Every morning in my inbox, there are a dozen or so unsolicited offers from technology companies that promise to solve all of my marketing problems through AI, deep learning and whatever other dark magic is the rage right now. While I am by no means a luddite, I am highly skeptical of silver bullet solutions for a problem as complicated as, say, customer acquisition. Technology is part of the solution when it comes to measurable performance marketing, but it is far from the most important aspect.
Performance marketing is more of an investment strategy and mindset than a set of particular tools. It’s the principle that you only count the touchdowns that you can prove you scored. It is a pessimistic endeavor by its very nature, often undercounting its own effectiveness, because attribution of marketing to sales is the hardest problem we have as an industry. But performance marketing is the noble pursuit of removing this ambiguity and attempting to know how many test drives were booked, products sold, or tickets reserved as a direct consequence of your actions, because you’ve painstakingly tracked and dissected the available data.
But because it is black and white in the pursuit of impact, it is often seen as logic’s victory over the loosey-goosey stuff that creative agencies peddle: brand, insight, connection. Often even seasoned performance marketeers think that technology is the true master of this domain.
It is not.
An over-reliance in technology is a surefire way to wreck the brand you have. I’ve watched a machine make thousands and thousands of versions of my display ad. And while in certain cases this shuffling of button colors and background images creates a provable lift, it’s mostly boring, bordering on dangerous. Do you want to outsource the way you show up in the lives of customers to a glorified magic eight ball? That can sound harsh towards the ad-tech industry and biased toward the creative side of the industry, but you can’t have one without the other.
How do you get the best out of both?
First explore, then exploit
The goal of exploitation is to maximize the commercial impact of an idea, to sell more. This is the role of performance. But this needs a starting point that we know works for the creative and the audience targeting. The goal of the exploration work stream is to generate these starting points—to create the ideas that lead to new demand that can then be exploited.
I have yet to see a machine that can dream new ideas. That’s why even in the hardnose world of performance, creativity is king. Any marketer should spend as much time as possible coming up with creative ideas that create new demand, because it is up to us to imagine new ways of showing up in the world. And once we do, the exploit-side of the equationadweek can immediately scale up and mechanistically optimize every last cent from the market. A great example is how the mobile game hit Toon Blast and TBWA\Chiat\Day LA weaponized the unique comedy snark of Ryan Reynolds in service of its rapid scaling of customer acquisition.
Exploration is where value is created. There is no sustainable competitive advantage that off the shelf technology can give you if you don’t have enough people who want to buy what you’re selling. Toon Blast created 30 ads. Not all of them were winners but having a wide range to play with allowed them to dial in on the ones that did work for any particular target group.