Same distance, different race?

by Ben Pujji

When American sprinter Michael Johnson broke the 400m world record in 1999 with a time of 43.18 seconds he did it by himself. When Usain Bolt and his three Jamaican buddies broke the 4x100m world record at the 2011 Athletics World Champs, they stormed home in 37.04 seconds – around 15% quicker than Johnson, but of course, enjoying a different race format.

The 400m run is one of the toughest track race formats. It needs the brute force of a sprinter and the staying power of a middle-distance runner over a track long enough to burn you out, but short enough to demand absolutely everything in the tank.

Arguably, ‘campaigns’ are the 400m format of advertising. Campaigns, like the 400m run, are fixed timeframe windows of intense activity, where results really matter. They need momentum immediately, but also to sustain momentum right till the last moment. Campaigns, like runners, can peak, burn out and hoover up resources. Great campaigns are both strong and efficient.

Back to running, what if Johnson and the Jamaicans were actually competing in the same race? What if anyone could choose to race with whatever format they wanted?  Whether, say, to sprint the distance alone, or perhaps to break it down – like a relay. Clearly it would be nuts to break 400m into 40x10m sprints – no time to build speed or carry momentum not to mention the logistics and risk of so many baton handovers. Running backwards, or with eyes closed might be fun, but probably less than effective. But a 4x100m relay, now that might get us a better result than a lone runner slogging it out? Naturally, the decisions we’d make about our approach and execution would be well debated, then tested and refined over successive races – especially if our competitors were also making up their own formulas to beat us.

Marketing today really is a bit like this, digital marketing – a lot – not only can we do it the smart way with relative ease, we can if we wish, do it poorly, with equal ease.

Digital is meant to be flexible, adaptive and measurable. With digital, if we want to, we can prevent campaign fatigue, refine targeting, iterate and reduce campaign wastage far more easily than with traditional marketing: digital is designed for this. For competent agencies and marketers it’s not actually hard with digital to connect with and direct different people to different places, showing them things which are tailored to them, refining our campaigns in real-time (based on live insights).

So why don’t we see and do more of that? Isn’t this the golden opportunity for digital? In my view the reason is simple: traditional marketing - we’re used to working another way entirely.

For years (forever), we’ve been bound by constraints like huge TVC production costs (no dough for variations, just edits), limited reach and targeting choices (a few channels, a handful of outdoor spots, and a couple of radio stations etc) and diabolically poor data/measurement (dancing in the dark). We’ve formed habits from working with the constraints of traditional marketing which, when applied to digital marketing, produce work that is cumbersome and static. We run our digital too often as if it were a short-order poster, or 90′s throw-away-and-start-again website rebuild, and these habits, in 2012, are bad habits.

In 2012 I hope to see and contribute to smarter digital marketing. For that to happen, we’ve got to create digital work that does what digital does best: respond, evolve and rapidly improve. We’ll need to embrace data and measurement and grow an appetite to be responsive and agile. Lastly, and honestly, we need to develop the courage to stop ourselves defaulting to gambling our budgets on homogenised big-ticket, impossible to adapt, hard to measure one-chance wonders into which we just shoehorn ‘something digital’.

Let’s do to our competitors what the Jamaicans would’ve done to Johnson, if they had been running in the same race. With digital marketing in 2012, you get to rewrite the rules – and you’ll need to!

Note: This post was originally published over at the M&C Saatchi NZ blog