Much to Loathe About Programmatic Thinking


In my last post, I covered what for me was a particularly egregious misuse of marketing technology, when a bot promoted a white paper with “Fear and Loathing” in the title on the 10th anniversary of the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, the man who first used that phrase to title anything (and long before the movie of the same name came into being). There are plenty of other examples of automation gone wrong (take the recent hacking of Coca-Cola’s Twitter account by Gawker editors to prove the same case).

But something else continues to irk me about the whole Fear and Loathing debacle that cold February day. It’s not just the automation of marketing without any use of human insight, but it’s the automation of the act of creation itself—the programmatic approach to everything from white paper titles to full-fledged integrated campaigns that irks me.

What do I mean by programmatic in this instance? I mean safe. I mean tried-and-true. I mean it worked before, so let’s do it again. Don’t get me wrong—experience is everything. But experience also teaches us that repetition does not guarantee the same result. Automated marketing technologies rely heavily on the mimicry of the masses in social spheres to measure efficacy and the resonance of company messages in the market. But I worry that creating campaigns based on mimicry rather than inspiring it miss the mark.

My plea not just to tech companies, but to PR companies, ad agencies, and marketers across the board: Rather than talk about what everyone’s already talking about—let’s be the ones to get them talking.

Data-driven PR does not equate with programmatic thinking. Data-driven is just that—information drives the direction, moves us forward. But creative thinking is the fuel. Otherwise, we’re just being lazy. That means everything from relying too much on the data and not enough on the insight and what you’re going to do about it. It also means not taking data into consideration at all. Most of all, for me, lazy marketing, is, at the end of the day, lazy PR. Yes, what we do is a formula—most of what everyone does is a formula. Just like every award-winning screenplay or election campaign follows a formula—but strapping a tried and true formula to a never-tried big and risky idea—that’s what launches ideas into the stratosphere, and makes not just successful PR campaigns, but successful business, and to be honest, happy employees and happy client. Who wants to be known for delivering the status quo? Why not just hire a bot?

Back to Hunter S. Thompson. The truth is, I can’t argue too much on the borrowing of rebel images to spice up milquetoast brand perception because, well, as bad as it sounds, I’m a sucker for that stuff. When GAP put Kerouac, in khakis, in their print ads to revitalize their image in 1993, I scoffed. How very square. Or in today’s terms, ew, how basic. But not long after, I traded Levi’s for khakis, with a flannel shirt just to stay grunge enough. I knew better than to think that it made me relate to Kerouac in any way. But I admired a brand that would put a poet on pedestal, no matter how sacred an icon of the resistance he was at one time.

I’m mixing my metaphors here—seizing on a popular trend that correlates with your target audience is smart marketing, and there are creative ways to keep it real. If that ad got someone to read On the Road who’d never touched it before, even better. But simply seizing upon the trending data at hand without human analysis is dangerous. This is where doing your homework counts—and programmatic thinking actually diminishes click-though ROI.

Programmatic thinking removes the soul required in campaigns and ideas that truly resonate. And yep, I do think it’s possible to resonate if it’s just white paper you’re peddling. Because it’s never just a white paper. It’s a brand identity and a value prop. And if you’re not going to put some soul into your work, then where are you going to put it?

Thinking differently doesn’t mean thinking like Steve Jobs, or sticking a finger in the eye of tradition like Hunter S. Thompson. It means thinking like yourself, and no one else. Kerouac, Thompson, Jobs—they all did that. And we still can’t stop talking about them, years after they left us. There’s hope in that.

Nicole Bestard
VP, Account Services

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