(Marketing) Science needs debate to progress

PhilPhelan_2Marketing science has become a fashionable term, but we need to stimulate a genuine debate around its concepts before it can be considered real science argues Phil Phelan.

Marketing science in its current incarnation is not the strong force for progress our industry needs it be.

At best it keeps the idea of science as a ‘good thing’ visible, at worst it’s a comfortably numbing replacement for having to think about how to deal with change and uncertainty. What’s missing is debate. The kind of robust debates that characterise truly scientific communities, that make people question, explore, challenge and ultimately progress.

Ironically, it was speaking on a Marketing Science panel debate at MSiX that highlighted the issue for me.

Marketing science has become a fashionable industry concept, like ‘data’, ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’ or ‘real-time’. Everyone in furious agreement about their importance, language invading press releases and presentations and sceptical questioning gone missing. The skill of spotting and adopting trends which makes marketing great when it inspires our work for consumers has a dark side when we turn it on ourselves.

Marketing is a social science. It happens in the human social world, a complex and unpredictable world governed only by specific context and by the specific interactions between people. It’s a situational and dynamic type of science that demands constant questioning and constant experimentation.

When we adopt it like a trend, without thinking, testing, exploring we make our world smaller and dumber not bigger and smarter.

So in the spirit of debate here are a few points that our industry needs to debate.

Data is not good

Data is not your friend, data does not produce insights, data is not big. Whilst data is the oxygen of science – without data of some sort there can be no science – data in science exists only to serve the hypothesis, to answer the question.

Organisations with too much data closely resemble people with too much oxygen. Too much oxygen and the human nervous system creates disorientation and myopia. Getting the balance wrong in an organisation creates the same effect, too much data unfiltered leaves people feeling disorientated, reacting by becoming short-sighted and focused on minutiae.

‘Data Poisoning’ is a new type of organisational disease.

Content marketing is the Punk of Communications

Anyone can play it, everyone does and most of its rubbish. We’re in the Green Day era of content marketing now; it’s mainstreamed so much it rarely confers advantage.

Given the vast amount of web traffic that is bots talking to each other who are you really making it for? Does the world need more content? The short answer is no, the long answer is that content marketing as a tactic should have a needs based filter before you start ‘expressing’.

Does anyone really need this content?

The curious own marketing science

The idea of one group ‘owning’ science is immature and naive. Marketing Science is a culture and an approach that everyone involved in needs to embrace. Everyone involved in planning and executing the marketing has a role to play in bringing their hypothesis, their data to the table, and in experimenting, collecting and analysing the data.

The account planning function of traditional creative agencies have a strong role to play, the media agencies are making big promises about the level of data they can bring to the table, marketing and technology firms like ours who build the next wave of clients commerce and marketing experiences have a strong contribution to make for clients as do research firms.

It’s not data ownership you need; it’s a culture of curiosity. Curiosity is what drives science forward.

Digital Advertising is not the answer, Digital Experience is

Funnily enough if there’s one sector that actively funds and supports Marketing Science it’s the traditional creative agencies and TV networks. Both see money bleeding from their world into digital and have a vested interest in comparing traditional advertising with digital advertising. In a sense they’re right to do this. When our industry first grappled with what advertising should look like on the new medium of TV its answer was to film actors standing round in a radio studio reading a radio script on camera. That’s most digital advertising.

But that misses the point; the money is bleeding into digital experience and service design not banners and buttons. The future of advertising agencies lies in helping clients transform themselves into businesses that can deliver brand experiences to customers at scale using technology. If you want to see marketing science at work in 2015 walk into any decent UX team, busily applying choice architecture to experience design, or translating the ethnographic study they completed last week into an Opportunity Map.

Digital Advertising is not the answer, Digital Experience is.

And there’s more

There are of course many more debates our industry should be having, and debate it must if it wants marketing science to be the kind of science we need in marketing.

  • Phil Phelan is national strategy director, SapientNitro.

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