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3 Blind Marketers

2011 June 22

The ancient fable of the blind men and an elephant has served as a source of both caution and inspiration across cultures and millennia.

In various versions, each blind man touches only part of the elephant and arrives at a different conclusion.  
One feels the tusk and believes an elephant is like a spear; another the side and perceives a wall.  A third, who grabs the tail, believes it to be like a rope and so on. I can’t think of a better description of digital marketing today.

Ask just about anybody and they will say “I get it” and then explain one aspect or the other.  They’re often quite knowledgeable and informed until you move the discussion an inch to the left or the right.  Then they become babbling idiots.  Obviously, it can’t go on this way.

The Paid, Owned and Earned Model

There seems to be a growing consensus that  marketing is moving away from analog/digital and ATL/BTL dichotomies and towards a model of paid, owned and earned media.  The idea is catching on because it’s so sensible and easy to “get.”

However, the concept is highly problematic. Where should priorities lay?  How are the three interconnected?  How do we evaluate them?  Where does one start and the other end?  How will problems be resolved?  Who’s driving the bus???!!!

If you start asking these questions, you’ll quickly get some answers from someone who “gets it,”  However, they will inevitably be of the sort of the famous blind men describing the tusk or the tail rather than the whole elephant.

Paid Media

Talk  to media agency people and they’ll say, “I get it.  It’s all about data integration, DSP’s and optimization.”

They feel well equipped to the task.  After all, they’ve been optimizing TV schedules for decades comfortable with numbers, and are used to working elaborate software platforms.  They can know how to negotiate good deals and drive ROI.

However, ask them about the difference between the Internet and the Web or social networks and social media and they’ll give you a queer look.  Try to engage a them in a discussion about user experience or social infrastructure and they will pontificate broadly, without even a basic knowledge of how a web site works.

Somewhere along the line in their quest to become strategic communication planners, media agencies forgot about media and have neglected crucial skills that would serve them well in the digital age.  

Planners used to meet with media owners regularly, understand what makes one product a hit and another a flop and so on.  Now all that has been relegated to mere “implementation.” The lack of direct contact has taken a toll.

Owned Media

Talk to creative agency and PR oriented people and they’ll say, “I get it.  It’s all about messaging and inspiring the consumer.”

They’re quite happy with that.  They’ve been at it for a long time.  They know how to write headlines and copy.  A web site to them is just interactive print.  Moreover, the emergence of online video makes the grand old dames of Madison Ave. feel right at home.

However, as someone who has trained a number of print editors to adapt to digital, I can attest that a web page is very little like print.  Users scan screens rather than they read them.  They don’t follow a linear pattern, but respond to relationships between content.  It’s easy for people following old rules to fall into common web publishing mistakes.

Further, people on the web truly don’t read a book by its cover.  In most cases, less than half of users arrive at a site through the home page.  They usually get there through search engines or referring sites.  What to do about that?  Better go ask the media agency guys with their DSP’s…

Earned Media

Talk to social media people and they’ll say, “I get it, it’s all about the conversation.”

They feel invigorated.  All those years of training their thumbs on video games and classroom SMS’s is finally paying off! Their parents and teachers thought they were just goofing off.  Hah!  They were preparing for a new digital age!

Now it seems that the worm has turned.  Pepsi’s “Refresh” project, hailed by many social media advocates as a harbinger of things to come, has turned into an enormous embarrassment.  This forward looking company who so eagerly jumped at the new, new thing has seen their market share slide to levels not seen since people wore funny hats.

It turns out that those traditional guys who were optimizing schedules and crafting messages for all those years figured a few things out along the way. Money and marketing craft do matter.

And guess what?  Tweeting really isn’t all that hard to learn.  So you can expect social strategies to be incorporated into other functional areas.  In case you missed it, I previously laid out 4 ways to do just that.

The Futility of “Getting It”

What will be the utility of massive data integration platforms in a fully semantic web? How will HTML5 affect our current understanding of user experience?  Can conversations ever be honest and true in a world of asymmetric information?

To be honest, I really don’t know and by the time I am able to achieve some clarity, the important questions will be most likely be altogether different.  We’re lucky enough to be living through amazing times, an era where people will look back and say, “Wow!  that’s when it all really got started.”

So much like Socrates’ famous adage, the only true knowledge lies in knowing that you know nothing.  Where does that leave us?  Fortunately, there’s an answer for that.

The Agency of the Future?

A while back, just after I started this blog, I wrote about the merits of specialized vs. full service agencies.  The basic premise was that the dichotomy is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls modular and integrated organizations.

Integrated Organization: When things are new, not well understood and operational interfaces are weak.  Problems lack standard solutions.  Therefore, people need to be close to each other and communication has to be very intense. A good example would be the early auto factory where raw materials went in the front and cars came out the back.

Modular Organization: When an industry becomes more mature, interfaces improve. Standard solutions to basic problems emerge and communication becomes more formalized.  Firms begin to specialize in different parts of the process, much like the auto industry today, which is comprised of thousands of components suppliers.

It should be clear that over the past few decades marketing services has become increasingly modular.  However, it seems just as clear that the trend is reversing towards a more integrated approach.  Digital native agencies tend to be full service and, as recent articles in Ad Age and Adweek show, are starting to move into traditional spaces as well.

So the agency of the future will probably look a whole lot more like the agencies of the past, with a full service, integrated approach.  That makes a lot of sense, because we truly don’t “get it.”  When you’re trying to make sense of an elephant in the dark, it helps to have extra hands around.

The new era of paid, owned and earned media will be an era of integrated teams.

– Greg


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Philip Larmett permalink
    June 23, 2011

    another great article that made me stop and think. And link back to some of your previous blogs.
    You mentioned specifically Pepsi refresh in your comments. Maybe you’d like to look at the localized version of the Pepsi Refresh project.
    Learning from the mistakes of the American lead market, Pepsi is doing very well thank you in Ukraine at the moment. It’s market share is increasing to a level that is finally challenging Coke and the company is managing to engage the Ukrainian youth at the same time…
    BBDO Kyiv is heavily involved as creative lead agency…

  2. June 23, 2011


    Thanks. I personally don’t have a big problem with the Pepsi refresh project. I think it was overly hyped when they launched it and is being trashed a bit more than it should be now. To the average consumer it’s just not that big of a deal either way.

    Glad to hear that Pepsi is finally getting moving in Ukraine. They’ve been quiet for a long time.

    Good luck!

    – Greg

  3. June 26, 2011

    What a smart and timely commentary. Modular and integrated both require clarity and specificity on the part of the leader running the core group. What will be its core “service” strength? How will it be characterized so that it stands out from the competition? For what business/organizations and/or situations will it prove most valuable?

    “Even” in an integrated agency, the most successful ones will tap talent outside of the business, as needed. and have a wide enough lens to know when and how to make it worthwhile for that top talent to want to participate.

    What will be the rules of engagement for communication, compensation, idea creation process etc.? Those with the T-shaped character cited by Morten Hansen in his book Collaboration are likely to be sought-after in your scenario.

    Your “elephant” metaphor is apt for many other situations, Greg, in this increasingly complex yet connected world. It also points to the value of human-centered design as practiced at Stanford’s d school.

  4. June 26, 2011

    Thanks Kare.

    One thing that I didn’t mention above is that at any given point, an industry will have modular and integrated components.

    The things that are done well take on a modular organization before long, while those that are crappy need to be integrated. So integrated organization is sort of like getting put in a slower class at school.

    So, for instance, as we get better a things like web development, they tend to get more modular themselves (we see that now with outsourcing to Costa Rica and Ukraine), but more integrated into agency organizations.

    The interesting part is that the really profitable areas are crappy. Great innovation comes from improving them. For me, this is a really interesting topic. I wrote about crappy innovation before:

    As always, thanks for an interesting comment.

    Have a great week Kare!

    – Greg

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