Conversion-Based Tactics Are Pressuring Marketers Out of Great Creative Ideas

From today’s sugar high to tomorrow’s lost customers

Join ADWEEK for the first-annual Brand Play: Sports Marketing Summit, on May 9 in NYC or virtually. We’ll explore the new sports events, platforms, fan insights and cultural impacts that can unlock exciting wins for marketers. Register.

If the pressure-tested marketer is honest—no matter how great the diversified, integrated plan looks—the nearly relentless focus on digital media, and the accountability and measurement that come with it, is exhausting. Digital fatigue is real. And these days, due to the seemingly endless quest for greater intel and activation at scale, so is AI fatigue. We need to slow back down and protect the full funnel. 

The digitally led, conversion-focused approach effectively tells seasoned professionals, who have built decadeslong careers around elegant media plans and found thoughtful ways to reach people with content and unique in-market positioning, that the only thing that matters is the math behind the reach of their campaigns. Conversion metrics rule the day, and the quarterly business review. Some of the world’s best marketers have been told that what used to be called “breakthrough” media is now less important.

Sure, nimble targeting, measurement and the ability to shift allocations are key to making the overall plan sing for the long term. But when we jam the plan into that conversion-based marketing bucket at the front end, we lose control. There is so much pressure to do so, and the cost is great. It’s that imagination-fueled input—the art of the “art and science” that the marketer spent a career building—that falls away. And with it, eventually, so goes the customer. What’s happening here? 

Taking this issue to the granular level of programmatic for a moment, it becomes even more clear: When a marketer, the agency and the buying team are told they can enter an “efficient biddable marketplace” where they can buy at auction or in “pure digital formats based on machine buying,” there’s a huge flaw at play within this jargon-jammed pitch. That presumed hyperefficiency is all well and good when you’re the first to market. But when there are 15 of you in there, all you’re doing (or the machine, in part, is doing) is moving the competition for rate into another space that’s a black box. And you’re not actually getting a bargain. You’re not getting the arbitrage of the pitch. You’re blindly competing, moving with the competition for eyeballs into a different medium with less visibility. 

Let’s look at this in real life. Think of a navigation app, for example: When it tells you to get off the road you’re on because there’s an accident ahead, as long as you get that message in the first five minutes, it’s really valuable. If you get that message 20 minutes later, everyone’s already on the service road. In today’s media environment, there is an element of “everyone being on the service road,” from a digital perspective.

On a sugar high of conversion-based marketing—or, doing the bidding of someone else’s sugar high—the marketer has ceded control; they’ve ceded creativity; they’ve ceded visibility from a content perspective, singularly prioritizing the goal of “outcomes only.” Unbeknown to them in the moment, they are dangerously moving themselves lower- and lower-funnel, and they’re losing their brand-building muscle as well as muscle memory. 

Despite the degree of digital fatigue, there is still room for creativity within an automated environment. Through these systems, you can layer dynamically optimized, personalized creative and versioning for your different audience segments. There is value to that. But the opportunities for this are not that frequent. Even the biggest platforms and players offering it are doing so for an isolated pool of digital inventory. So, whatever the value of these creative tactics may be within digital, you don’t even need to go there with live sports, or in live news, or in visceral real-life moments. After all, automation doesn’t bring laughing and crying or loyalty triggered by great, heart-thumping creative. 

There’s a lot of pressure within the plan to lean into what drives efficient conversions at scale, but there’s still tremendous value in the upper funnel, in sponsored content and relationship-based buying, where you’re looking at specific programming and building broad media plans that marry human intelligence with artificial intelligence.

So what’s the secret to breaking the high and getting back to pace? It lies in having a 75-25 principle, where you spend 75% on what you know works and allocate 25% for testing. You have to create boundaries within your plan to dedicate a portion to the purely efficiency-based. What needs to be machine learning? What is sheer brand association? What is my shock-and-awe layer? You have to be this disciplined because the pressure is real—and the result is a short-term focus on quarters versus a long-term focus on years. If you’re only looking 60, 90, 120 days ahead, the natural move is to go with lower-funnel, conversion-based automation. 

There is absolutely a place for automated, AI-based buying—it’s the best form of lower-funnel converting that has ever existed. If you want to hand over the entirety of your marketing plan to AI, to a black box that’s looking at efficiencies, you’re not needed. The move is to devote your strategic and practical focus to protecting the full funnel.

The fact is, the drug of being more efficient becomes less effective when all your competitors are in the same space. It’s not sustainable, and with the inevitable detriment to brand—not to mention audience or consumer experience—in your somewhat fatigued state today, you may turn around tomorrow to realize you’ve lost your customer. Protecting the full funnel protects the brand, the customer relationship and ultimately your marketing career.