefs and emotions) and, in the long run, this tends to leave the people you want to buy your products feeling more like numbers than someone you care about.

In our rush to digital solutions, it’s easy to forget people remain, essentially, analog in their behaviour and digital metrics massively underestimate this. Yet we tend to overlook this because, as Lord Kelvin points out, non-rational motivations are so much harder to measure than clicks and eyeballs and, as such, it's a lot easier to just ignore them.

I’m not saying all digitally driven strategies are bad. Digital technology is obviously an important part of our daily lives, but I do argue that it’s vital to ensure digital metrics are always balanced with less tangible analog inputs if marketing is to remain human.

2. The Numbers Game:

My second issue points to how easy it is to be seduced by the clean, binary data and that the ease with which we gather data can create a false assumption that people in the 'real' world are also easy to understand.

If you look at a cold, detached spreadsheet it's easy to forget what the real messy, confusing world is like. Look at some tables and perhaps a nice graph and you might assume people just sit around all day looking at their phones, and that marketing, therefore, simply boils down to giving them something interesting to look at. Feed these 'data points' (i.e. someone looking at their phone) good content (interspersed with a bit of advertising) at the right time, with the right message and it stands to reason that, before long, they'll be buying whatever it is you’re selling.

As an added bonus this 'passive consumer' can also be funnelled into buying your stuff through digital channels that costs a hell of a lot less than traditional retail. And what's more the ROI is easier to calculate per 'hit' or 'engagement' or whatever you want to call it and the whole process is ‘tweak-able’ as you go. So what you seem to be getting is a fast, effective marketing process, that's measurable in real-time, and that you can keep improving and polishing until it perfectly reflects whatever it is you want to see.

Given all this, who can blame a client for assuming a digital strategy will give them all the insights and tools they need?

But, of course, it doesn't, and while online data provides incredibly detailed information about HOW people behave, it offers very little understanding of WHY they behave that way. And this is a big problem. 

Access to digital inputs is part of any good planner’s toolkit, but all that information can actually prevent planners from conducting more traditional, analog research that’s far better at identifying opportunities.

Tilting at windmills with half-baked strategies

In fact, a lack of genuine insight can leave planners exposed. They may have all the numbers they need to make the client feel comfortable, but too they lack the underlying understanding of the real world to propose something truly new. More experienced planners know they’re flying by the seat of their pants going into strategy meetings with shaky decks that are strong on tactics, but weak on strategy.

3. The Analog Alien: 

The third factor I want to highlight is something I call the client-side Analog Alien.

As Lord Kelvin said, we pay more attention to the things we can measure, so brand managers will generally put more store in a graph with a million data-points than some sloppy feedback from a qualitative researcher.

This aversion to all things ‘analog’ can, to some degree, be put down to the simple fact that many clients these days grew up in the digital environment and are, themselves, part of the ‘digital generation’.

When I talk about ‘The Digital Generation’ we might I'm describing some 14-year-old kid playing with his Xbox in his bedroom. But let’s be clear, this applies just as much to the crop of marketers who have come out of college in the last 15 years. Marketers now in their early 30’s grew up in a virtual world, playing Assassin’s Creed rather than falling off their BMX and getting involved in drive-by's in GTA rather than actually getting caught shoplifting in their local Woolies. As such, they often don’t have the real world experience that informs genuine understanding of problems faced by hard-pressed mums on a budget or time-poor dads working two jobs. They sit at their desks looking at screens. The 'real' world is client to them. They are also, as a result, predisposed to digital solutions which they understand and less familiar with the subtle charms of ‘softer’, analog information they feel suspicious about. A lot of them simply don't trust qualitative inputs.

Again, I’m not saying a knowledge of the digital landscape is a bad thing per se. It obviously helps to know how the technology works and how it affects behaviour. But it does mean brand managers tend to be less familiar or interested in traditional brand values and emotional triggers. As such, they’ll be less conscious about building ‘soft metrics’ into the marketing plan and tend to overlook this when drawing up the strategy. If this is the case, how do qualitative, analog insights get considered if no-one is looking for them?

4. The Strategy Scrum:

The fourth reason traditional planning is being squeezed I’m calling the Strategy Scrum. In the Strategy Scrum, who owns the strategy?

These days, clients feel less inclined to follow a strategic process lead by a communication agency and why should they?

In the modern world, a digital strategy must be hard-wired into all the brand’s activity and must be one of the cornerstones of the marketing plan. So the digital agency is obviously going to be involved in developing the strategy alongside the other players. Furthermore, with the definition of ‘brand’ expanding, you can throw into this scrum the views of the design agency, the PR agency, the social media agency and even the UX guys. All of whom have a legitimate say in influencing the direction of the brand.

From the brand managers POV this makes sense, yet what often results from this scrum is strategy by committee which, in reality, is just a list of tactics. To deal with this lack of leadership, consultancies are increasingly brought in to oversee the chaos. But that's the subject of a different essay.

What’s the Answer?

Technology is changing the way people behave and this must be reflected in the way we market to them. But we mustn’t let how we measure them lead us to focus too much on digital inputs to the detriment of less tangible sources of information.

Just because someone connects with your brand via a phone, doesn’t mean they’ve connected with you emotionally and all the ‘impressions’ and ‘engagement’ metrics in the world won’t tell you how to do that. So it’s important to build ‘analog’ into the strategy process from the start. Of course, that kind of ‘data' may be harder to find and more difficult to measure, but understanding it will drive sales far more effectively than simple digital engagement.

Understand the problem before you try to solve it

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask” Einstein

The first job of the planner is to frame the problem so that the strategy addresses the right issues. Only after that can the appropriate metrics (both analog and digital) be blended to shape the overall direction of travel. Building a strategic position always starts with ‘why’, rather than ‘how’, but if you look at the numbers first, all you’re going to see is where your customers have been - but not where they’re going.

Conversely, if you begin the process by exploring the pictures a person's head you’ll find a completely different way of interpreting the numbers thrown up by your digital interactions.

Starting with the person you'd like to buy your product gives the brand a narrative and an emotional handle from which to hang the data.

As marketing heavyweight Mark Ritson suggested during the Festival of Marketing event on 5 Oct 2017:

“5 or 10 years ago we were better at strategy than we are now. Most companies don’t have any strategy. The advice (I’d give) now that wasn’t necessary 10 years ago is to stop messing around with the tactical stuff, pull back, think about strategy. If you talk to agencies, especially after a few beers, about the pitches they’re getting in the UK now, they’re terrible. There’s no strategy in them, just a bunch of tactical requests… My advice would be – try and get strategy first before you start talking about TV, Facebook or anything.”

Analog first

Planners need a couple of things to help them fend off this creeping digital reductionism.

First, they need to win the argument that ‘analog’ inputs are just as valuable as digital when shaping the strategy. Second, they need to offer the client the chance to see the value of an analog perspective without making it an expensive, time-consuming exercise. Finally, planners need to be able to do this at the start of the project, so that all subsequent metrics are built into the narrative from the beginning.

But this approach requires more time for the planner to do their work and for a budget to be put aside for initial exploratory qualitative research.