“Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Martin Kihn, research director at Gartner.
You can't swing a cat video in the marketing and ad tech space these days without hitting someone who says they have a hub, cloud or suite. A litter of credible upstarts are clawing onto the pile started by IBM, Adobe, Salesforce.com and Google, ranging from data providers (Acxiom, Neustar), analytics powerhouses (HP Autonomy), service providers (IgnitionOne, Digilant) and a few veteran tomcats (Oracle).
And we've all seen the logo farms and transit maps that show herds of providers just yearning to become the pick of the litter. Common sense says a frenzy of acquisition in 2014-15 should lead to a more domestic setup where a few megahubs divide most of the market, from CRM to advertising and analytics. We’ve already seen convincing shakeouts in categories such as ad servers, website analytics, marketing automation and, most recently, data-management platforms.
Is rollup inevitable? After the catfights subside, will we peer over a postapocalyptic landscape that looks something like telecoms or airlines, with four to five big bananas monitored by the government?
To borrow a line from 4 Non Blondes: “What’s going on?”
To the hubsters, I offer three cautionary meows:
1. Change Isn’t Changing
The speed of change in digital marketing alters math. It is not a stable system, and it has seemingly unlimited access to capital. The end state is nowhere in view. Products shadow the rate of change of underlying components, such as processing and connectivity, which improve at a rate that is not linear. This is a market that literally moves at the speed of light; an industry may never have changed so much, so fast.
An Xbox One has as much computing power as the entire Department of Defense had when Justin Bieber was 5 years old. Bieber, now 20, is still a young guy. No sooner does a single digital marketing fiefdom get rational – say, desktop search engine optimization – then something moves the boundaries, such as when people buy smartphones and start searching on Twitter.
Take my area: website analytics. An embarrassment of options in the late 1990s has settled into a handful in 2014, including Adobe, Google and IBM. But lately I’ve researched app and mobile website analytics platforms, and trust me, it's chaos. Meanwhile, the hubs scramble to upgrade or acquire this critical thing that came out of nowhere. Trouble is, these "critical things" keep appearing. I have bad news for the hubsters: It’s never going to stop.
In fact, by Moore's Law, it's only going to get worse. Once a hub has conquered app analytics, marketers will be all over wearable beacons, AI decision support and talking cars. It’s what keeps analysts and consultants off the streets.
2. Big Companies Can’t Innovate (Enough)
There, I said it. As marketers' and advertisers' requirements expand, they can only be met with innovation. There is less wiggle room each year, as spending – whether on campaigns or less structured efforts like social and content marketing – gets easier to link to business goals. Blame the attribution analytics industry. No matter how useful a marketer’s hub, or how familiar, if it's missing some competitive advantage or some breakthrough technology, marketers will simply find something else in the cloud. They have to. They have benchmarks now.
Big companies have little incentive to invest in speculation. No leader in one digital era has gone on to lead in the next, as Bill Gates points out. "Success is a lousy teacher,” he says.
So big boys can be late to innovate and shift the risk of new ideas onto the startup ecosystem and VC complex. Startups are de facto R&D labs for the major players. Unless capital dries up – and there's no reason to think that it will – expect new arrivals to keep leaping onto the pile, offering more options to marketers outside the hubs.
3. Lock-In Only Benefits The Warden
Everyone enjoys the rule of law. Programmatic display wouldn't make up half of the impression volume today if it weren't for IAB standards and XML. However, within common guardrails, marketers have a lot to gain from open connectivity, data portability and flexible tools. Switching costs can still be high, but they are declining as platforms migrate to the cloud.
Simultaneously, solutions are emerging to ensure marketers' sway over their data. The popularity of tag-management systems, such as Tealium, data-connectivity platforms, like segment.io, and onboarding tools, such as LiveRamp, point to a healthy demand for control.
Meanwhile, even traditional "skills lock-in" is on the wane. Think of Oracle or Microsoft DBA certification programs, and you get the idea. Tools themselves in the digital marketing sphere are becoming simultaneously more alike and easier to use. Experts morph from solution-specific, say, Omniture ninja, to domain-specific, such as predictive modeler in R. It doesn’t take a data science degree to grok Google Analytics – and that’s a good thing. The marketing quants are less reliant on brand loyalty to build a career.
Now, before we lose track of the plot, let me be clear that digital marketing hubs exist, will continue to exist, and are often doing great work. Seamless collaboration and workflow, common data models across platforms, single sign-on and a unique customer data record – fantastic goals, every one. But I think we should wonder whether a marketers' most important decision right now should be which of the three or four digital hub mega-vendors to bet on for the long haul. That smells like mainframe spirit.
Maybe a better option is to pick a set of solutions that are best in show, and insist on controlling your data. It's likely that some lynx none of us have ever heard of will become the real cat’s pajamas.