Kaushik Prasad
Guest Article

Math is the marketer’s new meth...

Are marketers addicted to the right substances?

My first boss was an alumnus of India’s Harvard University for Sales – Eureka Forbes. In slow months when the month-end target loomed overhead like Gabbar’s sword over Thakur’s hands, we would go cold calling. While on such cold calls, waiting outside office cabins, we would see the Purchase Manager through the plexiglass screen, busy, shuffling papers, barking instructions to his staff. And we would wait just to catch his eye, get some face time to make our sales pitch. At times, it would take us multiple visits to get through, but most often, we would move on to knock on new doors.

Math is the marketer’s new meth...

Kaushik PrasadWell, this not unlike the multitude of banner ads that pop up on screens – waiting to catch your eye, waiting for you to click, fill in a form or do whatever. The banners come knock, knock, knocking on your browser doors. These banners – new age salesmen – are more persistent than the intrepid salesman of yore. And of course there is a lot of science and math behind them. What started with simply tracking browsing behaviour is now powered by complex math with programmatic, predictive modeling, AI and a lot more thrown in. Many marketing organisations now house data scientists and a model is not just someone pretty staring in the agency’s 30 second magnum opus. Math, it may seem, is the marketer’s new meth.

In the midst of its haze, it’s important to remember that advertising, even digital, is targeted at real people. Hence, it may be useful (and indeed amusing) to imagine digital ad formats and interactions like real human beings with real world interactions.

For instance, consider the page takeover ad format. Imagine, on a relaxed Sunday morning, you are on your couch sipping a hot tumbler of coffee, reading J. Mathrubootham’s rants in The Hindu. And a salesman pops out of the newspaper completely blocking your view. In your exasperation (and some spilt coffee) that salesman will end up with a black eye. But over the internet, many media companies sell the takeover ad format and many advertisers buy them, despite no foolproof way to differentiate genuine CTRs from the ones generated through an exasperated hunt for the close button.

Or consider geo-targeted advertising where consumer interest, combined with telecom data and live GPS coordinates, is used to target in real time. What may be termed stalking in real life is called geo-targeted re-marketing online! (Its intensity, sometimes, could put the Vodafone pug to shame).

What’s sold as native advertising by many publishers is something that’s disguised as the article the consumer was reading and cons him/her into clicking it. In the real world, even India’s most pro-advertiser newspaper identifies such content as advertorials. But many advertisers accept it unquestioningly for online advertising despite no foolproof way to isolate genuine CTRs from the conned ones.

It’s no surprise that more and more consumers are opting for ad blockers and governments are pushing regulations to protect its citizens’ privacy.

Behind the alphabet soup of jargon thrown by digital gurus, its worthwhile remembering that marketing over the digital medium is simply another way to reach your consumer. There is nothing called digital marketing, it’s plain ol’ marketing on a different medium.

Of course, no Luddite is a marketer. So, while analytics and all the math definitely help with sharper targeting and optimising the delivery, the messaging still holds the key. Going back to the example of knocking on doors, while the math helps identify the right door to knock on, once the door opens, the story gets you the sale.

Proponents of automation may argue that the math can also develop and deliver different messages to different segments, or in fact claim that it might help target the ‘segment of one’ – Marketing’s Holy Grail. In practice, however, it’s an automaton which deploys, adjusts and re-deploys from a defined set of messages. Unfortunately, many confuse efficiency driving tactics with strategy.

What story is told and how it’s told is where marketing magic unfolds. The leap from data to insight to sparkling creative ideas like ‘It’s a Tide Ad’ or ‘Volvo Interception’, have no algorithms. The recent Google and Ogilvy partnership - the ‘Creative Intelligence Partnership’ - seems to be an attempt to straddle the two worlds.

But finally, a robust strategy, staying rooted to the brand’s proposition and a relentless pursuit of consumer insights are probably the only things marketers should stay addicted to.

(The author is General Manager - Consumer Marketing, Ford India. His message to readers: "The opinions expressed in this post are my own and other such disclaimers.")

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