Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

The Age of Distrust

We live, by all accounts, in the age of distrust. Whether it’s politics, science or everyday relationships, there’s a general malaise about being trusting because it’s better to be able to say “I told you so” than “I was wrong”.

There’s two parts to the “conversation” about trust that interest me. The first relates to the overwhelming sense that the lack of trust is entirely the making of technology. The second is deeper and more convoluted and hard to state in a short sentence. It’s somewhat akin to the presumption of innocence we hear so much about in American movies. It’s a general predisposition to gloat about everything that invalidates one’s own view of the world and afford absolutely zero credit to anything else. It’s a fundamental desire to not move, to not experiment, to work only to disprove everyone else.

Is this is post about marketing, you ask? Yes. But as always, you need to bear with me because I am intuitive and disorganised writer so I need to work myself up to my main point.

I’m not going to go into the first part of that trust conversation right now. I have been saying for the past two years that there is not enough support for the right voices that speak in favor of tech. Yes, there is a lot of tech lobbying but that is not what I’m talking about. As we bemoan the lack of privacy and destruction of democracy by tech, we immediately also go into punishment mode without realising that the very fabric of life is now woven with technology, so removing or banishing parts of it will tear incredible holes into how we see our modern lives. There is limited drive to educate and regulate. Education is patchy and basic, resting on incredibly shaky premises (just as an example, we used to have PSAs about salt, fat and smoking. If we’re so worried about the impact of tech on the general mental wellbeing what’s there to stop us from making PSAs which teach people about the basic notification settings in most major apps? why doesn’t anyone give free airtime to Tristan Harris’ Foundation?). Regulation is driven by men whose only interest seems to be conducting the business of regulating tech in the public eye and regulating by meme. But I said I was not going to go into that.

What I’m interested in is the polarisation of discourse at the very heart of marketing. Now, you will say, this is nothing new, people have gone on about the death of this and that medium for ages and, often, other people have had to point out that it’s not about things killing other things as much as it is about things working WITH one another (yes, I am talking about the Internet killing TV and digital killing traditional and/or ATL, influencers killing magazines and so on).

These days we’re looking at a tribal approach to doing marketing that is fundamentally about lack of trust. Trust that anything other than what you know and work with can do a good job. Trust that things that are unknown and untried are worth knowing and trying. Trust that while it may not work right now, it could work later if we really give it a try.

When an Adidas marketing executive candidly admitted that they had over-invested in performance marketing and focused their entire planning on channels that appeared to drive sales based on lack click attribution, a wave of “I told you so” tweets got generated. They wanted to underline once more that all those people who believed in “digital”, “performance”, etc were very, very wrong. All those things clearly did not work. Here was an important person from one of the world’s biggest brands saying they had been wrong.

This was not new in any way. About two years ago the CMO of P&G said they were shifting away from narrow targeting and back into broad, because they could not validate the narrow targeting model. Not on Facebook at least. Back then, just as with the Adidas statement, wave upon wave of tweets and articles met the news with jeering“We told you so”s. Digital, Facebook, targeting (again, basically whatever everyone thought about) did not work.

In plain sight, however, in both statements, more interesting facts were also available. That Adidas did not do any brand tracking and their attribution model was among the most basic (if you know anything, you will know that last-click is a model nobody really trusts anymore). That P&G had knowingly run a HUGE experiment, trying to see how new media would fit into their marketing mix. They had invested to learn, their marketing approach was not pivoting. Both of these, by contrast to the reaction from the industry, were instances of trust. People in charge of some of the world’s biggest brands had trusted that places where a lot of their consumers were spending time were worth looking into. They had tried something different and learnt from it and progressed with a better understanding of what their marketing should look like in the modern age. These were cases of suspension of disbelief and willingness to take chances. These were, fundamentally, expressions of a belief in the power of experimentation and the creative possibility of new things.

Last week, a study by YouGov and Grey revealed that lots of UK consumers do not trust influencers. Again, glee. Influencers, this annoying anomaly in the marketing ecosystem, did not work, they were wrong. Hurray. One more thing off the list. Sadly, compared with the number of people who do not trust ads and advertising, the % of people who do not trust influencers is small. Distrust in what our industry produces is rampant. We’ve achieved nothing but to undermine trust again, to generate confusion and paranoia about what works and what does not. What’s next on the “kill list”?

The trouble with the marketing community today is it loves to breed distrust more than it loves to experiment and improve. Instead of thinking how to do things better, we want to show how others are doing things wrong. Instead of doing more studies to learn more, we love to spread fragments of other people’s studies to say “I told you so”. Instead of believing, we love to disbelieve.

But disbelief is not creative. Disbelief is a fundamentally reductive exercise which attempts to demonstrate that one, and only one option is the correct one. And marketing should, really, be about creativity and somehow, we need to move back to a place where experimentation is what fuels this industry, and not paranoia.



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Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.