In search of the marketing theory of everything
A view from Craig Mawdsley

In search of the marketing theory of everything

We're all still figuring out the one marketing formula to rule them all.

I would say that I’m an armchair physicist, in a very literal sense, having never studied physics at any level. But I have watched a lot of documentaries on BBC Four, so obviously have good knowledge of the main concepts.

It has taught me the two ways to look at the world. One is the study of big forces, particularly gravity, that’s called general relativity. The other is the study of the quantum level, requiring very sophisticated mathematics, that’s called quantum field theory.

But there’s a point where these two models contradict one another. If you work with just one, you don’t know as much. But if you use both at the same time, you come unstuck. There is not yet a theory of everything.

Recently, this has become a useful way to think about marketing, because we face a similar problem. Instead of general relativity, we have "How Brands Grow". Piles of data from many categories in many countries that many companies have codified into "laws" of marketing: Segmentation is a fool’s game; target everyone, reaching as many as possible, all the time.

Differentiation is secondary to consistent distinctiveness, creating mental availability at category entry points. It’s about big, simple forces exerting as much gravity on brand meaning as possible.

It’s great for TV stations and outdoor contractors that can help you reach lots of different kinds of people all at once.

It answers the conundrum "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half" with a rousing "Neither!" as both halves build mental availability. Instead of quantum field theory, we have programmatic and hyper-personalised messaging.

The marketing behind Trump and Brexit was about precise targeting to values, attitudes and behaviours revealed by online activity.

Quantum field theory didn’t make general relativity wrong, so we shouldn’t be so quick to choose a winner in our discipline.

In the future, every piece of advertising you see could be created only for you and seen only by you. It’s about precise, tiny actions that can build brands from the particle level.

It’s great for tech-driven media that can construct precisely defined audiences and sell them one impression at a time. It answers the conundrum "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half" with a rousing "Neither!" as every dollar you spend is crafted to reach the audience you want and only that audience.

So is segmentation wrong? Or is segmentation right? Are brands about shared meaning? Or personal meaning? Hyper-effectiveness? Or hyper-efficiency? Which theory will win?

Those of us who have been around long enough have seen this division before, when it was just called advertising vs direct marketing.

Advertising people like big, broad, simple brush strokes and shared cultural moments. DM people like precision and accuracy and draw with a very precise pen.

Advertising people believe in the best possible outcome for the most people (and have never really cared about or believed in "wastage"). DM people believe in making every pound work as hard as it can and measuring everything they do (and believe that advertising tends towards wasteful self-indulgence).

Of course, they’re both right in their own terms. But technology is changing the terms. Broadcast is becoming more precise. Narrowcast is becoming broader. ITV and Facebook peer over the fence at one another, trying to grab one another’s revenues. But neither is quite ready because they haven’t escaped their mental model of marketing.

Spend any time with the tech guys and you realise how deep their unconscious bias to direct sales is. Their blink response to marketing is that its purpose is to generate short-term sales from a defined audience.

They love targeting because they adore data (we all love data, but these guys have moved in and have four kids). They can’t work out why anyone would ever have spent millions without knowing exactly who was watching and what they would do next.

Spend any time with the broadcast guys and you realise how deep their unconscious bias to fame is. Their business models are based on aggregating audiences, pointing at the big stuff and using it to sell the dubious stuff that hardly anyone seems to see, because they have to fill the whole schedule.

The received wisdom is that the targeted, datadriven approach will take over the world. Because it’s the internet and the internet always wins. But quantum field theory didn’t make general relativity wrong, so we shouldn’t be so quick to choose a winner in our discipline.

Like great scientists, we need to keep searching for something better. If you’re sitting in ITV, or Facebook, or Google, or a digital direct agency, or an ad agency, or a marketing department, it’s time to reflect on what you believe.

Rather than pivoting towards targeting or reach, the prize is to get out of the prison of your assumptions and search for a whole new way to see the world. Because, in the future, only a blended approach will do.

It’s not about Byron Sharp vs programmatic; instead, the race is on to find our marketing theory of everything. 

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
@mawdsleycraig