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6. How did marketing get so complex?

From the increasing importance of marketing, to the influx of MarTech tools and data, Jeff & Kyle chart how marketing came to be so complex and what a marketing leader can do about it.


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Kyle: Hello and welcome to unReactive where we look to help marketing leaders reclaim their time and sanity by exploring the topics that keep us in a state of reactivity. I’m Kyle Morck, and I’m joined as always by my co-host Jeff Reynolds. So Jeff, what are we talking about here today?

Jeff: Well, I’ll get into the specifics, but it all started with this thought I’ve been having and that is around the soul of up Marketer, like why we started it in the first place the thesis of it, right? And I think you summarize it well. on the website, you say ”Marketing is broken. Don’t let it break you.” What were you thinking when you wrote that?

Kyle: I think I was really thinking about two parallel problems that I really see in marketing. One of those is the growing complexity of marketing around technology, data, expectations, channels, all of those pieces. And that’s really compounded by just the complexity of our world today. How many different companies are starting up every day and how marketing really is becoming even more important in terms of differentiation. And at the same time, there’s this parallel and sometimes even contradictory idea that I think marketing is being seen by business leaders as less and less important. And there’s more expectation on marketing leaders to be able to prove that their marketing is doing something.

And I think in some ways that is a response to the complexity of marketing, but in other ways, it’s really what is growing that complexity is that expectation to prove the worth of it. And fundamentally, I think those two things are coming together so that we are really. losing track of some of the fundamentals of what marketing is and what makes it work

Jeff: Yeah. We get obsessed with the complexity part of it all. All right. Yeah, and I mean that’s, that’s essentially the question I wanna talk about today, which is why has marketing gotten so complex?

Kyle: Great.

Jeff: Yeah, and I mean, it’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially on that first part. So you, you broke out the two sides of it.

We’re gonna focus mostly on how did we get here? Sort of a forest for the trees perspective is what I was hoping to talk about. And last year I published a book, and in that book I use this metaphor of the marketing blob. You, you, you’re, you’re a movie guy, Kyle, you’re a filmmaker and love movies.

Kyle: Right

Jeff: And have you ever seen the classic fifties flick The Blob?

Kyle: No I only watch movies that are in color.

Jeff: Yeah, that’s a good standard, like any true cinephile. So of course the blob, which has sort of become a, you know, a cult character in general in society, in American society. But it’s basically about these teenagers who find this alien. They discover this alien, right? And everything this alien touches, it absorbs into it.

It starts as this little tiny blob. Little gelatinous thing, right? And then everything it touches, it absorbs into it and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And eventually it takes over the whole town. And eventually even, I think the Air Force is brought in to fight this enormous blob that now consists of all the energy of all the buildings and people, pets and everything else that’s absorbed.

And I use that metaphor of the marketing blob to get that same idea across as what’s happening in marketing, right? It we have, we have this like crush of to-dos, technology, all these other distractions. And they constantly force us to be reactive, right? To react to them. And, and we get so busy running from them, hiding from them, fighting them, whatever choice of the day is that we sort of run out of the energy to do what matters.

So the question is, how did we get here? You know?

Kyle: Yeah. And what can we do about it to help fight that blob and give it a little bit less power in our lives?

Jeff: Yeah. And I think though, hopefully that question we’re answering over weeks in the, in this podcast, right, , every week we’re sort of trying to fight that and yeah. So that, that’s how I’m thinking about today is the blob represents the complexity. We don’t have to keep using the word blob, but.

Kyle: No, that, that’s great. So you’ve been thinking about this a lot, so let’s go back to the beginning. What do you think is the source of that marketing blob? Where do you think this all started?

Jeff: Yeah. Well, I I definitely don’t think it’s like one thing, and I think that’s something we’re getting wrong. I think right now there’s sort of this assumption that we have so many things to do because there’s been some huge advancement in technology or other tools that everybody has to use nowadays.

You have no choice but to use them. So These assumptions are more of the issue, I guess, I think it’s really all these forces that came together at a certain time in history and as they’ve come together, it’s caused a lot of chaos. And so I basically see it as a rolling order of operations or sort of a evolution that’s happened in marketing.

And earlier you started with the first one, which is, the importance of marketing, the increasing importance of marketing,

Kyle: There’s not a single source for this marketing blob, but there are some really high level kind of macro things that have started to lead to this. Now you’re competing, you know, internationally, obviously the internet is a big player in this. So though there’s not one single source that has made things change overnight, there are some major trends that have made marketing today way different than it was in the eighties, for instance.

Jeff: Exactly. And I think at the center of those is the importance of marketing in the organization. Even though, as you pointed out earlier, whether or not it, it’s actually appreciated as that important within the organization. That’s questionable. It depends on the organization, but I think objectively we can say many companies don’t exist outside of their marketing.

Does that make sense?

Kyle: I think that that’s completely true. I think I was just thinking about that this morning actually. I was thinking about sales versus marketing and companies can exist without a sales force. Like obviously some companies do much, much better with a sales force, but it’s possible for it to exist without a sales force.

I don’t think there’s a company that can exist without marketing in some way, shape, or form.

Jeff: Exactly. So that importance leads to something else, which is the increasing complexity to support that importance. And I think that’s kind of where you were headed earlier, right? You know, and you had said at different times in history, you know it’s a lot different in the eighties. And granted, I was not active.

I may be old, but I’m not that old. I was not active in the eighties. I was, but I was skateboarding and playing Nintendo but in the nineties, late nineties I was a young account manager in the agency business and we could organize our marketing plans around a marketing mix that really, I can’t remember the exact number, but it was like 15 or 16 items, you know, advertising, pr, these very specific categories that we could organize our marketing mix.

And now there’s both so many of those categories and so many tools to support those categories. That, that complexity has just grown exponentially. I mean, you just said it. I mean, in, I built my first website in 1997 and in 1997, it, a website wasn’t even part of the marketing department’s job. That didn’t really even happen till the early two thousands that marketing departments took ownership of that.

So now, now we’re, we used to just handle one channel, your distributors or whatever. Now you have to handle your direct to consumer channel as well as marketers. So that makes things more complex.

Kyle: And as we have an ever-growing collection of channels and different tactics that you can support with marketing it seems like that becomes overwhelming in a way that then technology tries to step in to help you with that overwhelm. But is that actually helping?

Jeff: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, the other day I saw a Y Combinator startup that was using AI to help product managers sort through their email and figure out, what they should be working on, what they shouldn’t be working on, and with the promise of getting to inbox zero. And this cracked, this cracked me up because it’s like email, you used to be built as the productivity software, but now we need productivity software to help us with our productivity software.

And then like what’s the next iteration of this, right? Is another new MarTech company that helps manage your four pieces of software that manage your email

Kyle: Yeah, and part of the reason that your email is so complex is because you’re getting notifications from the five different productivity softwares you use that all tout themselves as the only productivity software you need.

Jeff: Exactly. So we end up developing technology to manage the complexity. That’s the hope.

I mean, I think we both can agree, or maybe I’ll put it as a question. Do you think your life is more complex or more simple than that of your grandparents?

Kyle: I would say far more complex.

Jeff: Far more complex. And the thing is that’s not what the Jetsons taught us life was gonna be. We are gonna have the robot maid, we’re gonna have flying cars, no traffic, all these easy amenities, right? Life was supposed to be easy, but instead what we’ve gotten, from a marketer’s perspective, increasing importance of marketing, more channels, then more technology, more data, more tools, and all this means more complexity, right?

So the paradox, I guess, is that technology both relieves some stress and some complexity, but it adds a whole lot as well.

Kyle: Yeah, every time that you have a new technology it is there to solve one problem and generally causes an additional three or four. So it just is a cascading network effect.

Jeff: Exactly, and not to mention your whole knowledge base. You have to relearn software and a new UX and you go in to try to solve a little problem. I mean, I went into for the first time in a few years to use Microsoft PowerPoint for a client project. What a piece of shit that bloated software has become.

I mean, I can’t believe the number of options. You know, it’s very complex and obviously some people know how to use it, and you’re very, it’s very easy. No big deal. I’m a reasonable, smart person but after not being in that software for a while, it made my life feel very complex.

Just literally figure out how to draw a circle in PowerPoint, right?

Kyle: And it, and it’s one of those things that they build the software in such a way that they make it so that it kind of solves a bunch of problems and adds all of that complexity. And, and that’s even saying like, we are taking as an assumption that you are taking on new technologies into your organization because they’re solving a problem. But a lot of the times the technology is actually selling you a problem that you didn’t know you had until you learned about that technology, and now you are using new technology to deal with it.

Jeff: And I think marketing leaders really need to wake up to this thing that MarTech companies are owned by marketers or run often by marketers who, guess what marketers do they invent or identify name problems that their product can solve

Kyle: Yep. And they can really easily hone in on your insecurities as a marketing leader and thought that, oh, you might be missing out on this thing and you will be, failing at your job, letting down your team, letting down your leadership, what have you. If you don’t get this new technology that will amazingly fix that problem, you didn’t know you had six minutes ago.

Jeff: Exactly What software are you using to manage your funnel or whatever the questions of the day are, right? And so now you can see how these things are connecting together. We have this increased importance of marketing, which has led to increasing complexity to try to solve the challenges of that importance, which has led to more technology.

And then what does technology output, as you know, as a byproduct, Kyle, what is like the main thing? It outputs

Kyle: I think you might be looking for data as your answer.

Jeff: Well, yeah, it’s a very generic term, right? But we basically, as a result of this, get more data generated by this technology. And guess what? Then we need tools and time and expertise to manage all that data. And we’re talking like in just a few minutes, we’ve been talking. There’s been terabytes upon terabytes of marketing data generated around the world.

I mean, it’s unbelievable.

And most organizations don’t have specialists to manage all that data, right? So it falls on everybody’s job. Everybody’s job is I’m an ad buyer, but I’m also a data scientist. I’m a project manager, but I’m also a data scientist. I’m a web developer, front end, also a data scientist.

And that creates problems. And even in the organizations that have a person. The data starts becoming the focus, like it becomes somebody’s full-time job. One time I was in a very fast growing startup. I was visiting this fast growing startup, a few hundred employees, and they had a data scientist on staff and they’re explaining to me how they use ‘em.

Basically, the whole team, which is, this is a whole nother episode, but anybody in the marketing team could go to this one fellow who ran their sort of business intelligence and data management program, right? So they would just dump stuff on him all day long, and as a result, he was harried and crazy.

And so I went up to him and I just said, you know, tell me about how you work or whatever. He said, oh, I’m really here just to answer questions for people. And I said, well, how do you decide of all these questions that are being tossed at you? How do you decide which ones to answer first? And his answer was I just try to answer the easiest ones first.

Right? Not the most important. I don’t really think he was saying he gave thought to what was most important, and I said, well, what if the easy stuff isn’t important? And his comment was, my job is to create or generate the data, not to make sense of it. And this was their data scientist, so he was basically pulling the data and throwing it at the rest of the marketing team to sort through because he didn’t have time to deal with the data and that was his job.

Kyle: And likewise, the marketing team was just throwing things over the wall at him of, Hey, get me this data with no context for what it was. No alignment among the team of how they were going to be using that resource.

Jeff: exactly. They just wanted more of it.

Kyle: And all of this is again, presupposing that the data is even worth analyzing that as you add these technologies, then you’re again getting sold.

Well, you’ve got all of this data. It’s important to do something with it. But a lot of times we don’t even have those fundamentals together to where that data could potentially even be meaningful if it ever could.

Jeff: Kyle, we’re not gonna go there today cuz that’s a big, that’s a big, huge discussion. Right. But I definitely think you’re right. Like, we’ve all bought into this flow. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get at with this episode is that we have these forces that are shoving us down the pipe whether we want to go or not.

and , right? And, and there without even time to think about it. And I’ll tell you why we don’t think about it because sure, we have an increasing importance of marketing. Yes, we have increasing complexity to support that marketing. Okay, well we need technology to manage that complexity and great, we need increasing amounts of data or we get increasing amounts of data from all this technology and, but guess what?

At the end of the day, we’re still a bunch of humans. . We’re just a bunch of barely capable cavemen and women just bumping through life for the most part, you know, and, and so just because we overlay all this other stuff on us doesn’t mean that we’ve transformed as people. We’re still just people with limited capacity, limited time emotions, and all these other attributes.

Kyle: Yeah. And, and I think in a, a lot of ways that also gets to the core of the fundamentals that we’re losing in the craft of marketing too, is that marketing is an essentially human activity that it’s about, connecting with humans to understand their needs and to be able to influence them, to think that their needs could be solved by your product or service.

And every piece of technology that you put between that you lose that human element and you start looking at things as numbers and data and email opens and what have you, instead of the humans that are at the other end of it that have complex emotional lives.

Jeff: Yeah, there’s a cliche. The the map is not the territory. , right? Meaning the map is a representative of the territory, and likewise, the data that we collect is not our customers. It’s a data point. There’s a lot of shades and shadows to those. The stories in reality, and I’m always amazed at how quick companies are to pull every bit of data they can have, while they’re so afraid of talking to actual customer.

Kyle: Yep.

Jeff: Like many companies have a data program, a business intelligence or data insights or something program. Very few have a talking to customers program,

Kyle: Yeah.

Jeff: where those, those insights get bubbled up through the organization, right.

Kyle: And it seems like a lot of organizations would be way more comfortable with the concept of, an AI that goes out and asks their customers questions so that then the AI can go through and do sentiment analysis on it or what have you, than they would be with having a marketer pick up a phone and, you know, talk to a customer.

Jeff: And trust their gut. And you know what’s funny is I feel like so often we’re having these conversations and it sounds like we’re opposed to these things, like opposed to data. I just think, I don’t think neither of us are. What we’re trying to say is that that pendulum has swung too far. And we have to get back to more of the human elements of this business.

Kyle: Yeah, and one of my biggest things that I’m trying to advocate for is just, self-reflection and trying to understand why we’re doing things instead of just doing things because it’s what’s expected of us. Like if you already know that data is going to be the thing that can really help you nail down this one channel that you h ave a lot of importance and focus on, then use that data, get a lot better at your job. Do that work. But if you’re just looking at the data because you have the data and you think you’re expected to do something with it, that’s when you need to take a step back and start thinking, you know, what am I doing here?

Jeff: Exactly, and I think the forces that we just talked about push us into a corner sometimes where we feel like we’re in a corner. Where we have to just go along with the, go with the flow. Like of course we need to set these, you know, whatever these goals on Google Analytics, or of course we need these dashboards and reports and all this, and then nobody actually uses it.

So we’ve not asked the self-reflective question of why are we doing this thing right.

Kyle: Yeah. And I, and I think another way that we can look at this I really like to look at, it’s essentially following the money to figure out how we get to a place from a anthropological perspective. And this path that you charted. I think that you can chart that really easily as well looking at just marketing budgets. Once mass communication really came to the forefront. Then you’ve got marketing departments that are starting to compete on a stage they’ve never competed on before. So they need increased budgets, you know, to start doing TV commercials, all of those types of things.

Then you get the internet and there’s the promise of, okay, now you can start competing internationally. We can use this worldwide web to do all of these things. So you start throwing money into your digital ad program.

Jeff: everything’s attributable. Right. You’ll, you’ll finally answer that. If 50% of our advertising is wasted, we’ll finally answer what, which 50% it is.

Kyle: yeah. And that’s really the key thing there, is that, you know, when Google started selling ads, there wasn’t any attribution at all. They just told you how many clicks it got and that was it. But then when CEOs, CFOs start to look at that money that they’re putting towards Google. Then they start demanding, well, how do we know if that’s doing anything?

So then Google starts building out, okay, here’s how you know what’s doing things. And then other technology starts promising, okay, here’s how you can figure out, all that money you’re spending towards Google, what’s it doing? And that just cascades and cascades towards this complex world, we have now of you put money into it and then you wanna know what you’re getting out.

So you put more money into it to try to learn that. And it just kind of builds on top of itself.

Jeff: Yeah, cuz then you need more tools to help you manage that

Kyle: Exactly. At its core, what you’re really doing is just kicking the can down the road of trying to prove that you have a thesis to your marketing, and that you don’t need to be able to attribute every dollar to show that your marketing has an impact.

Instead, you take more dollars to try to prove that what you were doing last year worked, and then you just have an even bigger mess that you need to prove out the next year.

Jeff: That’s right. So I guess fundamentally we have to figure out what marketers can do about this

Kyle: Yeah. So where do we start with that?

Jeff: Well, I think that’s a big one, but I think you really hit it earlier when you talked about self-awareness. I think trying to get aware first and foremost as to whether you are just succumbing to the blob or whether this actually matches your purpose.

you know, your stated purpose of your marketing department, which of course, most marketing departments don’t have and don’t go through, right? So you know, I guess in a lot of ways this big issue that we’re trying to answer is, the whole point of this podcast is, there’s a million ways that you can do this, but the first thing is noticing in the first place, whether you are just a victim of these forces, or whether this is actually your choice in the first place.

Kyle: Yeah, cuz I, I think that the choice is a really key word there, we call this podcast unReactive and that’s a little bit tongue in cheek, but in a lot of ways the state of reactivity. The opposite of that is also intentionality. That when you are doing things intentionally, that’s when you’re able to take that step back and think, do I have a reason behind why I’m doing this?

Or am I just working on autopilot? And I think that that’s the key to being able to both get results and live a life that just feels a lot nicer is when you’re doing things intentionally.

Jeff: Yeah. And I mean, I don’t have a better answer than that sitting here today. You know, I don’t think there’s like a list of solutions to this that’s, it’s sort of like, what’s a marketer to do about this is like asking what’s a human to do about gravity. You know, these are the forces that are surround us that we have to address and we have to figure out where we accept it and where we work.

Kyle: Yep.

Jeff: and that’s all starts with the awareness.

Kyle: Thank you all for listening today. If you wanna get more content like this directly in your inbox, be sure to sign up for the unReactive newsletter at upMarketer.Io. And if you have any topics you’d like to hear discussed please reach out to us on our website or social media.

Thanks for chatting today, Jeff.

Jeff: Thank you, Kyle, as always.

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