The Dirty Little Secret of Marketing Tech

Don't Be Sold on Promises from Tech Vendors at Cannes

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We all know that Microsoft Word is good for writing, but no one has never claimed it could write a novel for us. If we can't do that with pen and paper, we certainly can't do it with the product.

Then again, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, we'll almost certainly see an analogous pitch being made to marketers. The pavilions and La Croisette will be overflowing with technology companies brandishing marketing tools. Collectively, they will claim to fix all of your problems and help you achieve perfect customer interaction.

In other words, they'll be sold on rosy scenarios rather than hard facts. You'll hear how once everything is in place, you'll hit your customer with exactly the right message at precisely the right moment. Sometimes, they're even called "automated," which gives you the distinct impression that you'll be able to sit back and they'll do everything for you. In the end, that's just a story, and we have good evidence that it's not true: nearly half of all of marketers are not happy with their technology investments.

I don't mean to criticize the tools themselves. Many are, in fact, powerful solutions and deliver great results. But calling them "automated" and listening to the stories rather than paying attention to the reality has led some down the wrong road.

To see why, let's start with what they do. Some of them do, of course, automate or streamline repetitive processes, such as ad buying. But many do something else: They add capabilities that allow us to do things we couldn't do before. They are much like a new filter in Photoshop that enables you to complete a task that was once so cumbersome that no one bothered with it. With dynamic content optimization tools, for example, you can build, place, and optimize 50,000 versions of the same ad. But before we had such tools, we weren't creating 50,000 versions by hand. We weren't doing that at all.

The flipside is that a great new Photoshop brush won't make me much of an artist. That takes a lot of work, both with the software and without it. My facility with Photoshop and the new brush may allow me to do great things, but only if I have a wide range of other skills and experience, too. And all these principles apply to the new wave of marketing technology.

Here are a few things for marketers to consider as they listen to pitches from tech vendors:

1. Any great tool requires fluency. The great stories we hear belie a simple fact. None of this is plug-and-play. Getting up to speed requires serious learning, analysis, and integration with existing workflows. In addition, because the tools require care and feeding, we have to make decisions about how to shift resources to them.

2. You still need to do most of what you were doing before. Unfortunately, having great tools often requires more work, not less. And because these tools often add capabilities rather than replace existing processes, the rest of your job -- and especially the hard work of creative strategy -- must go on.

3. Talent delivers insight, not tools. With data tools, you need a smart scientist, one who can get insights from a data set mainly because she knows what questions to ask. The insight you'll get is highly dependent on her instincts -- a fact that is often conveniently left out of a marketing brochure.

4. You still need ideas. You can have the best insights in the world, but unless someone sifts them correctly and merges them with a deep understanding of cultural trends, you might as well forget it. Data can tell you where and when to place your seven-second video, but it will not pick the right seven seconds of content for you.

In other words, the secret to marketing with tools is that you still have to do all the basics well. Technology vendors may promise the moon, but just because something can deliver a particular set of capabilities does not mean we'll make the most of them. For that, we still need to do what this industry has always done. Dig deep, find out the truth behind the numbers, and come up with great creative solutions.