How much has marketing really changed in 25 years?

9th March 2023

Having just wrapped up my exit from the agency I founded 12 years ago and moved into the consulting world, I’ve had a little time for reflection recently. As I was recalling some of the clients I’ve worked with over the 25 odd years since I set up my first agency, and how marketing has changed so dramatically in so many ways, and yet in others, nothing’s really changed at all.

Firstly, for younger readers (let’s face it, that’s virtually everyone) lets just set the scene. Yes, we did have colour televisions back then. And no, trains weren’t all steam powered. But, here’s a shocker for you – we used to design on a computer which had an 800MB (that’s MB not GB) hard drive and 16MB of RAM. Then we’d save our work onto a 1.44MB floppy disk and send it via courier to a reprographic studio where they would produce a set of negatives. They would be sent back to us so we could clip the four colour separations to a light box and check the alignment was correct. Then another courier would arrive to deliver them to the printer (or newspaper/magazine in the case of an advert).

There was no such thing as digital marketing – no SEO, PPC, social media etc. – so you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is now totally and utterly different. And in some ways, of course, you’d be right. The Internet, social media and a million different marketing technology solutions have revolutionised the way we do things.

Our ability to track what we do, and use data to measure results and optimise performance, is probably the biggest shift from when I started.

But in other ways – i.e. the fundamental principles of marketing – things really never change. And I think that, as marketers in a digital age, we sometimes need reminding of the basics. We’re very quick to jump on new and shiny things but, occasionally, we’re just as quick to forget the fundamentals.

Ignoring my pet subject of ‘content marketing’ and when it was invented – I’m pretty sure people have been doing it for a very long time before digital came along – here are a few quick examples to get you thinking…

1) Right message, right audience, right channel, right time

It’s not rocket science… break down your audience into segments or personas and understand what makes them tick. Identify the right messages for each target group, and present it to that audience via a channel they actually use at the best time.

Back in the days before digital, how did we put together a marketing strategy? Well here’s what we didn’t do… start with a list of popular magazines, newspapers, radio and TV stations, throw in some outdoor advertising close to busy roads, and scatter the budget evenly between them (please tell me that’s not how you did it!).

But essentially that’s exactly what some companies do with the digital channels that are available today. Just because we have more ‘cool stuff’ available to us, doesn’t mean we have to use it all!

I visited a potential new client a while back, and the MD asked me, “You’ve had a look at our social media – can you tell us why our Facebook page isn’t performing well?” To which I replied, “Only if you can tell me why you have a Facebook page in the first place!”

2) Blinded by technology

The advancement of technology is relentless. But, again, just because they’ve built it, doesn’t mean you have to find a way to use it! Over the years I’ve witnessed a repeating theme of companies embracing new technology because they saw something cool, got over excited and didn’t properly evaluate their actual requirements, and what benefit they would derive from the tech.

In other words, they didn’t have a requirement and then go out and find the technology that would help them achieve their goals. Instead they reverse engineered ways they could use the technology they’d been blinded by. In many instances this resulted in them tying up time and money delivering ‘nice to have’ functions at the expense of ‘must have’ functions.

Back in the day, I had clients wanting a website at a time when literally none of their target audience would have had access to the Internet, but they didn’t have the budget to advertise in a newspaper supplement that would be read by several hundred thousand of their exact targets.

I’ve met several companies recently who have signed up to one of the all-singing, all-dancing inbound marketing software solutions or social media planning/scheduling tools at substantial cost to their business, only to realise that the platform relies on content to feed the entire process – something they’d overlooked completely – so they find themselves grinding to a halt.

3) Authentic communications

One of my first clients owned a massive multi-storey department store in a pretty dodgy part of town which sold everything under the sun, from furniture to clothes and any other random job lots he’d picked up from the back of a lorry, I suspect.

Yet he was determined that his advertising presented a different image . His ads set an expectation of something closer to Harrods than Poundland. His definition of marketing was basically a technique he could use to con people into visiting his store who would never, ever normally shop there.

Because of this he was attracting customers, but totally the wrong type. Footfall wasn’t converting into sales – possibly because they were too busy trying to keep one eye on their cars to make sure they were still parked outside and had all four wheels intact.

Today is no different. Marketers have never been under so much pressure to deliver numbers: traffic to the website, more likes or followers on social media, and so on. There are so many tricks and techniques for getting those numbers, but traffic for traffic’s sake can actually do more harm than good.

At a time when authenticity (especially in the context of social and influencer marketing) is on everyone’s lips, it’s never been more important to understand your brand, and what it actually is, rather than what you’d like it to be, and carefully match your communications to your audience. You’ve worked so hard to get them to interact in some way with you – don’t let them down.

4) The power of recommendations and Influencer Marketing

Recommendations and reviews weren’t invented for the Internet. Testimonials have always been powerful in marketing. Before the Internet, if you needed a plumber, or the roof fixing, what did you do? You may have used a directory like Yellow Pages, but you’d probably also ask around. Has a neighbour, friend or family member used someone that they can recommend? Building in testimonials and proactively driving recommendations and referrals has always been one of the first things I’ve tried to introduce into my clients’ marketing material.

Back in 1994 we engaged a well-known cricketer to be a brand ambassador for a client. He turned up at events, and we produced a range of marketing material which featured him and the client’s product in ways that felt less like an advert and more educational. We leveraged his large fan base and trusted position to introduce our client’s product to a wider audience and make it instantly credible by association. Sound familiar?

5) Tell your story

Another buzzword hijacked by digital/content marketing in recent years is ‘storytelling’. I read an article last week in a reputable marketing publication, which started with this sentence: ‘Brand storytelling is gaining momentum in the marketing world, and with good reason.’

The same article then went on to define brand storytelling as: “Using a narrative to connect your brand to customers, with a focus on linking what you stand for to the values you share with your customers.”

Um… correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that marketing principle isn’t just starting to ‘gain momentum’ in 2018!

So, a quarter of a century on, has marketing itself actually changed, or do we just have new and evolving tools available to us?

And do they always help us to do our jobs better, or are they sometimes a distraction that stop us doing the simple things well?


About Ben Hollom

25 years experience as an agency owner and Head of Marketing in the commercial sector, working with brands such as Zurich, Hastings Direct, Go Compare, The FA, AXA, Nestle, Sky and DELL. I now work with ambitious, growing agencies and businesses.

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