What Mars rover teaches us about the value of ideas

The business of marketing and advertising is evolving in ways both revolutionary and challenging, but we must never forget that the power of ideas remains its bedrock.

Rather than trying to connect with people, our industry is using some of the most potent tools in the history of marketing simply to sell more things, leading ultimately to an over-simplification of the consumer as an insatiable buying machine.

It sometimes feels like marketing is being reduced to little more than an unrelenting volley of sales messages creeping across our screens at great frequencies, synchronized to our day by time and occasion, each one shot out of a cannon powered by our own personal data.

We can debate the value of short-term sales versus long term brand building forever, but it will always take a captivating idea inspired by an insightful strategy to produce meaningful results.

So what of technology and its role?

Technology can either take ideas to new heights or deliver real harm, depending on what we’re asking of it. We should be thinking about tech the way NASA scientists think about the Mars rover. The U.S. space agency is more interested in examining the red planet’s craters in an effort to understand potential life forms than mindlessly counting rocks.

The point here is that people are not numbers. Even though we as marketers might be trying to reach multitudes, we can’t forget this is still a business about people talking to people—a relationship-based business, populated by transactions within it. As long as humans are making the purchases, this isn’t going to change.

The undeniable truth is that the vast majority of brand decisions are made emotionally. So it should come as no surprise that the most effective ideas are fuelled by a deep insight into people. Not the shallow consumer-buying part of them (although this too can play a role), but the deeper, human side.

Today’s most successful brands are winning by combining the forces of creativity and technology. Technology can help us better understand our audience, amplify big ideas, optimize delivery and automate tasks at scale. But it is not an end in and of itself, and it is not a replacement for an idea. Without an idea to steer it, tech is an unguided missile capable of dehumanizing our work and the people we speak to.

There’s so much focus on advertising efficiency these days that marketers often think of creative as the last output in the process. Big ideas are most useful as early in the process as possible. This, then, is an appeal to introduce more creative minds at the product development stage—or at least before media strategy is locked in—rather than at the end, when we’re left with a tighter space in which to inject the persuasive power of an idea.

Every day we see how the density of messaging, media fragmentation and the limited attention span of our audiences are proving that ideas matter now more than ever. It’s ideas that build strong brands, which in turn deliver the best return on investment over time. To think differently suggests an entirely different marketing universe in which brands lead far shorter lives, becoming obsessively transactional and, consequently, less valuable.

Aaron Nemoy is an award-winning marketing strategist and founder of Crowdiate, devoted to the pursuit of ideas powered by global creative competitions. This column was adapted from a presentation Nemoy gave at TechToronto’s MarketingTO event in December.