An open letter to the editor of AdAge on boring martech

Martech is so boring

Dear Ken Wheaton,

I read your editorial from October 3, Martech Is So Boring — and It Should Stay That Way, and felt compelled to respond.

First, let me say how influential AdvertisingAge has been to me. Growing up in the 80’s, when my parents ran a small agency, I eagerly read copies at their office each week. (Yeah, I was a strange kid.) AdAge seeded my fascination with marketing, and I’m grateful for the inspiration I’ve drawn from your pages over the past four decades.

So it’s with great respect that I say: you’re wrong that martech is boring — or that it should be.

I understand that being pitched a stream of tech jargon causes your eyes to glaze over. I imagine many of your readers feel the same. Boring and confusing tech talk was not what you or they signed up for with a career in marketing. I was told there would be martinis at lunch.

Norman Rockwell on Marketing Technology

And I appreciate that the pitch you heard from Neustar CEO Lisa Hook — “you hit the button and the answer comes out” — is so much more appealing. Just “make it all seem easy so that marketers can go back to worrying about campaigns and creativity and strategy.” Make the complexity invisible.

If there’s a heaven for marketers, it surely looks something like that. If only Norman Rockwell were alive to paint such a cover for your publication.

But marketing technology is not “a Rube Goldberg machine” marring an otherwise idyllic marketing scene. A Rube Goldberg machine is a contrapation that is deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion. The fallacy in your editorial is in the “simple task” portion of that definition.

Marketing today is not a simple task.

Sure, you can distill its mission into a simple statement, “Persuade people to buy our stuff.” That’s easily said. But accomplishing that turns out to be really hard. (And thank goodness, otherwise there would be no meaningful careers in marketing at all, and everyone would own a closet full of Snuggies.)

Marketing has grown exponentially more complex in the digital age. That’s partly because of an explosion of new channels and touchpoints between marketers and their audiences that continually morph and multiply — and the massive clouds of data billowing from that Silicon Valley firestorm.

Adtech didn’t create that complexity. It was developed in response to it.

But what truly makes marketing in a digital world complex — yet wondrous — is that it’s so much more than advertising. Marketers are not limited to manipulating messages and media to build brands. They now have a powerful third dimension to strategy and creative: mechanisms.

Marketing Mechanisms

Mechanisms are the function and flow of digital experiences. They let us shape a brand by what it does — by how our touchpoints with customers behave. Increasingly, through marketing technology, marketers can manipulate these mechanisms with the same fluidity we’ve had with art and copy.

Far more than the most iconic 30-second spots in the history of advertising, these mechanisms shape brands in the minds of consumers. The digitally-enabled experiences people have — and how they relate them through social media — are the very essence of a brand today.

I don’t use the word “dimension” above casually. This is a Flatland-like journey of discovery for us that we’ve only just begun. It is dizzying in the scale of what’s already possible, and yet there’s so much more barreling down the pike: AR, VR, wearables, the Internet of Things, conversational interfaces, machine intelligence. You can dismiss those things as techno-babble, but that would be a mistake. They are reshaping the very fabric by which brands and consumers engage with each other.

It’s why marketing is so deeply entangled in the larger mission of digital transformation.

Anyone who claims that they fully understand the implications of all this is either delusional or trying to sell you something.

But that’s why this is thrilling. It’s not boring! It’s an incredible gift for marketers of our era to have the opportunity to pioneer this new, three-dimensional world instead of merely tracing the outlines of marketing’s two-dimensional playbook from last century.

We get to redraw the boundaries of marketing campaigns, creative, and strategy that future generations will inherit as the new outlines of our profession.

Marketing technology is more than the easel for creating this masterpiece. It’s the canvas, the brushes, the pencils, and an infinite technicolor palette of oils, acrylics, watercolors, chalks, and, yeah, even some glitter.

We should not love martech for its own sake, of course, but rather for what it empowers us to render from our imagination to reality. But we have to love it enough to appreciate it as an integral element of our art and learn how to wield it like a master.

Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2016)

When you look at the LUMAscape, I appreciate that it can seem like just a jumble of logos crammed on a page. (And if you have mild disdain for Terry Kawaja’s slide, you’ll almost certainly have apoplectic disgust for my broader marketing technology landscape.)

Your indictment that it isn’t tremendously helpful to marketing’s mission is fair. It’s a vendor map, not a martech Rosetta Stone.

If your mission were to lead a manned spaceflight to Alpha Centauri, it would be like someone handing you a Hubble photogrpah of the galaxy. Even if you think it’s pretty — or just a mess of bright dots — it doesn’t explain how to get there from here.

That doesn’t make the photograph useless. It offers us one keyhole view into an enormous and complex universe that we aspire to navigate. It helps us appreciate the stunning scale of the cosmos we seek to explore, with some high-level sense of how the stars are positioned among each other. That’s an admittedly tiny contribution to the mission to Alpha Centauri. But for as much as we could reasonably expect from a single image, merely one lens on such a vast field, it is a helpful contribution nonetheless.

Our mission in marketing may not rank with interstellar travel, but it is massive and complex and a journey into the uncharted territory of the future. It is a future not merely enabled by but shaped by technology.

As marketers, that future is ours to shape. And it’s damn exciting.

Yours truly,

Scott Brinker

P.S. Please accept an invitation to be my guest at an upcoming MarTech conference. I’ll wager you $100 that you won’t be bored.

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6 thoughts on “An open letter to the editor of AdAge on boring martech”

  1. When people are caught in the middle of transformation and feel confused and left out and nostalgic for times past it’s a natural reaction to describe the situation with condescension. The world is flat. Printing presses. Earth was the center of the universe. Cars would never replace horses. Growth and improvement and new ideas are often hard to absorb.

    The advertising world is being turned on its head and has been for nearly 20 years. Martech can seem boring to some with Madison Ave and mass media pedigree. But those same people can have their minds blown by exploring new ideas enabled with martech.

    Martech makes all things marketing so much more cool and interesting than anytime I can think of in my 20+ years. Most importantly, martech impact can be measured in ways marketing has never been able to measure success before. Creativity is still incredibly important. But what we can do with creative ideas and how we reach new audiences and measure results – that is the wicked cool stuff.

    Arts and crafts marketing has gone the way of the dodo, and that’s a good thing. Martech has democratized marketing and leveled playing fields for small and huge businesses. There is no way this is boring.

  2. Scott this is one of the best things I’ve read on MarTech. I absolutely agree it doesn’t need to be boring, we’re solving the complex, and in fact what we’re pushing for is not pure simplicity but elegance married with simplicity. We must acknowledge limitations and push for answers despite them.

    Recently I picked up the “Cartoon Guide to Statistics” and was struck by this widely-accepted axiom about the field of statistics:

    “Statistics is not the practice of providing certainty; it is quantification of uncertainty.”

    In many ways, this seems to be the noble goal of (honest & integritous) MarTech/AdTech:

    Identify the black holes (awareness dark spots, tracking gaps, conversion gaps, revenue gaps) and then reduce them.

  3. Beautiful Mr. Brinker … poetic even… loved every word.
    Change is difficult and the dizzying aspect of the change of MarTech is a huge challenge for all of us. Perhaps people will read your letter and feel a little less alone, a little less like they have to have the answers and a little more like jumping in the deep end and trying to figure it out with the rest of us.

  4. Scott,
    I think you are being unfair.
    AdAge (at least in Aust) has only ever been concerned with the awards agencies give themselves, the so called ‘creative product’ so they can hang them on the foyer wall and congratulate themselves.
    Pity so many of the ‘award-winning ads were the commercial equivalents of elephant poop. To be fair however, some numnut in a client approved them, so the agencies are not all to blame.
    Martech is rapidly demolishing the bullshit associated with advertising, making it increasingly accountable, as well as opening up the whole marketing process to sensible, insightful and innovative management.
    No wonder they get their knickers in a knot! .

  5. Great blog post, Scott! Whether martech is exciting or boring really does not matter. Fundamentally, martech is responding to changing customer behavior due to the explosion of tech-driven channels. The “complexity” of martech aims to simply the experience of the customer by leveraging these channels with insightful analytics built on clean data. Companies that do this well (e.g. Amazon, Netflix, Uber) create incredibly simple user experiences even if their martech and data is boring, complex, or whatever.

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