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The Futurist: Sorry … there’s no app for that

On its 30th anniversary, the world celebrated Back to the Future day. Cable news channels debated whether the producers got their version of 2015 right. So if you want to know what the future of marketing may be like, I’d suggest looking at the past for some timeless truths.

Crystal balls? We don’t need crystal balls! The principles of marketing management have not fundamentally changed since Philip Kotler and Peter Drucker first translated best practice into academia in the 1960s. But what has changed is the sheer variety of tools we now have at our disposal.

However, the best tool is only as good as its user. And the vendor who’s making the fancy PowerPoint
presentation convincing you their wonder tool or predictive channel is the bee’s knees is probably the least objective person to turn to for unbiased advice. There’s no more shock in future shock.

So what’s the future going to be like? Let’s get the obvious out of the way.

• Next Gen Tech will overtake Now Gen Tech. And there will always be new bandwagons to jump on.
• Media will continue to fragment. Channels will always get costlier and reach less.
• Big data will overpromise and under deliver.
• Agency planners will needlessly overcomplicate advertising.
• Pundits will prematurely predict the death of ad agencies, newspapers, TV and radio.
• Today’s Millennials will be replaced by tomorrow’s post-Millennials.
• Focus groups will continue to reinforce the familiar and seldom uncover the undiscovered.
• Everyone will continue to confuse each other with more jargon and acronyms which we hear, use and repeat without real understanding.

Just like Max Planck’s chauffeur, the ability to qoute what one hears doesn’t make one a quantum
physicist. Success isn’t forever. Failure isn’t fatal. What will not change in this future is the
marketing world will be divided as always into winners and losers.

For every iPhone launch, there’s an Apple watch bomb. For every PayPal success, there’s a failed Bitcoin. For every online viral Volvo “Epic Split”, there’s a brand popping up on an undesirable website thanks to programmatic buys.

Regardless of which industry you are in, I humbly submit the one factor which characterises marketing winners is quite simply: courage. As Drucker pointed out – behind every business success was someone who made a courageous decision.

Warning label
Let’s be clear, courage is a double-edged sword. It’s both a career killer and a turbocharger in corporate land. Courage cannot be learnt in business schools. There’s no “on/off” switch in one’s DNA code nor an app for it. As such, courage is the one quality that’s sadly missing among many marketing professionals. At its core, marketing management is the art of making strategic decisions to achieve positive outcomes.
Therefore, it takes courage to navigate ambiguity, reject conformity, filter falsehoods, buck convention, trade control for collaboration, take ownership for mistakes and realise that silver bullet solutions do not exist.

Twelve things business schools never teach
1. It takes courage to terminate ineffective legacy strategies and practices.
2. Conversely, it also takes courage to support a tried and proven strategy when consultants call change for “change’s sake”.
3. It takes courage to “double down” on initiatives that can only bear fruit after more than one financial quarter or FY. (Patience is not a common trait among CFOs.)
4. It takes courage to take a leap with the untestable when research says stick to the tried and tested.
5. It takes courage to point out that just because some things can be measured, it doesn’t mean it’s always worth measuring.
6. It takes courage to realise that big data identifies patterns, but not always insights. (The customer isn’t an IP address, she’s your wife.)
7. It takes courage to know that just because ideas can be content it does not necessarily
mean that all content has ideas.
8. It takes courage to reject buzz dujour activities such as content creation, UX and branded entertainment if it doesn’t solve business problems.
9. It takes courage to explain their real value given that “views” and “likes” cannot be booked in the one-company ledger.
10. It takes courage to admit that brand conversations and storytelling are peripheral activities, not a primary business objective.
11. It takes courage to call BS on the latest “black box” digital solution if you can’t explain how it works in plain English.
12. It takes courage to hire small independent ad agencies with special talents over big networks agencies with hierarchies and overheads.

After all, didn’t the best SIA campaigns come from a small local shop with no global network to speak of?
No guts no glory. As a former creative director, ad agency head and now a client, I always believed marketing is, at its core, an intuitive alchemy of imagination and best practices.

In a future where the environment becomes more complex and the pressure to deliver mounts, the more we need marketing professionals with the courage to make bold and considered decisions that will move the business needle.

And that’s something that was just as relevant in 1985 (when Back To The Future was released) as it would be in any future.

The writer is Mark Fong, senior vice-president and head of branding and strategic marketing, City Developments Limited.

This article was first published in Marketing Magazine Singapore’s Jan-Feb 2016 print edition. To read more views from senior marketers click here.

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