Why the link of brand and performance marketing is broken

The schism between brand and performance marketing has deep roots in the history of the craft, and it’s a systemic issue.

When we began researching our latest book, the central hypothesis was that the next-level CMO resembles the creative genius, the digital humanist at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Fast forward more than a year, and we know that today’s marketeers often struggle with a schism between brand and performance marketing. Brand marketing has a strong bias towards the creative side, while performance marketing is mainly driven by technology and data.

At NEXT22, Nick Law added some perspective to this observation:

We separated media and creatives in the late 80s, so we have great design craft that doesn’t understand media, and we have people who can measure things through performance, but have no craft or focus on humanity. They both look at the other, and see their failures – and they’re both right.

Tayloristic division of labour has steered marketing away from the humanist ideal. It has alienated designers and creative professionals from their media and performance counterparts. And it has separated design from the media it should master. In a recent interview, Nick Law elaborated on the relationship between creativity and media:

By definition being creative means creating something. And to create something you need a medium. Creative people get very invested in the medium they master – so much so that they tend to forget that it’s actually a technology. Basically, every medium you use to express an idea is a technology – and it has an impact on what you create.

In the history of agencies, there’s a new generation coming up with each new medium. We’ve seen great print and TV advertising agencies, before the internet came along and gave birth to digital agencies. Today, everything is digital, so there is no such thing as digital marketing, but only marketing that is fundamentally digital. Being digital has turned from a differentiator to a mere hygiene factor.

At the same time, the digitisation of marketing has added layers of complexity. Not only for the marketeers themselves, but also for consumers. Digital technology is complex in itself, and it allows building even more complexity on top of it. Therefore, there is a great inherent need for simplicity.

Reducing complexity

It’s a bit ironic that you need creativity to cut through complexity. After all, you’re not adding things but taking them away. The ideal to strive for is what Nick Law calls deep simplicity:

Start making decisions about what to sacrifice. You have to pass through the complexity to get to the simplicity, rather than getting trapped there.

Deep simplicity is about hugging the system. Reducing complexity is a key feature of systems. Complexity means compulsory selection, as systems theorist Niklas Luhmann put it. It is only through the reduction of complexity that complexity becomes possible and established. You cannot have complexity without mechanisms to reduce it.

This brings us to two conclusions:

  1. CMOs need to set up their marketing system in a way that reunites design, creative and brand people with media, performance and data. It may be tempting to reduce complexity by separating these areas, but this will backfire – and consumers will inevitably experience complexity they should not.
  2. Reducing complexity for consumers is a systemic endeavour and needs a systems design approach. With an emphasis on design. Or as Nick Law said: “Deep simplicity is design that emerges from understanding and moving through complexity.”

It’s about cutting through the clutter not only in terms of marketing, or customer experience, but also in terms of consumers’ lives. Today’s consumers are significantly less predictable than past ones. That’s another reason why the mass marketing approach of the past fails.

To solve this, Nick Law differentiates between story thinkers and systemic thinkers. The former think in terms of narratives, while the latter see the relationship between things. But the punch line is that you need both. Systemic thinkers work through the complexity, while storytellers simplify things by packaging them into a neat narrative.

The silos collapsed

All of this brings us back to the schism between brand and performance marketing. The former must avoid shortcuts through complexity, to abstain from what Nick Law calls superficial simplicity. The latter must embrace storytelling and refrain from passing on complexity to consumers. It’s not that the brand, or creativity alone, will solve everything. Neither will media, technology, or data turn out to be the holy grail.

All this must be integrated to create a solution, and design has to play a crucial role here. To get a better understanding, we need to establish the difference between creative and design crafts. Traditional ad agency teams consist of an art director and a copywriter. They create ideas, campaigns, and media assets. This is creative work, and it has a design component. But it’s usually not linked with product design: quite the contrary. There are specialised agencies for product design, or industrial design, and this is a whole different ballgame.

In our post-digital world, these silos collapsed. To really make a difference, creative and design crafts must be integrated. This is about collaboration, cross-functional teams, and t-shaped profiles: combining the depth of skills and knowledge in a single field with the generalist knowledge of other fields, to enable interdisciplinary work. Now, all this must be put into a coherent system. And as if that were not enough, there is no single, standardised system.

The continuum of brand, performance marketing, and commerce

Each industry and each company need their own, customised marketing systems. This is not about customised agencies, though these can be part of the solution. It’s about tech stacks, customised software, and mastering the continuum of branding, performance marketing, and commerce. It’s about product innovation. And this is where consultants come into play. In the words of Nick Law:

I think the need to execute ideas is bigger than ever. To have those ideas well informed is a consulting task.

You shouldn’t let consultants solve business problems and deliver ideas in PowerPoint only, but let them work together with designers, technologists, data scientists, art directors, and copywriters (not an exhaustive list). And the CMO’s role? They’ll own a huge piece of the pie, or they’ll be reduced to dwarfs and won’t get a seat at the C-suite table.