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The Practice of Adaptive Marketing

Since I posted our announcement about the Programs Group moving to an Adaptive Marketing approach there’s been a lot of curiosity and spirited discussion. My main takeaway is that people agree with the need for change and want to talk more about this model.

After listening to what people had to say I thought it made sense to clarify a few things, namely:

  • Language and terminology
  • Agency structure and vision
  • Creative output

The term “adaptive marketing” isn’t ours, it comes from the people at Forrester. If you aren’t familiar with their report (registration required), Adapting Agency Relationships In A New Marketing Era, I highly recommend you give it a read. It does an excellent job of setting the table.

Several people have pointed out that adapting to changes in the marketplace, integrating cultural nuances and responding to emerging opportunities are all hallmarks of successful advertising. And I agree. Being able to identify what’s hot and leveraging the next big thing is essential in keeping a brand top-of-mind. Being responsive and adapting to changing market conditions is what all marketers need to do. But it’s not what we mean when we talk about adaptive marketing as a practice.

Traditional Marketing Is Linear

Let’s look at traditional marketing for a moment. It’s fundamentally linear. It starts with the brief. The creative team then develops material that gets trafficked. Performance is measured to determine whether or not it worked. The individual project or campaign ends and measurement data is used to help inform the next campaign. Then the whole process repeats.

Agencies have done an amazing job of developing the linear model. When it comes to pushing one-way messages it’s impossible to argue with their success. In an era that was focused around informing consumers about the benefits of a product or service it was masterful. It resulted in legendary advertising that spread messages and built brand identities. But as consumers evolved they became more and more immune to advertising. And today, with a world of information at their fingertips, consumers share knowledge and find out about products in ever changing ways. Advertising still works, but not like it once did.

So, how can agencies also change and create marketing products that are once again relevant to consumers lives? How can they change and still serve the needs of marketers? How can they help consumers solve problems rather than push marketing messages? I believe the answer is tied to the way we work. And, the ways we are compensated for that work.

Adaptive Marketing Is Iterative

Adaptive marketing is considerably different from the linear model. It’s organized to be a dynamic, “always-on” process in which creative is continuously measured against a pre-defined objective. Creative is modified, refined or abandoned as required. And since the creative team is aware of the end goal in advance, they have the responsibility and authority to do whatever is required to achieve the goal. The creative product becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself. And compensation is tied to key performance indicators rather than the hours it takes to accomplish the goal.

It works like this:

  • The agency and client define the objectives of the engagement and establish several key performance indicators
  • The creative team is dedicated to the project for a set period of time allowing them to focus on the task
  • Ideas are rapidly developed, tested and deployed
  • Ideas evolve and adapt over time
  • Performance is closely monitored allowing the team to make adjustments
  • Project success is determined by achieving the KPIs

Agency Structure

On our LinkedIn forum it was pointed out that Adaptive Marketing isn’t a new thing. And that’s entirely true. The strategic underpinnings go a long way back. But it’s the application of this approach in a modern agency that has us excited. In my opinion, large agencies will always have a difficult time embracing this way of doing business. The future is in the smaller, more nimble groups.

Most Agencies don’t have processes, experienced resources, or frameworks that can even begin to attack this problem

When it comes to actually integrating the Adaptive Marketing practice, “it’s not the way 90% of companies are structured. Most Agencies don’t have processes, experienced resources, or frameworks that can even begin to attack this problem even if a client came to them and asked for help.”

For an Adaptive Marketing practice to work an agency needs a special structure. We believe that for a group to be successful it needs a degree of autonomy and the freedom to be self-directed. It’s likely best done with a group that works well as a team and can share responsibility (regardless of seniority). At Teehan+Lax, we use an Agile framework (Scrum In 5-Mins pdf) and find that it works remarkably well.

I think it makes sense that teams are organized around the basic three pillar structure of design, copy and developer, plus a project manager. However, the team has to be able to evolve as the project evolves. As each project is unique, the creative that is developed will determine what is required in terms of talent and expertise. A company that can accommodate flexibility will be far better equipped to embrace an Adaptive Marketing approach.

Creative Output

A highly structured, yet free-form approach to creative development. The responsibility for steering the work sits on the shoulders of the entire team and they are directly responsible for meeting the KPIs. And when compensation is tied to these goals the group is incentivized to find innovative approaches and not simply rely on traditional solutions. When the team puts skin in the game, their success is tied to the clients’ success, and not just industry awards.

In terms of what creative can or should be developed… that’s something that’s almost impossible to answer. But there I find a frustrating over-reliance on the typical microsite/banners/youtube/facebook solution. That said, when the problem is framed as, “what do we have to create in order to help the consumer” then the right solution will appear. Too often, the traditional approach is to simply put messages “out there” in places where the audience will be, with the hope that they will a) see them b) care about them c) click or visit them. As I’ve said before, I believe this approach is out of step with the desires of today’s consumer.

I like to think of the creative output that comes from the Adaptive Marketing model as a meme. Continuously evolving and unfolding artifacts that build on each other make for a great platform for creative development. And the speed of online is a natural fit. Much has been written about memetics so I won’t go into it here, but the spontaneous and responsive nature of cultural memes in the online space serve as an excellent springboard for where creative approaches must go.

Data Monitoring

One of the first responses I hear from creative people when I mention that we embrace Adaptive Marketing is, “analytics will kill the creativity. Personally, I feel the exact opposite. I don’t think we need complex measurement and analyitics software to get in the game, but instead simple measurements that can be used to determine success. I want to go more into the use of analytics because it’s a thorny issue, but to me simplicity is the right way to go,

  • It’s absolutely critical to know your objective (KPIs)
  • Measure three things (tweets? site visits? sales numbers?)
  • Use existing tools to start
  • The problem will help define the measurement

We believe Adaptive Marketing is going to become an extremely important part of our industry and are excited to figure out how it will evolve. To that end, we’ve opened up a LinkedIn group to discuss the various issues around Adaptive Marketing. We welcome your participation and encourage input and feedback for what has already become a lively debate. In addition, you can use @adaptivemktg and #adaptivemarketing to participate in the discussion that way.

Dave Stubbs More posts by Dave Stubbs