A Perfect Storm of Uncertainty: Part 2


Pete McGarr, managing director of icuc.social quizzes our own Dan Hagen, CSO on the digital climate. In this two part series, you’ll have the chance to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Dan Hagen Dan Hagen Chief Strategy Officer London Digital

icuc.social’s Managing Director Pete McGarr and I first worked alongside each other 20 years ago. Now, we’re back in business together, collaborating and sharing ideas under the Dentsu Aegis Network umbrella.

This two part series gives you the chance to listen in, as Pete and I catch up to discuss where digital’s been, and where it’s heading.   

If you missed Part 1, have a read now. Here’s Part 2, in which we talk automation, ethics, and fusing social good with business goals.

Towards automation: take algorithmic efficiency, and add human intuition

Pete: There’s lots of talk around automation right now. Wired’s Kevin Kelly says: “The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: take X and add AI” . It sounds like a simple formula, but automation’s a complex mission. And human intuition still counts, when it comes to creativity, and especially language. There are certain things computers just can’t do yet. If you were placing a bet on human intuition vs. algorithmic efficiency, which way would you go?

Dan: Over the next 5-10 years, I think we’re going to see humans and machines teaming up. Or rather, automation assisting us humans. And I actually think this is going to be amazing. Let’s say I’m working in automotive. I want to know how many vehicles a brand sold in the UK in the last 12 months. A computer can go away and find that information for me, far faster than I can. It could also help iron out some of my planning biases, by giving me the right information from a variety of sources. They’ll take care of the low-value work, then I’ll look at all that information, and do my thing with it.

So it’ll be about: “How can I add unique value on top of this? What’s the bit I can do, which is always in a chaotic, intuitive space?” Intuition matters. Let’s not forget, our job is to influence people’s behaviour. If you ask them why they’re behaving how they’re behaving, they won’t know. The same goes for us marketers, and there’s magic and value in that.

I believe that with automation, new and interesting things will appear, and actually, it could be brilliant. Look at our organisation right now and take the bottom 20% of what we do, automate all of it today [clicks fingers] and imagine what everyone could be doing tomorrow.

New conversations: ethics, the press, and the role of the individual

Pete: The rise of AI and machine learning is inevitable, but it’s still us humans that are shaping what these things do, and how. Which brings us to ethics… 20 years ago, the internet came with its promise of democratisation, knowledge and creativity. Now, we’re all grappling with big debates around data, privacy, and heavy monetisation. As marketers, we have a huge amount of data on people, and the power of that data is becoming increasingly potent, and potentially scary. Have you always thought about that responsibility, or is it a recent development? A response to a shifting context?

Dan: I think it’s recent. I think about it all the time now. As an individual citizen, as well as a business leader. And you’re right: the context is shifting. Politically, many of us have lost a huge amount of trust in governments, for example. While activism is on the rise, there’s also a climate of apathy and, perhaps,  laziness. The whole ‘fake news’ blow up over the past 12-18 months is endemic of that. There’s this sense of: “Rather than forming my own opinion, I’ll just take this – unquestioningly – and pass it on.” That’s dangerous stuff.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of talk from the newspapers and the press about the importance of free press – the importance of a press that can be believed. I 100% buy that, but it’s tricky. If you’re a business, you have to prove you’re a sustainable business, or you’ll go bust. And I do think printing newspapers is no longer a sustainable business. It’s the job of newspapers to figure out what their commercial model is in the current environment: how to be relevant, how to be profitable.

Looking ahead and circling back round, I think ultimately the responsibility will – in large part – have to come down to people as individuals. They’ll have to seek out information themselves, look at the number of different opinions out there, then decide what they believe is right, based on the information they’ve gathered.

Marketing, fast and slow: building trust right now, and for the long-term

Pete: Do you think the new climate we’re in has a big effect on how (and how far) people trust brands, and messages from brands?

Dan: Brands need to be careful. They need to be responsible, no question. I always say you’re two tweets and a Guardian blog away from the truth, so I don’t think brands can get away with any kind of bullshit, which – let’s face it – they absolutely could back in the day.

That said, I also think people are remarkably forgiving. That’s interesting to me.

Pete: As a negative story fades, another one breaks, and that’s it…

Dan: Increasingly, yes. People used to talk about ‘doing a Ratner’. Remember when Gerald Ratner wiped £500m from the value of Ratners jewellers with just one speech? It was back in the early 90s. He described one of his own products as “total crap”. There’ll always be some casualties like that, but these days audiences are more forgiving.

A scandal blows up and it gets massive, yes, but the enduring 100 years of legacy prior to that still owns a huge part of people’s hearts and minds. Take Volkswagen, for example. The emissions scandal blows up. There’s press everywhere about cheating the consumer, etc. But they’re still selling cars – lots of them – and I’d imagine in most people’s heads they’re still perceived as reliable cars. That perception’s been built up over 80+ years of advertising. That’s powerful, but we rarely acknowledge that kind of slow and steady work and give it the credit it deserves. We forget. Today, we’re always thinking: “My God, we’ve got to manage ‘the now’. It’s all about ‘the now’.” But actually, you need to be continually building.

It’s a fine balance, though. According to Binet and Field’s ‘The Long and Short of it’, the perfect way to build a brand is to team 60% long-term investment with 40% short-term. That’s been the case for a long time. But now how you do it may look a little different.

Good for everyone: Fusing social aims and business goals

Pete: Things really have changed. Looking back a decade or so, the creative process was simpler. You were solving problems using creativity. Then you produced something and tried to generate some influence, against certain overarching objectives. There was a magic to it, of course. But it also felt more straightforward. Now, with data and personalisation becoming increasingly dominant, we often go to extreme lengths to try to convince people in micro ways. Marketing has become more… intrusive. Do you agree?

Dan: I would say…you’re clearly an old hippy now.

Pete: Haha, there’s some truth in that… When I first got into social media, I was excited about the prospect of achieving commercial gains via social aims. If you can identify a community’s purpose or ethic, as a brand you can serve that, and earn genuine favour. To me, it’s vital to keep that approach alive.

Dan: Exactly! That’s the perfect environment. I just don’t believe enough brands think like that. It’s our job to educate and inspire them.

I was judging in Cannes last week and there were a lot of CSR-orientated campaigns. But many of them just aren’t good enough. The links aren’t strong enough. The work will highlight an important social issue, and it’ll be a lovely campaign. But I want to know: “Did the brand’s market share increase?” Because, ultimately if it didn’t, that kind of marketing just isn’t sustainable. It’s important that brands do that kind of thing, but if you don’t tie those ambitions to the purpose of who you are as an organisation, and if the work doesn’t help your business, what’s the point? You won’t be able to keep helping others that way. Everyone gets a rough deal.

There was a brilliant example from Pedigree dog food, though. The creative premise was entertaining – empty nest syndrome. Your kids have left home, so replace your kid with an adopted dog. You could send your kids’ clothes off and Pedigree would turn them into dog clothes for you. They got dog adoption up by about 850%, which is an amazing social cause. Meanwhile, they also grew the sale of dog food by 16%. That’s amazing too. They stayed true to the cause and drove their business forwards. It makes absolute sense, but it doesn’t happen very often. Often, that’s down to short-termism, laziness, and departmental silos. The CSR team’s over there, the marketing team’s over here…

Brands need to be thinking about purpose, purpose, purpose – in all its meanings – at every stage.

It is hard, but that’s why we’re here – to elevate what brands are doing. We need to talk to marketers and say: “Think about what your purpose is”. If you nail what your purpose is – it can’t be to sell stuff – the rest of it becomes much easier. Then it’s a case of: “Does it serve a purpose?” No? Then don’t do it. “Could it serve a purpose?” Yes? Great, that’s really interesting. Let’s do it. There’s not enough time spent on that type of thinking… All too often it’s just: jump to execution, sell some widgets, and off we go.

Data and personalisation, done right: Creating respectful, valuable experiences

Pete: Let’s wrap up by returning to data. We can approach data and personalisation with a clear view to purpose, thinking as people, about our fellow people. What does the ‘good’ use of data look like?

Dan: If you handle data in a mature, effective way, it’s good for people, good for brands, and good for us. If a brand has a relevant, appealing product and can identify you, track you, and show you the products you’re interested in, that should be a better, more meaningful experience for you.

The problem is, the bulk of the industry isn’t doing that yet. The barrier to entry is so low in digital, many are just going for volume, because the payback is enough, even if you’re pissing people off. Data’s being misused. It needs to be used more smartly, and more empathetically.

My view? Great targeting is exactly that – great. Right now, I think we should be personal in our targeting, but not personal in our messaging. I’d never say “Hey Pete!”, but I might say “This might be interesting to you…” That way, you don’t feel like I’m stalking you or prodding you. I want to be helping you, inspiring you, offering you value. Because it feels good, and it makes business sense.

And that is – indeed – a wrap. We’ll be back in 2037 when we reflect on how another 20 years has changed the industry.

Dan Hagen Dan Hagen Chief Strategy Officer London Digital
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