The Simplicity Imperative

An industry association leader recently told me that the complexity of digital marketing was reaching the breaking point. Advertisers are questioning whether the added complexity is worth it, and asking for a fix. Is it really that complicated? If so, why?  

It’s complicated

Once, marketing communication happened mainly on broadcast media, which treats consumers like a blob of commoditized need.  Then came the Internet. With the Web, it’s one consumer at a time, and return signals from each impression. Now add device proliferation, the number of possible expressions of need or intent, and various ways to commercialize those.  Multiply by channel and content fragmentation.  Now add 2,000 ad-tech companies happy to thicken the fog of war if it suits their agenda.  

Add that up, with all the permutations, and complexity increases by orders of magnitude compared to simpler times. The consumer isn’t just boss, the consumer is billions of bosses playing hide and seek behind layers of ad blocking, cookie deletion, and privacy regulation.

Humans can’t handle this much complexity. Even 2x would have been a challenge to the old way. So we did what we could. We fought fire with fire, and used computers to help sort out the decisions regarding who would get what message, and in what circumstances. It worked.

Marketers celebrated the opportunity at first. I heard sentiments like: “Finally, we can speak to consumers as individuals.” All good, but once computers got involved with marketing decisions, the possibilities were endless. The price was complexity.

We are seeing another parallel phenomenon: Brands, with their own kinds of objectives, are quickly becoming a bigger part of the equation. Direct-response marketing is the legacy of the Web, and what could be simpler than paying for performance? With brands, though, “performance” is hard to measure. Brands have to run on surrogate signals of intent, and noise-ridden attribution. Retailers know who bought what, and correctly regard that data as their crown jewels.

So, the flighty, mighty, technology-enabled consumer is a reality. Marketers didn’t cause that, but in building the adaptation, we may have created our own Frankenstein: the advertising supply chain.

The Supply Chain-Saw Massacre

All this complexity wouldn’t alarm marketers if it didn’t impact their decision space — but it certainly has. New capabilities, concepts, language, and culture have produced new power, ghost-like.  Anyone who does not have it, or wants more, is free to invoke the dreaded FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD, whether intentional or not, is in play. This adds to the angst, and to the appearance of complexity.   

The pragmatic adaptation to complexity involves layers of managed services, but insulating the need from the solution can create issues. Parties creating services may actually profit from complexity, especially in a headcount-based deal. The linkage between cost and value gets fuzzy.

Worse, when advertisers push complexity to another party, they might be giving up a unique opportunity to learn.  This is exacerbated by media buyers' predilection to switch suppliers in a New York minute.  When that happens, continuity of insight is broken, because the data does not move to the new supply source. When media-derived measurement is the genesis of insight, playing musical chairs with media supply can be costly.

So apparent complexity is amplified, and insights are compromised when advertisers lose touch with marketing execution.    

Guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan once said his ideal amplifier would only have one knob, and it would be labeled “more.”  If we get marketing technology right, CMOs will have that knob.

Clearly, we are not there yet, but the foundations are in place. We have the tools, and we all want the same thing: to get messages to people who might care. That’s a goal we have no hope of attaining without the help of technology. So the trick will be to bring advertisers a little closer to how it works — and to stabilize relationships with behaviors that engender trust.

4 comments about "The Simplicity Imperative".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 25, 2016 at 2:27 p.m.

    Ted, perhaps the answer would be to replace all advertiser CMOs as well as marketing directors and brand managers with computers and then extend that to the agency "creative" function as well. Just kidding----or am I?

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 25, 2016 at 2:55 p.m.

    Read your insurance policy, everything you have to sign when you buy a car, a house. The products and deals of financial institutions responsible for your money are so complicated, rare few people who are in charge understand them. The more complex, the more can go wrong unintentionally, but more like intentionally and not on the side of the consumer one iota. One letter or one number ( a 1 or 0 ) can turn your life out. Is it all worth it to have your name on an email and every single thing you do tracked for a stinking selfishie ? Talk about cost and value getting fuzy or the profit for the few (creating this mess) to sacrafice everything and everyone else ? Ted, may your goals be met.

  3. Jaffer Ali from PulseTV, February 26, 2016 at 7:47 a.m.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    The online media and marketing industry is awash in charlatans and idiots who seek to complexify. We now have computer engineers in charge of marketing and they never sold a thing in their lives. Ted, you nailed it. - Jaffer

  4. Goran Paunovic from, February 28, 2016 at 3:44 p.m.

    ctrl+alt+del is necessary..

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