I’ve been meaning to create an 85SIXTY blog for about 2 years, but getting started seemed to me to necessitate making an all-encompassing observation about the current state of affairs in digital.  Six weeks ago, I resolved to get started and asked myself “What do I think about digital & marketing today?”  My mind was circling around an idea about the current effectiveness of marketing and media.  When we live in a world where we are constantly being bombarded by messages from every direction, when advertising lives everywhere, when cynicism rather than curiosity is the natural reaction to newness – can brands really break-through into the consciousness of consumers in a consistent and planned way?   With the rise of social media and purchase decisions being driven by friends & family instead of media, is the output of advertising worth the input?


During my career, I’ve watched as channels like search, display, and most recently paid social emerged like shining prophets with initially minimal competition, rapidly increasing scale, and relatively easily measured performance. Marketers felt assured of strong returns and quickly shifted budgets to these emerging channels, only to see the most directly measured performance metrics eventually peak then come back to earth. This, in turn, pushed us to explore new methods of measurability.  That’s not to say that newness is always accompanied by performance, but it is clear that as more brands enter a channel, consumers quickly begin to recognize the ads.  After all, the first banner ad had a 44% click-through-rate. As the pace of technology-driven innovation continues to expand it is inevitable that these cycles in media will accelerate at ever increasing rates.  Change is happening faster.


The first banner ad ever, which ran on Hotwired.com in 1994.


Just look at the pace at which digital marketing channels have emerged:  The first banner ad – with its 44% CTR -ran in 1994.  Paid search was born in 1998 with Google AdWords launching 2 years after that.  Facebook, as we know it, is less than a decade old. The iPhone launched in 2007 ushering in the rise of mobile. If mobile marketing was a child, it would be in the third grade.  During that time, traditional media has experienced upheaval. Everyone is aware of the flight of budgets out of print.  Adjusted for inflation, U.S. newspaper advertising revenue is below what it was in 1950 despite the population being twice what was then.  Television is being radically reshaped thanks to the wide availability of video-on-demand content.  Ad skipping and blocking is prevalent in almost every channel. Our ability to apply machine learning to vast amounts of data to inform our strategy, planning, targeting and buying efforts – all in real-time – was not even open to consideration at the turn of the millennium.


Predictably, as we spend more time with screens, the number of brand impressions continues to scale.  However, it is interesting that while there are more logos and ads everywhere and we spend more and more time with media which is packaged to show a logo or brand message in every 30-90 second snippet, the number of impressions which have an impact, create awareness, or drive an “engagement” is estimated to have stayed nearly constant. To make sure that your brand makes it into that list of the “noticed,” several thousand technology providers have spun up.  Part of my job is trying to at least know where they have defined an opportunity to create advantage.  However, I can’t quite keep up with all the names on the Lumascape no matter how many vendor lunches I take.


As I thought about this post, words that are meant to be the first burst of inspiration from our agency, my initial reaction was “maybe it’s time to go off the grid.”  Are we spinning the hamster wheel of marketing – and consumption – so fast that we will inevitably get launched from it into the side of our cage only to come crashing down to face that we were going nowhere, just faster?  That doesn’t seem too “inspiring.”


So, here I am.  The chief strategist at an organization charged by our clients with helping them navigate this world so that their products and services are among the chosen.  And I’m suddenly skeptical. Most strategy starts with some foundation – some things that should hold true – but in this whack-a-mole ecosystem we’re seeing that traditional approaches to defining goals, opportunities and tactics – while necessary vestiges for our current cognitive processes – are likely just legacies being outpaced by technology.  We’ve reached an inflection point where we need to be able to “think different” in a real cognitive function kind of way.  However, rewiring our brains on demand is actually not that possible.  We have to find something else.  We have to charge forward recognizing that we should at least attempt to shift our perspective.


And with that thought, what recently seemed to me as potentially overwhelming has become exciting.    While the possibilities for us as marketers grow in complexity by the day and concepts – like the marketing funnel – which we hold as almost religious truths are being reconfigured, we, by our nature as marketers, should see these as opportunities.  While we may look back in 20 years at our current data-warehouses, DSP’s, and analytics platforms as though they were the stone tools of a bygone era, today this technology does allow us to learn and evolve in ways not previously imaginable.  The technology I use today is vastly improved over the technology to which I had access even three years ago.   At 85SIXTY, we’ve long embraced the idea that things must be customized.  Everything has to be configured, extracted, normalized, restructured and we must iterate.  Build, test, rebuild.  That ideology along with the technology we’ve built is changing the way we think about what we do and how we make decisions.


There are some things – like paid search and email – which we don’t have to question, yet.  We have an eye towards the future in those areas; but, today we can build and improve on something that is – for at least this moment – understandable.    We can continue to build on our belief that there is insight in information as well as our skill managing and interpreting data so that it helps guide our path.  That belief also shapes how we are investing in the future with a realization that more data requires greater expertise, more powerful tools, and new ways of looking for patterns which can orient us.


For me as a strategist as well as the person to whom clients most look to for advice, this perspective requires me to steady them while also inspiring them to revisit what they hold as true.    Five years ago, if you had told me that Facebook would become a media giant, I would have laughed.  Today Facebook lags behind only the mighty Google in terms of client ad expenditure.   In another five years, the pendulum will have likely shifted in yet another direction as consumers generally are demanding less, yet more relevant marketing.  Don’t assume anything will be constant. We are just barely even thinking about IoT and how that will change marketing and consumer perspectives, but we know it will. So will the sharing economy, artificial intelligence, driverless cars, as well as factors not tied to technology such as population growth and environmental issues.


So, for me and for 85SIXTY, the task won’t be to pray that the ground stabilizes and that we can just “optimize” into ever improving ROAS and ROI targets.  No, the challenge will be to embrace the madness, to join the fray, to keep our eyes on the horizon and push our clients to think about how not only media, but also more broadly consumer preferences and thinking, are shifting. It’s not evolution.  It’s revolution.  That type of exponential change is creating white space no one else occupies.  That provides the opportunity to work with our clients to collaboratively change industries – forget just building ads.  We have to collectively embrace that where we are today is not where we will be tomorrow.  We have to challenge everything.


Sources referenced: “America’s Media Usage & Ad Exposure,” Media Dynamics, September 2014.