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The Marketing Virus

I have spent the past 35 years helping corporations, latterly my own, communicate with customers and prospects (people they want to become customers). When I first entered the world of marketing, we were known by other departments as the 'Gin and Tonic Brigade' due to the long lunch hours with suppliers and the frequent conferences and 'inspection' visits we felt we needed to make. Our work was broadly about creating the right message, in the right place, at the right time to attract the attention and persuade the right people, usually but not exclusively, to part with money. More significantly, our skills at the time focussed mainly on the message, rather than the targeting and timing. This was basically because in those days we only had blunt advertising and direct marketing tools at our disposal. Calculation of Return On Investment (ROI) was an obscure art, universally employed to justify retaining client contracts (if we were agencies) and to encourage bean-counters to increase marketing budgets at the annual bun-fight over funds. Our measurement tools were crude, and our controls over how we targeted our messages were equally crude.

Today, a very different picture has emerged. It is one which has the potential to control our lives, subtly, insidiously, and potentially destructively. And we are fuelling it with vigour and enthusiasm as we rush to use increasingly sophisticated smartphones, tablets etc, and services like Facebook, Google and, let's not forget, Microsoft. The world (Marketing) has become very clever at finding out: who we are, where we live, what we own, where we are right now, what we eat, drink and do, with whom, when, and even why. We are being watched. Very very closely. And we are willingly feeding the marketing machine with vast amounts of data every second of our lives because we don't really care, or understand, about the loss of our privacy (except our passwords and PINs of course). In fact we like the world to know certain things about ourselves (think FB and Linkedin) so we don't have to explain to people we want to impress, who we are and what we like. And we don't want our time to be wasted by irrelevancies. We also like to show off who knows us and how popular we are. And we want to save time for ourselves. We are constantly searching for ways to make life easier. So when Amazon says 'You may also be interested in...', we say 'how clever', 'how convenient', 'good old Amazon'. And when Google or Facebook buys Amazon, we're going to say 'how amazing they should offer me that. I was only chatting about it to my mate last night'. So for the moment, we accept the way we are being exposed to 'relevant' and potentially appealing opportunities on which to spend our money. But is there a limit? What happens when every corporation, political movement, charity etc. on the planet competes to make propositions to us? How much do we really want to be sold to? How much are we prepared for our consciousness (and who knows, one day also our sub-conscious) to be invaded by other people's decision about what we need or might like?

Marketing is a virus. It's eating into us and on us. We've allowed it into our lives by exposing ourselves, willingly or indirectly, to the machine that feeds on ROI. Finer and finer targeting. Less and less wastage of advertising and promotion effort and expense. More and more compelling messages. To sell us more and more stuff and ideas. But perhaps the most sinister aspect of the marketing virus is that social networks are propagating it to our families, friends, work and study colleagues, staff and customers. Organisations trying to sell finely targeted stuff to us, are using our relationships to market to our various social networks. I like BMWs. You like me. You might like BMWs.

So where's all this leading us. A couple of weeks ago at TED Global in Edinburgh I asked one of the world's experts in digital marketing what the future of marketing looks like. He described a scene where you would be walking down a road and as you approached a sign or (more likely) your smartphone would say to you 'Hi Matt. Try the new Jaguar XK. Peter Smith can pick you up in 20 minutes for a test drive. Why not use the free coffee credit we just sent to your phone at Starbucks 50 yards away while you wait for us? Your favourite Mocha is waiting there. We've got several colours you like in stock, and today you can get 10% off the price. We'll also pay you £45,000 for your current XK since we've got a customer interested in buying it right now'. My response was 'I would hate that. I want to tell them when I want to buy something. I would feel uncomfortable them knowing too much about me.' He agreed he would too. But I can't argue with his vision. It's happening right now. Facebook and Google +1 are even promising getting your 'friends' to persuade you to buy things they 'like'. And as for all that car stuff - my companies have already built systems that can do that sort of proactive marketing. All of this is really how viruses work in the bio world. You don't catch colds from billboards, newspapers and TV, but you do from people near you or who are connected to you in some way.

I've been becoming increasingly worried for years that marketing is getting too close for comfort. Too invasive. Too clever at encouraging me to part with money for things I find whimsically appealing, but don't really need. I now have 4 Canon camera bodies - each one just a little bit better than the previous. I get a new car every 2 years, a new phone every year, and I've got thousands of apps, gadgets and general junk I acquired on the spur of the moment because some cunning marketing virus had infected something I was reading, watching or stumbled across, but which broadly knew who I was, where I was, and what I was doing at the time, and with whom. And as time and technology marches on, people like the digital marketing expert I met will get better and better at helping their clients refine their knowledge of me, where I am and what I'm doing, and with whom, in order to improve marketing ROI. And we're helping them do it by naively exposing and even volunteering the data they need to fuel their virus.

So I proposed to this chap, after a few beers it has to be said, that there might be an opportunity for poachers to turn gamekeepers. With specialist knowledge of how Marketing works, we can design systems and services to prevent it finding us and possibly filter the stuff it finds out about us. A sort of Harry Potteresque digital invisibility cloak. Perhaps it might be a privacy service people would be prepared to pay for. A bit like Spotify where you can suffer the ads for free, or pay to avoid them. We even, excuse the drink talking, gave it a name. "Fuck Off". OK, we'll probably tone it down for the launch (or maybe not?!), but we asked about 20 or so random TEDsters (as TED delegates are somewhat cringingly known) whether they would join Fuck Off. Without hesitation, once we had quickly explained what the service was - which wasn't hard - they agreed it made sense. And the more we thought about it, the more it made sense to us. Marketing had become a virus. So who better to find ways to inoculate ourselves against it than the people who had helped to create it.

Are we on to something? Do you want to say FO to Marketing?

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