Marketers Are (Finally) Rediscovering The Power Of Focus

Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein recently made a bold prediction for the marketing industry’s year ahead: “The guiding star in 2017 will be focus”.

An outside observer might reasonably wonder why a simple – even obvious – idea like focus merits so much attention. But if you’ve been paying attention to the state of the marketing world, it makes perfect sense.

In recent years, marketers have been forced to cope with a tidal wave of rapid change and rising complexity. Anxious not to fall behind, many of us have adopted an action-oriented, short-term mindset – investing heavily in shiny new tactics and technology. And along the way, big picture strategy and long-term thinking have fallen by the wayside. Essentially, marketers have become so preoccupied with the gas pedal that we’ve kind of forgotten about the steering wheel.

The results have not been pretty. Billions wasted on ads seen by no-one – $7 billion in 2016 alone, according to ANA estimates. Rising concerns about brand safety. Gleaming stacks of new marketing technology that nobody really knows how to use. High profile innovation initiatives that fall short of providing real value to real people.

Basically, lots of spending and lots of activity. But not a lot of focus.

It’s not sustainable. But is change really on the horizon? Friedlein’s prediction is based on some fairly simple logic: “Businesses want growth, brands want saliency in a cluttered landscape, but there is not enough money to ‘throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks’ so focus has to be the answer.”

But is there any evidence that change is actually happening? I see two promising signs.

Here’s the first. The industry now seems to be taking the brewing battle between agencies and consultancies a lot more seriously. In recent years – as many agencies have chased shiny trends and tech in their own bid to stay relevant – management consultancies have responded in a different way. They’ve leveraged their business acumen, c-suite relationships, data chops and operational expertise to elbow agencies out of the picture.

Now, finally, folks are sitting up and taking notice. The advertising press are running extended features on the topic. And agencies are starting to fight back in earnest. They’re rebuilding or expanding their strategy teams and packaging up new consulting-like service offerings. R/GA is even talking boldly about turning the tables and disrupting consulting.

As a result, the overall industry conversation is starting to shift. The underlying question is starting to move away from “what can we do to stay relevant this quarter?” to “how can we engineer a marketing engine that can respond to rapid change and ensure ongoing relevance for years to come?”.

That’s the first sign that focus is taking on new importance. The second: clients seem to be waking up from their wide-eyed love affair with new tech. Specifically, in the realm of digital advertising, where they’re now asking much tougher questions to the tech partners they’ve been invested in so heavily in recent years.

P&G CMO Marc Pritchard, for example, has been using his position to very publicly raise concerns about transparency, ad fraud and mismatched viewability standards – stating bluntly that the digital media landscape has become crowded with “too much crap”.

“We bombard consumers with thousands of ads a day, subject them to endless ad load times, interrupt their screens with popups and overpopulate their screens and feeds,” he said during a recent keynote. “We’re awfully busy, but all of this activity is not breaking through the clutter. It’s just creating more noise.”

At the same time, concerns about the growing power of the Facebook-Google “duopoly” have become a hot topic in the marketing press. And Google (among others) is being challenged loudly about brand safety issues – ads showing up next to fake news or offensive content.

Taking all of these developments together, I see a pattern. Brands are sending the market a message: Gas pedals are great, but steering wheels are back in style. The heady days of spend fast, think later are at an end. From here on out, we’ll be balancing the need to stay current and explore new tactics and tech with a commitment to strong strategy, prudent judgement and high standards.

In other words, there are signs that Econsultancy’s prediction is coming to pass and 2017 is on its way to becoming the year of focus.