The biology of marketing business

Marketing people are talking about adaptability.

First, there was a preview of Forrester’s report “Adaptive Brand Marketing”. Then Ben Malbon asked “So What Exactly Might ‘Adaptive Marketing’ Be?”. And somewhere in between AdAge published an article “Why It’s Time to Do Away With the Brand Manager”, detailing about more agile and yes, adaptive, ways companies can (and should) manage their brands.

What these articles all have in common is that they correctly observe that, in order to secure continuous responsiveness clients’ (and agencies’) organizational structures need to reflect complex dynamics of their markets. If digital markets are interactive, real-time, quick, collaborative, and complex — so should be the firms dealing with it.

All of this is great, and would be even better if it were innovative. But … it’s not. Turns out that every living organism operates on the principles better and smarter than most of clients/agencies today.

How’s this possible?

Organisms operate in a non-linear way. They don’t use past experiences to predict future situations. They would never say: “This worked in the past, it must work again. Let’s turn a 30-second spot into a minisite.” What happens instead is that they dynamically recombine past experiences with currently available information to respond to a challenge. Andy Clark says “nature is heavily bound by achieved solutions to previously encountered problems. As a result, new cognitive garments seldom are made of a whole cloth; usually they compromise hastily tailored amendments to old structures and strategies.” This is also why, while they may not operate well as a whole, traditional agencies have a ton of pieces of expertise that may be super-useful in the current digital environment. Make traditional creatives work with digital strategists. Not easy for sure, but innovative solutions are most likely when you link conceptual structures of two previously (very) unrelated situations…

Natural selection works. And it’s been working for thousands of years now. Now, not all past experiences are useful; only successful ones are repeated in the present. Bad ones are eliminated. Ask questions: What are the strongest genes in our organizational DNA? What have we been constantly and repeatedly successful at? How can we recombine this knowledge with new stuff? No one will say they’ve been good at “30 second spot” or at “telling stories”. Go beyond that and find what’s specifically unique expertise that your agency built over years. If you’d been great at consumer ethnography, venture into digital ethnography.

Intelligence is distributed. You won’t make your agency smarter and more responsive only by having “agile measurement” and having real-time access to data. It’s distributing the capacity for data interpretation throughout the company that makes a difference. This is from Ben’s article: “As marketing becomes more technology-powered, with learning more real0time, t will be critical to identify who is responsible for leading within marketing organizations … and, more importantly, who is empowered to make decisions on the fly” … Well, everyone. Organizational units should not only be capable to individually relate to the environment, but to be equal participants in its interpretation. When there’s no time, anyone should be able to make a decision (think military — in the battlefield, do soldiers always have time to relay info to the general and then wait for his response? If they did, they’d be dead). Simply can’t have centralized intelligence. And then, there’s something even more important: only when capacity of interpretation (intelligence) is distributed, internal resources can successfully be allocated and combined with external info.

Diversity is good. Different people have different skills and work experiences. This is why they’ll interpret external info differently. This is adaptive: when there are coexisting multiple + diverse interpretative possibilities, the chances that complexity of the environment will be grasped are greater. We get a better understanding of a situation by combining all those different interpretations. And, because there are multiple ways to evaluate and interpret the challenge, this prevents “uni-dimensional” approach. For example, always responding to a marketing challenge by building a minisite.

Every living thing has a purpose. It does its thing among everyone else who do their own things, too. This is visible in organizational mission, vision, goal, and overall strategy. A specific purpose defines the shape and size of an organization. This is why it’s silly to say “we need to be like a software company”. Well, you can’t because your organizational purpose is not to build software. You are in marketing business, and what you can do in this situation is to take pieces of good experiences from a software company and combine them with good pieces of experience from your own company and see if you created something more adaptive. Nature doesn’t imitate. It evolves. Otherwise we’d still have a million replicas of an ameba.

Organic approach to organizations can be really really useful right now. And, if it worked to nature, it’s got to work for us, too.

Originally published on October 27, 2009