It may seem disingenuous to choose a book for this essay that was written by an author I know and that was published under the strategy+business brand, so let me say that I did not expect Always On to make the cut. The book’s ambitious mission is rather unwieldy, and I doubted it was possible to achieve it and still be forthright about the earth-shattering effects that the digitally wrought changes in consumer media behavior have had on the marketing and media ecosystem.
But Vollmer delivers. His book both provides the wake-up call that many of us still need and accurately presents the promise that digital media — with its endless stream of consumer behavior data — can have for marketers, agencies, and media companies. It’s also extremely honest about how high the stakes are. In a chapter devoted to the predicament of ad agencies, many of which are still largely wed to making 30-second commercials, the book quotes Jerri DeVard, former Verizon Communications senior VP of marketing and brand management: “[The agencies are] evolving too slowly. They are holding onto the past and trying to rationalize it.” At another point, Vollmer writes, “Marketers will never dominate consumers the way they once did. But they can use this deeper, more informed data-driven analysis to become partners with consumers.” Although one quote is dispiriting and the other hopeful, they both illustrate Always On’s objectivity and credibility, qualities that marketing books, which often read like the commercials they write about, tend to lack.
Always On is so packed with information and advice on how to transform marketing, media, and advertising agencies that it may take a second read to assimilate it all. Every hot-button issue is addressed here, including the controversy over how to measure a consumer’s engagement with particular ads and the increasing impact of technology companies, such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, on the advertising business.
Always On differentiates itself by pegging the revolution in the marketing and media world not just to the technological empowerment of consumers but to the consumer insights the technology reveals. The second chapter opens like this: “There is one overriding, simple, but powerful message for all twenty-first-century marketing, media, and advertising executives: insight about consumers is the currency that trumps all others.” The thirst for consumer insights has given vast power to digital media companies, and it has been the driving digital strategy for major marketers, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, both of which have become online publishers themselves. For all the reading and writing I’ve done on the topic of digital media since the mid-1990s, I’ve never seen this stated in such a declarative way. In fact, executives throughout the marketing ecosystem could benefit from having a mentor pull them aside, and whisper, Graduate-like, in their ear: “Consumer insights.” Or they could simply pick up a copy of Always On.
The one quibble I have with the book is in its opening chapter, in which the authors document Nike’s March 2007 decision to shift a key part of its business from longtime agency Wieden+Kennedy to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a Miami-based agency that has successfully disregarded the rules of the mainstream advertising business and assimilated digital into its offering. The move was widely seen as a seminal moment in the shift to digital marketing. By May 2008, however, after the book was published, Nike had returned its business to Wieden. The lesson: As much as the marketing world is changing, some things never change, including the fickleness of agency relationships. But this shouldn’t detract from Always On’s core credibility. The revolution in the marketing and media ecosystem is very real, and this book has the courage to tell it like it is — and to tell marketers, media companies, and agencies what to do about it.