A little while ago, Danica Patrick, the first female NASCAR driver, retired. Now that she has some free time, let’s hire her for a special race. In it, she’ll drive a 10-year-old car, while I’ll be at the wheel of the 2018 version of the same car. If we did race, I doubt many people would bet money on me, even though I have the vastly better technology. But marketers in recent years have done something quite similar.

In recent years, they have invested heavily in technology. While tech spending peaked at 33 percent of marketing budgets in 2015, it should still be a healthy 22 percent in 2018 — or more than marketers spend on anything else. And that number is probably an underestimate. Businesses spent an astounding $1.2 trillion on digital transformation in 2017, over a third of which is classified as business services, which includes systems that support marketing.

In other words, this industry, once strongly associated with media and creativity, has fundamentally shifted its focus to tech and the customer experience.

Unfortunately, no one seems happy with the results. CMOs say the number of decisions informed by data has been nearly flat since 2012. A recent Wunderman survey of senior marketers found that while 74 percent of brands that have access to a full stack of integrated marketing tools, 68 percent can’t change their creative output based on data insights. No wonder 59 percent of executives in the survey are dissatisfied with their marketing investments, and in 2017 marketing budgets retreated to 11.3 percent of revenue, off their 2015 highs.

Maybe it’s time to focus more on the driver than the car and start building the teams, talent, and capabilities we need. But how?

1. Keep it simple

The rise of dynamic creative optimization, programmatic media, and targeting and attribution has created a false assumption that the most advanced capability is automatically the most effective. In theory, efficiency should drive down costs. In fact, it’s not. The average digital ad costs 12 percent more than it did in 2014, even though the average amount of time spent on websites was down 6 percent last year. Rising demand is a factor in this, but marketers are also paying a premium for advanced targeting. They need to ensure the gain is worth the pain and not be afraid to re-embrace reach and frequency in the digital space.

2. Commit to the relationship

The fragmentation of media and availability of creative resources has caused marketers to be more promiscuous than ever with agencies. But if brands want to realize the full capabilities of a technology stack, they need to build the team dynamics that make the most of it. They have to commit to creative and strategic relationships with both internal and external teams, giving them the stability they need to work together effectively.

3. Don’t let tech vendors off the hook

Agencies have long been associated with a bait and switch. Senior teams present big ideas to brands and then leave the execution to less experienced staff. Tech vendors often take a similar approach. They ensure that IT knows how to run the system, but never explain its capabilities to creative staff. Marketers need to hold their vendors’ feet to the fire and ensure they follow through with promises they made to socialize the capabilities to everyone. This means taking full advantage of boot camps, co-creation sessions, and everything else.

4. Get physical

The pros and cons of remote working environments is a topic for another day. But to make the most of technology investments, we need creative, strategy, and analytics staff to forge a common purpose in physical proximity to one another. This is not just practical but cultural too. Without a sense of team, people view their roles purely in the context of a task, and that impacts the ability of marketers to use data to inspire creativity.

5. Don’t replace vision with technology

At most companies, the marketing technology vision is led by someone with a technical background. Not surprisingly, they often fail to connect that vision to the creative and strategic decisions that inform the way people communicate with customers. For example, nearly every marketer is interested in AI and its potential to make marketing more intelligent, but they rarely discuss how that intelligence will drive creativity. Instead, creative staff needs to understand why things like these are important, and how their work can contribute to their success.

Put simply, it’s about the drivers, not the cars. While we’ve made great strides in technology, we’ve fallen behind in the skillsets and culture needed to make the most of it. While race car drivers do have some of the most advanced technology in the world, they’ve also spent their lives learning how to use it — and that’s what makes them successful.

Brandon Geary is Chief Strategy Officer at Possible.


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