Is Consumer Tracking the New Advertising?

Perhaps the Concept of Advertising No Longer Applies to Today's Marketplace

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Has the ad industry finally reached the point where it's no longer necessary for marketers to motivate consumers to buy their products?

Has the business evolved to the point of being able to track down presold consumers at the precise time when they're ready to buy?

Do marketers no longer need to waste money trying to motivate uninterested buyers into trying their products?

Is the concept of advertising no longer applicable to today's marketplace, and should we call what marketers do now consumer tracking?

You'd be forgiven if you believe we reached this exalted state based on the preciseness with which marketers can now identify their prime prospects.

And you'd be equally forgiven if you were totally convinced that's the case now that Publicis is once again doubling down to turn itself into a digital Goliath with the Sapient acquisition.

You remember when Publicis and Omnicom wanted to hook up so they could compete more nimbly with digital juggernauts like Google and Facebook that threatened their very existence (or so Publicis CEO Maurice Levy thought; I never was convinced Omnicom boss John Wren was equally concerned -- he just wanted to run the merged companies).

I do get the feeling that the big holding companies don't want to be beholden to outside forces. Not only are they able to follow their clients' customer through their clients' data, but they're also able to generate their own content so not to be at the mercy of old-fashioned and imprecise media like TV -- or even newer ones like digital websites.

I was never quite sure why Mr. Wren kept talking about blurring lines when he discussed the benefits of the merger, but I thought at the time it sounded downright ominous.

"The world is changing and at such a pace that we might not be able to predict exactly where those audiences will be found, six months or two years from now," he said at the time. "This puts us -- like every other industry, I believe -- where lines blur. Things that were very clear for a long period of time and are now subject to the blurring-line phenomenon, which means that you have to become more nimble, better armed if you want to stay at the appropriate cutting edge… Done properly, there are super benefits associated with that. Done improperly, it's a burden."

As I wrote when the merger was announced: "Even if their combined numbers-crunching abilities allows them to keep tabs on where consumers are heading, I don't hear anything about how to motivate them to buy.

"The medium is not the message -- the message is the message, and I haven't heard anything about how an artful and appealing story is an important ingredient in getting consumers to part with their money."

As Dan Wieden said at our Small Agency Conference the day prior to the merger announcement: "While the giant holding companies are wobbling like drunkards, trying to stabilize margins, trying to hold onto client loyalty, the rest of you should be sharpening your knives. … The new digital world has done nothing but create enormous confusion and uncertainty."

My take is that instead of emulating high-tech and data-driven firms that claim they can do a better job of reaching the already-decided consumer at just the right time, agencies should work on differentiating themselves.

Maybe they should spend more time wooing clients who aren't completely sold on diving into data-driven consumer tracking and who still cling to the old-fashioned belief that awareness and brand value still count.

This debate about broad brand values vs. narrow brand preferences also played out in the midterm elections. New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented the way candidates "micro-target specific demographic slices" to track committed voters.

"Unfortunately, the whole thing has been a fiasco," Mr. Brooks wrote. "As politics has gotten more scientific, the campaigns have gotten worse, especially for the candidates who over-rely on these techniques."

He makes the same observation about politics as I have about marketing: Tracking the consumer/voter is now more important than persuasion. "Data-driven politics assumes that demography is destiny, that the electorate is not best seen as a group of free-thinking citizens, but as a collection of demographic slices. This method assumes mobilization is more important than persuasion; that it is more important to target your likely supporters than to try to reframe debates or persuade the whole country."

And he adds that data-driven politics "puts the spotlight on slight differences across the socio-economic spectrum and takes the spotlight off the power of events to reframe the whole mood and landscape. This analytic method encourages candidates across the country to embrace the same tested, cookie-cutter messages."

Just as consumers don't always know what they want to buy, Mr. Brooks makes the point that "political imagination is the rarest and most valuable of qualities. Voters don't always know what they want, but they look to leaders to jump ahead of the current moment and provide visions they haven't thought of."

That's exactly what marketers are giving up when they rely on data-driven consumer tracking. Who knows how many potential buyers marketers are abandoning because they no longer have a grand vision of what their brand could mean to not-yet-believers?

I have a theory that consumers and voters share a desire for change, and the midterm elections certainly seemed to confirm that assessment. Voters sent a distinct signal that they were unhappy with the way things were going in Washington, and consumers are also showing strong evidence that they are equally fed up with their traditional brand favorites.

Today's highly transformational environment—among political candidates and consumer brands -- makes it very dangerous to think you know who your best customers/voters are. With preferences in such flux, both political operatives and consumer marketers need to broaden their pitches to a wider and more-receptive audience.

And finally, did you notice that the Democrats' much-publicized way of buying ads on TV shows most watched by their prospects didn't seem to hold up this time around? Maybe it was because it's too difficult to match up data on a statewide basis, but I was always skeptical that the pols could ascertain that viewers of tired old late-night reruns of "Hogan's Heroes" would vote Democratic any more than buyers of tired old brands like Grape Nuts cereal would vote Republican.

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