March 22, 2016

Saying no to marketing tech’s Project Fear

By Alex Steer Head of Technology, Effectiveness and Data, Maxus UK

Alex Steer

Alex Steer

Head of Technology, Effectiveness and Data, Maxus UK

Alex Steer, Head of Technology, Effectiveness & Data at Maxus UK thinks we need to start ignoring some of the scaremongers of marketing tech and take a more considered approach.


I got an email this morning whose subject line read: ‘If you’re just keeping up to date in marketing tech… You’re not doing enough.’

I get similar emails every day, and so do our clients. They reflect the growing tendency of marketing technology companies to sound like people who are trying to sell you gym membership. Except that rather than muscle-bound personal trainers shouting about rock-hard abs, this assault on marketers’ sanity and dignity comes via whitepapers, webinars and other content marketing channels.

In some ways this is nothing new. ‘Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt’ has been part of the IT salesperson’s kit for a generation – and is still, famously, associated with technology giants like Microsoft and IBM as they slugged it out for dominance of the enterprise computing sector in the 1990s. But whereas old-school FUD was all about knocking the competition, the new school is all about knocking the client.

Those of us who work in digital, technology and analytics are subjected to a sustained Project Fear campaign from many technology providers. (Before you write in and complain, there are notable exceptions, of course – but sadly they’re notable because they’re exceptions.) It’s as if, now that marketers are huge spenders in data and tech, many vendors are determined to keep them feeling confused and vulnerable. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the industry is behaving as if it’s a seller’s market. The kind of advertising hard-sell that went out of favour in the mid 1960s seems to be alive and well here.

If we as marketers still talked to our consumers the way many tech and data companies talk to us, those consumers would long since have abandoned our brands.

The narrative of Project Fear is consistent: every client who has bought our product has transformed their relationship with customers in ways you haven’t thought of yet. You’re being left behind. Your customers will abandon you and tough guys will kick sand in your face. Without this gym membership – sorry, enterprise software license – you’ll be laughed out of the bar by your peers.

This message is broadcast through social media and the trade press every day. It continues to have power because there are so many topics it can cover. If as a marketer you feel like you’ve mastered web analytics or ad serving, there’s always digital attribution, cross-device tracking or containerisation (don’t ask) waiting in the wings. And just behind them are the looming bogeymen of machine learning and the internet of things…

To understand Project Fear – to get a handle on how some marketing tech firms feel so able to harass their customers in this way – you need to follow the money. Despite appearances, this is not a seller’s market. There is colossal over-supply in marketing tech and the reasons are structural and come down to one point:

You, the marketer, are not the customer.

Now, again, there are exceptions. Large public businesses like Google, Oracle or Adobe depend for their success on satisfied marketers (in part, at least). But for every one of them there are a thousand marketing tech startups who depend on venture capital funding. VC money works in an entirely different way from marketing revenue. It comes in huge, infrequent waves rather than a steady trickle. It is given, or not, depending on funders’ perceptions that a business has fairly rapid growth potential. When your business model is to attract the next big round of VC funding, you need lots of marketers to come on board fast. Marketing spend in this case isn’t the big fish – it’s bait.

When we understand that, Project Fear makes sense – and the need for change becomes apparent.

As marketers and as the agencies that work with them, we need to start demanding customer service and customer satisfaction. The best technology companies, whose incentives are aligned with our own, will support us in this because they profit when we profit. The rest need to understand that we will not maintain the pattern of scattered, reactive hoarding of technology and data assets that has characterised the last half-decade of marketing analytics and tech.

As an agency we work with clients to help them define their marketing technology, data and measurement strategies. In almost every case we find that there are more tools, more capability and more smart thinking already in

place than the business realises. Very often, it’s not a case of buying a shiny and intimidating new capability, but of making existing ones work harder and work together. Most digital business transformation happens with software, not because of software.

Saying no to Project Fear means saying yes to a more considered, design-led approach to crafting your technology, effectiveness and data ecosystem. It means embracing the subtler arts of data planning and technology plumbing. Above all it means acknowledging that change comes through teams and partnerships, not bells and whistles.