Tom Goodwin: Making sense of 2018 - what could technology bring?

Tom Goodwin is the New York-based executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media. A self-styled industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom's column provides a monthly take on how the industry will be shaped going forward.

Touching 2018

I’m very lucky, I’ve spent many months traveling the world, listening and observing. You get to see how the world is changing and the context of it. It’s weird to see much of the world continues to become more alike, the issues facing the citizens of Auckland, Dubai, Lima, Shanghai and New York and other global cities seem oddly similar to each other, while the differences between these cities and the rural catchment areas around them grow.

This feels like a threshold in the world, we’ve only ever added more technology, media and information to our lives, things seem more complex, chaotic and unpredictable than ever. We could see a movement to regain control of our attention span and glance beyond the phone, or AR could capture our minds like nothing before. With that in mind I wanted to explore some thoughts, you won’t agree with all, but it’s always good to contemplate.

These are not trends. Think of them more as some thoughts for 2018 that may be useful.

Let’s not panic

We know that change is faster than ever, because that’s what everyone keeps telling us. We keep being told that everything is both very different and accelerating more rapidly than during any other time in history. Well, I’m just not sure that’s especially true.

Between 2006 and 2010 we saw radical shifts. Smartphones became a widely used platform on which to build brand new things and the world went mad: Airbnb, Uber, GrubHub, Tinder, MPesa, Instagram, SnapChat, Linkedin – the list goes on. Some of the most valuable, useful and, dare I say it, “disruptive,” things came about. But in the last five years, what has come out that’s actually new? FaceFilters, ApplePay, Face ID, Smartwatches, HQ Trivia, Animojis? Bitcoin insanity?

We are part of an ever-changing world that includes broad technological shifts like the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, distributed ledgers and ever-faster connectivity. However I don’t believe these innovations will change everything in marketing tomorrow. It was the new screens that entered our lives that ate print media, not the internet. The internet is just a delivery mechanism, albeit the best one we’ve ever had.

These new areas of technology are not so much “trends” to jump on as much as they are more exciting new ways to think about what’s possible. They don’t arrive one day and ruin everything. They create a new toolkit in our marketing arsenal to inspire future approaches, techniques and applications of ways to reach consumers. Not everything will be different, far from it. I’d love us to spend more time on being calm, and focusing on what has not changed, which is pretty much everything.

Simplify

We also like to obsess over how endlessly complicated things are. We are shown images of the Lunascape to show how messy it all is, and we rarely question that idea because it makes us feel better when we are tired.

We are likely at peak complexity, a time where we’ve taken the old analogue world and augmented with digital stuff. At this stage, things generally get more complex before they get more simple.

As we make sense of the new reality, we will see consolidation, simplification and standardization. Soon pretty much all media will be digital. TV’s, phones, car screens, tablets, watches…they all just become strangely similar, connected smart, black rectangles. We will buy audiences and contexts, not channels. Specialisms like social media makes less sense when all media is social and all “social” is just media. Mobile becomes a context, not a channel.

So for the moment, let’s not kid ourselves that everything is impossible, chaotic and messy. Some stuff is easier than ever, if we take a step back and embrace simplification.

Focus

If you put one and two, the need to not panic and the need to simplify, together, you describe today’s disease in the marketing industry. There is this strange notion permeating through advertising that somehow what worked before, for hundreds of years, isn’t relevant now and doesn’t work. It’s based on sentiment, not fact. We keep seeing ever more trendy methods proposed as a solution to this problem, when in fact the problem doesn’t exist significantly and often the solutions are not that great. We have this idea that everything is different, changing, hard, and that we have to rethink everything we’ve done before.

Generally speaking, TV still works, print still works, celebrity endorsement still works. Radio is great. Brands will not ever die, nor will advertising. We are being told we have to try every single new thing – native at scale is the future, or influencer programs or content marketing. These are great tactics, but they are not remotely new. They are techniques and methods with absolute merit and for us to consider. But we should not throw away centuries of experience with less funky techniques just because we’ve got phones now.

We currently have the broadest and best toolkit we’ve ever had, but we don’t need to use everything at once. We can say no.

For years advertising was very slow to change. A while ago, if we didn’t do mobile or social it was a sign of ignorance. We still feel vulnerable if we don’t have a chatbot, or do funny tweets about Black Friday, or leave out AI in our pitch deck, because nothing says you get it more than doing it. I’d love us to have the confidence to omit because we considered everything, and decided what to apply and what not to. This is not a sign of weakness in any particular new area, but rather a sign of overall strength as marketers.

Data

The amount of data we capture is growing far faster than our understanding of it. We’ve fallen so in love with data. We use it to find insights, support projections into the future and direct campaigns, and few dare say it’s lousy at most of this.

I have never seen a data-driven insight. Period. I’ve seen data-validated insights. And I’ve seen data-driven facts. Let’s stop this nonsense. As Philippe Silberzahn said, “Without an Opinion, you're just another person with data.”

We use poorly sourced, poorly analyzed data all the time. We take it from companies with agendas and from companies who lazily interpolate data into the future as we treat it as fact. We have no idea how many searches will be done by voice in 2020. We have no idea how many connected speakers will be sold. Similarly, asking people if they “would ever buy a self-driving car” is entirely pointless when they don’t even exist yet.

We tend to aggregate data so much that it becomes useless. If we scanned the most loved artwork ever sold into a database, we’d find on average the “best” art is portrait not landscape, about one m by two m big, has a face, and blue at the top. This would both be entirely true and statistically robust, and a deeply terrible way to go about making a great painting. We have to stop thinking of our business as something other than the mixture of art, creativity, data and empathy. Data is not the master.

For 2018 we need to get better not at increasing the size of data, but at cleaning it, collecting it better, centralizing it and celebrating the profoundness of the decisions can make from it.

These are broad principles to digest, ponder and be irritated by. Next month I’ll talk about more useful, specific changes to work around as we kick off 2018, and look to all the years ahead.

Tom Goodwin is executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith. He tweets at @tomfgoodwin

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