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An opportunity to achieve more in the age of less

11 Nov 2019  |  Matthew Hook 
An opportunity to achieve more in the age of less

After decades of growth in consumption, data, tech and channels, marketing could soon witness a slow down. How will it cope, asks Matthew Hook

The last 20 years have provided an exponential world of opportunity for the marketing discipline.

Consumption and consumer spending, excluding only a few hiccups, has grown steadily throughout the last 20 years. Household spending in the UK is nearly double what it was in 1997. What’s more, advertising spend has gone up even more than that, by 133%.

At the same time, we’ve had the most extraordinary media revolution since the invention of broadcast. Time spent with marketing-enabled media has doubled, whilst all kinds of new canvases have appeared, from paid search, to social video, to augmented and virtual reality. And all of them have generate extraordinary quantities of data - and the tools to store, organise, interrogate and activate it.

At the same time, there’s more and more varied creative talent than ever. And the cost of producing technically astonishing assets has plunged at the same time as its capabilities have extended and exploded.

It’s been an era of more, more and more.

And at the end of that sugar rush, the marketing industry seems to be dejected, deflated, and in a state of grim introspection.

Trust in advertising and in advertising partners is low. Self-image within agencies is low. CMO status and tenure is reduced. And by recent evidence, the marketing effectiveness of both the average and the award-winning work has been significantly reduced.

Now, if that wasn’t all enough…the first tremors of even more change for the marketing discipline are echoing in the distance.

The sustainability agenda is finally tipping from hopes and prayers into a tangible sense that consumption needs to decrease.

The worsening economic environment will most likely put the brakes on marketing spend, and further decouple it from GDP.

Our social norms are turning against the ubiquity of technology, which will cap media consumption.

People are more willing to pay for content they love, which might be good for content but might mean less accepted space for advertising.

Personal data is becoming the subject of meaningful legislation and consumer restriction.

Are we really pivoting from an Age of More to an Age of Less? And does this spell doom and gloom for marketing?

I’d argue yes to the first question, and a resounding no to the second. In fact, perhaps the Age of Less could usher in an era where marketing can achieve more.

1. Marketing is best at making us value things more

There is an undeniable benefit to the whole of society that we become less dependent on the purchase and disposal of large amounts of ‘stuff’. This process should free marketing to do what it in fact does best – to add intangible value to products in the form of emotion, identity and utility that far outweigh the value of the thing itself.

If consumption of physical products decrease, the role of marketing will be to increase the price we are willing to pay for them, and to build the affection and loyalty that maximises market share. Which is a) the brief which produces the best work and b) what marketing is generally best at.

So, advertising and marketing may be an essential part of a more sustainable world, which is very much the argument Rory Sutherland put at this year’s excellent Nudgestock. Marketing can help us to enjoy less, more.

2. Marketing is better without the option of brute force

It seems pretty certain that adspend will be going down, because it has already untethered itself from tracing GDP, and now we are likely heading into a flat or recessionary economic cycle.

There is no doubt that in the short term, a reduction in adspend will at least hurt quite a few major players. However, is it bad for the practice and long-term health of marketing? Not necessarily.

There has been a certain drive in recent years to automatically see more as better – more weeks on air, more ads, more reach, of everyone, all the time. It has been telling that the triumphant marketing philosophies of this era have been theories rooted in abundance, whether it’s the blunt application of the Ehrenberg Bass ‘Laws of Growth’ or the slippery double-positive of ‘Personalisation at Scale’.

Perhaps the Age of Less will refocus marketing on being what it is – a human science based on creating moments of attention, persuasion and action.

3. Marketing needs attention more than it needs commercial impacts

Thus far, the ascendancy of paid subscription (eg Netflix, Spotify Premium), public service and adblocking has seemed to have a relatively limited impact on commercial exposure, because the gap has apparently been made up by the increases in total media consumption.

But that trend seems to be at its turning point. Firstly, user-funded media are going to keep accelerating – not to take the whole market, but certainly more of it, and some of the most valuable pieces at that. This doesn’t mean marketing-free media, but it definitely means a less conspicuous and more limited canvas.

And media consumption seems to be topping off – almost all the major online platform’s global daily usership is level-ish. And if social attitudes to public phone use continue to harden, these numbers may start to go down.

So, a relatively near future where the time people spend with marketing-supported media is very likely to reduce. The upside for marketing? Attention.

Assuming the industry responds to this in the right way it could be great. We need to embrace quality of content and context, improving the advertising experience, getting the investment to the people who have earnt it, producing brilliant commercial messaging – and then it’ll work better, and feel nicer.

4. Marketing needs other data more than it needs personal data

We absolutely aren’t heading into a world of less data. There will be more exposure data, hopefully of a more reliable and transparent nature. There will be more and better supply and demand chain data, with the big benefit of 5G being the connection of more things rather than more people. There will be more transaction data. It’ll still be an age of more data and it will need a lot of wrangling.

What’s even better is that most of this data will be directly related to business performance and the customer experience, so it’ll be much more useful.

What there will most likely be less of is data that is attached, without your permission, to a single persistent identity that describes you. The slow death of 3rd party cookies, those things that follow you around the internet like a stalker, is the canary in the coalmine here. The next phase will be a rolling backlash against personal data capture by anyone other than the business or publisher or platform you are dealing directly, on any terms other than those you’ve explicitly agreed.

And will that be a problem? No, it’ll be great! Not only do I think it’s ethically essential, and I feel great about it as an individual, but it will also remove a massive distraction for marketers. The last 10 years have seen an obsession with the mechanics of consumer targeting that is at once both massively disproportionate to its ROI value, and also frequently underdelivered under the bonnet.

Marketing will still be about relevance; segmentation still matters; personalised services are massively valuable, but you don’t need to log and capture every element of someone’s life across the internet to market to them – in fact it is a distraction from a deeper understanding of what really matters to them.

Doing less, but better

So, what happens next? What’s the best way to prepare for the Age of Less?

The first thing is that this is a time to stay incredibly close to the changes in the market and in people’s lives. The last twenty years may have gone by in a blur of rapid change, but the direction of that change has felt fairly predictable. It’s been a digitally-driven march towards more of everything. This is a new phase - as society, technology and business react to the human tremors of digitisation – and the implications are not yet written.

For brands, more than ever, the essential quality is having real strategic clarity. Brands need to develop in a way that is fundamentally well-judged, and compatible with an emerging new way of living our lives. In the Age of Less, success will come from doing less – but much better.


Matthew Hook is the owner of Hook Strategy, a strategic consulting business

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