Open Letter to CMOs: Confessions of a Digital Marketing Agency

Ian Lurie

Dear Chief Marketing Officers:

For nearly 20 years, we have worked together to build digital marketing as a discipline. You’ve trusted digital agencies like mine with your consumers, your brand, and your marketing dollars. You’ve taken the risks and the responsibility, while your digital agencies have responded with clicks, likes, and an avalanche of data but offered very little valuable insight.

Many agencies at one point or another have pointed fingers at IT, your branding team, your legal team, Google, Facebook, and anything else we could find. How often do agencies actually hold themselves accountable rather than play the blame game?

Not enough, I admit.

Otherwise, digital would likely be more than 25% of your marketing spend – a lot more. Sure, digital’s 25% budget share represents incredible growth – possibly the fastest growth of any channel, ever. But you’re still pouring 75% of your budget into television, print, and radio.

So I wonder: If digital marketing is more measurable, more effective, more efficient and agile, why doesn’t it dominate the marketing budget?

Well, here’s why:

Data’s in the driver’s seat, and it’s driving with its eyes closed

Far too often, agencies have let data drive the campaign, which makes digital marketing seem like a sure thing. And so, you go to the rest of the C-Suite and say the same thing: This campaign is a lock – it’ll generate huge revenue. Increase the budget – this is a zero-risk proposition!

But risk is based on reality, not reports. Risk is subjective, and data alone won’t measure it. Data alone can’t make strategy, because customers aren’t algorithms. They’re people. They’re, well, messy.

But that promise of low risk magnifies failure. If it’s low risk, why did you fail?

We’re marginalizing human talent and creativity

When we push data first, we marginalize talent – your talent, and mine. We marginalize creativity. We ignore that fact that all the data points in the world will never replace the consumer insight of a great CMO, his team, and his agencies.

As a CMO, you don’t just manage marketing. Your job is far larger: You have to guarantee your company’s future by understanding the wants and needs of your customers. Your job demands that you double down on digital.

That only happens if agencies like mine do our job. We need to help you develop and implement that vision, and deliver value to those customers, no matter which screen they’re using. And all the spreadsheets in the world won’t accomplish that.

What has to happen in 2014

We need to make 2014 the year of digital marketing, not spreadsheets. In 2014, we all need to:

  • Bring technologists onto our marketing teams
  • Treat omni-channel marketing as a strategy, not a buzzword
  • Treat content and creativity as a foundation, not a tactic

Most important, we need to do something radical: We need to launch campaigns with a big idea, not big data.

Oh, don’t worry. I love data. I’ll never stop using it to test assumptions and gain insight into campaign performance. Data is the ingredient we’ve always been missing.

But as digital continues to gain ground in 2014, let’s make sure that data doesn’t replace the soul of marketing. Help digital agencies do just that, and we’ll help you strengthen your company’s future.


Ian Lurie
Portent – A Clearlink Digital Agency

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for the great post!
    I definitely agree with the omni-channel comment. In my experience omni-channel is used as a buzzword and rarely fully embraced. Boards do tend to latch onto buzzwords, but are rarely willing to introduce the type of organisational and strategic changes that implementing the idea entails.
    I think there are 2 root causes of this:
    1. Boardroom Culture: The pressure to prove campaigns in a boardroom can be intense as each member tries to avoid the scrutiny of others. Often members will challenge others to shift attention away from their own issues; it’s easier to think of a smart question or challenge than a smart solution. By it’s nature marketing is an easy target. It takes a strong CMO to be comfortable under scrutiny without masses of data.
    2. Departmental Silos: Often departments have their own culture, their own procedures and their own tone of voice, which naturally affects how they interact with customers. This runs counter to the ideas of omni-channel; the same message across all channels. Unfortunately most senior managers don’t have the holistic view necessary to implement a successful omni-channel strategy – there’s too much interdepartmental inconsistency.

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