Why Is a Web Site Like a Woman?

When I first met Len Ellis, he was Wunderman’s EVP of Global Strategy. Someone once asked what, precisely, that job entailed.

Ellis’ pithy response: “I think big thoughts.”

He did, and he still does. For about a year and a half, we persuaded him to write a ClickZ column, which was characteristically full of big, thought-provoking thoughts (Ellis not only holds a Ph.D., but also describes himself as someone who “reads informational and mathematical theory for fun”).

Some of those columns inspired, at least in part, “Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue,” a slim volume containing two essays and countless big thoughts. The first essay considers database marketing; the second examines relationship marketing and two-way communications channels.

The book also covers a remarkable amount of neighboring ground. Data and analytics, CRM (define), usability, creative, persuasion, listening, and marketing cycles are just a few disciplines and practices examined from theoretical, strategic, and historical perspectives.

This is anything but lightweight stuff. “Marketing in the In-Between” may weigh in at just over 100 pages, but its bird’s-eye view of how marketing is practiced and is changing is richly appended with footnotes and a seven-page list of works cited, ranging in scope from Solzhenitsyn and Galbraith to academic journals and census reports.

As the title implies, the essays are rooted in the post-modernist assumption that a message’s meaning is at least partially a product of the recipient’s perceptions, with language serving as the basis of this exchange.

Or as the book puts it, “The message never even gets there unless the receiver contributes attention. Communication is collaboration. There’s no more ‘to,’ only ‘with.'”

Thirty Years of Data

It’s jarring to recall data-based marketing was borne of the 1970s’ information revolution, the “do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” punch-card era. In the spirit of that once-ubiquitous slogan, Ellis reminds us data may make marketing easier, but only by reducing human beings to “a set of features that are isolated from their contexts.”

Data lacks context. It represents rather than reflects. The possibility of co-creation in a data-based approach to marketing is negligible insofar as the consumer is concerned. Profiles are constructed out of “digital detritus,” a trail of credit card numbers, billing statements, mobile phone calls, and other past-tense transactions.

In this essay, several observations tie data-driven marketing to brand advertising, rare for marketing practitioners. An example: “Every instance of both brand advertising and data-based marketing assumes that the consumer is centrally committed to lifestyle; the lifelong project of expressing one’s self via particular assemblages of goods, services, practices, experiences, appearances and bodily dispositions.”

(This and other socially critical passages in Ellis’ book called to mind Jean Baudrillard, who died this week.)

How a Web Site Is Like a Woman

The second essay, “Raw Immaterials: Shaping the In-Between” is slightly more playful and significantly more relevant to marketers operating in the digital sphere. The in-between is, of course, that elusive space between marketer and consumer.

Why is a Web site like a woman? Both want you to talk to them. This is a strong listening metaphor and a powerful argument as to why businesses would do better to invest in inbound, rather than outbound, marketing.

The essay invokes gender metaphors implicitly and explicitly as it examines issues surrounding interactive marketing, such as why big agencies are so slowly and inadequately rising to meet interactive challenges.

“Ad agencies… don’t design and maintain relationships. That is not only the central task in digital, it’s the task to which marketing more generally is turning.”

Madison Avenue’s other failing in the digital realm is the fact its creatives haven’t learned interactive creative, Ellis posits, and creative is the advertising industry’s core competency. There are lots of reasons designing a banner ad isn’t as alluring, remunerative, and career-advancing as is working on a Super Bowl spot, but Ellis dares to opine, “The best reason they don’t do it is they’re not good at it.”

There’s never been an in-between on Madison Avenue, he argues. Creatives are trained to tell stories from beginning to end. In participatory media, the creator never “fills all the space.” Agency creatives are best at telling stories with a determined outcome. In interactive, roles are assumed, and an outcome is never predefined.

Most books on business (particularly those by self-proclaimed gurus) seize on a single idea. With terrier-like tenacity, they explain it, illustrate it, present case studies of it, then explain it yet again, until a reader feels she’s entered some sort of textual version of “Groundhog Day.”

“Marketing in the In-Between” takes the opposite approach. It packs so many clusters of thought, ideas, revelations, and connections on every page, the reader will need to repeatedly dip in to glean its thoughts. This challenging book will also challenge the reader to truly ponder and question the basic precepts and practices upon which marketing is based.

Meet Rebecca at the ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising seminar on March 19 at the San Francisco Marriott in California.

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