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Marketing in the era of ambiguity: How agencies can help clients navigate an ever-changing world

By Chris Wood, managing director

February 2, 2016 | 7 min read

Between 2005 and 2007, Les Binet and Peter Field spent 24 months analysing 880 IPA effectiveness case studies, written between 1980 and 2006, to produce the much cited paper: Marketing in the Era of Accountability. It is arguably the most rigorous analysis ever undertaken of what makes advertising effective.

I have spent almost 24 minutes’ skim analysing (a way of analysing in the digital age) snippets of TED talks, subjective blog posts, and the eight articles already written by the other members of the IPA Brand Tech group, to create what I’m sure will be seen as the sequel to that great work: Marketing in the Era of Ambiguity.

(Just to manage expectations, I would like this to be reframed more as a call to arms for Les and Peter to get back on the horse and write the sequel, rather than the sequel itself.)

Ten years after the original paper was written we find ourselves in an era where marketers are less sure than ever what to do, how to do it, and whether it will work. Why is that, you may ask.

Well, Les and Peter’s data showed that in the 1980s an average of two channels were used to communicate to consumers; in the 1990s that expanded by 50 per cent to three (data doesn’t lie); and by the early 21st century we had reached the dizzy heights of five media and among these was 'the internet' (aka 'digital'), which had emerged on media plans as a single, amorphous all-encompassing media type.

In 2016 the world looks vastly more complex. A quick look at Gartner’s map of marketing technologies indicates that marketers face a plethora of choice in channels, touchpoints, vendors, tactics and strategies, as technology-driven change creates ambiguity at every turn.

We are not only trying to choose tools from the largest marketing toolbox ever seen, but we are talking to consumers who are themselves constantly navigating a rapidly changing world, dealing with ambiguity in marketing, and reassessing their relationships with brands. How can marketers navigate this world and more importantly (from the perspective of being paid at the end of the month) what should agencies do to help them?

Here are three places to start. The IPA Brand Tech group will be expanding on some of these themes throughout 2016.

1. Become experts again

It is important agencies reclaim their status as experts. Here’s an example of an unfulfilled expertise opportunity. If I look at the common marketing tool, the CMS, it is clear that there are lots of people in agencies who understand the high level view of what a CMS can do, but there are far too few who can actually operate the CMS, or better still the wider suite of marketing technologies.

Clients have bought into the tool-driven approach of modern marketing, many of which we have recommended to them, and now we must help operate them to extract the value they promised to deliver.

T-shaped people, those that understand a breadth of marketing capability but are deep subject matter experts are the most valuable people an agency has. Agencies will need to constantly invest more in training to deliver on this promise of expertise in a world that re-invents itself every day.

2. Be great at collaborating

Given the above, it’s clear that agencies will not be able to deliver everything themselves. We are increasingly reliant on technologists, startups, content producers and publishers to deliver the breadth of marketing services required.

There have long been feuding fractions between traditional agencies, media agencies and digital agencies, but collaboration is even higher on the agenda than ever before; between these groups but also much wider set of people.

To become great collaborators agencies need to lose their 'not invented here' attitude and build on the ideas of others. They must learn how they can bring others to the table without worrying about losing their seat. Importantly they must also learn a new level of collaboration with their clients (and clients must learn this too), because trust and collaboration between agencies and clients adds collective brainpower, confidence and conviction; all of which are good tools to navigating the ambiguity.

3. Focus on the consumer

If one thing came out of my 24 minutes of reading, it was that a focus on the consumer is the single most effective way to make sure that you successfully navigate the complexities of the modern marketing environment.

Do not assume you know your consumer. Not least because if any of the technologies changing our marketing landscape are actually being adopted by the consumer (as opposed to just being discussed on marketing blogs), then the consumer is not doing today what they were doing yesterday.

Understanding the consumer, their behaviours and attitudes on a daily basis will at least guide your marketing activity through the ambiguity. There will still be choices to make, but if you can say your activity is offering relevant utility or entertainment value to those customers, and reaching them in the right space and time, then you can’t be too far off.

Perhaps the starting point is simply to embrace the era of ambiguity. It’s not just our marketing bubble where ambiguity exists. Change is a pervasive element of the world as we know it, and that force will only get quicker and more intense.

People looking for a Lego manual for marketing will find themselves looking up once everyone else has gone away, celebrating the completion of something that is already irrelevant (this is very much like completing a Lego kit for your kids in my experience). We spend too much time trying to force fit the new world into the old systems because we don’t know what to do differently, or perhaps more pertinently, don’t feel we have time to learn how to do it differently.

In 10 years more technology may have taken us beyond ambiguity to certainty – using big data tools to make decisions autonomously and automatically targeting relevant content to people in a way they themselves have given permission for. Until then, until we have total mastery of the tools and technologies, we have to invest in constantly learning to be great at Marketing in the Era of Ambiguity.

Chris Wood is managing director at VML London and member of the IPA's Brand Tech Group which provides an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies


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