The atomisation of marketing


For millennia, people have understood the concept of an “atom.”

The Indians and Greeks devised the idea that all matter was composed of discrete and tiny units. But that understanding was based on philosophical reasoning, since it pre-dated modern science. 

Democritus called the smallest indivisible particle of matter “atomos.” And the name stuck.

About 2,220 years later, in 1897, Joseph John Thomson (people called him “JJ”) found the atom wasn’t the smallest particle when he discovered the electron. A few years later, scientists were working on how to divide the “indivisible” atom. Which they did, with explosive ramifications.

In 1713, a cordwainer (or shoemaker) designed shoes, constructed them, and sold them. Today, we’d say it was a very flat organisational structure. There was no marketing department. There was no marketing, as demand exceeded supply; there were more feet than shoes.

The Industrial Revolution changed all of that. 

Machines, powered by steam, and then electricity, meant that shoes could be mass-produced. The Industrial Revolution made a promise to businesses that was almost fantastical: “You can design one shoe and sell it hundreds of times.” 

So now, you weren’t just searching for materials to sell shoes, you were also searching for customers for those shoes.

The Industrial Revolution shifted the supply-and-demand ratio. Mass production meant that there were more shoes than feet. And cordwainers were competing for those feet.

The Industrial Revolution meant mass production and required mass marketing. And Gutenberg’s printing press made mass-media possible. As audiences grew businesses could reach hundreds, then thousands of people with advertising. 

Media made that possible.

Soon media companies were working with thousands of businesses. And media itself became a lucrative business. Advertising agencies were created to help sell ads for media companies to advertisers.

Mass production, mass media, and marketing expertise grew into the 20th century. This was the golden age of mass media.

Today, we’re living through a new revolution. The digital revolution. In this revolution, those tiny electrons discovered by Thompson speed through wires and through the air to connect all the new digital products. And their users are creating a massive connected collective.

And, just like the Industrial Revolution, this is changing everything.

Publicis uses a metaphor to describe the changes in audiences: “In the age of mass media marketers and agencies, we’re great at talking to the forests. Then as segmentation developed, we could talk to the trees. Now, the leaves are talking to each other.”

The digital revolution is also changing agencies, as they split further, with public relations, promotion, search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), and other specialised skills operating independently but still under the same roof.

And, of course, marketing departments have expanded, adding analysts, strategists, media experts, creative directors, producers, and — God forbid — procurement. And the number of media outlets has exploded. There are now literally millions of channels available to reach a customer.

The Digital Revolution, like the Industrial Revolution, also makes a promise to businesses: “You can manufacture millions of products, but sell them more effectively by talking to your audience individually. One to one. Mass direct.”

That promise means we can split these audiences into their atomic parts: the “indivisible individuals.” And we can speak with each one of them with a unique message and tone.

It is a powerful promise. But just as the indivisible atom could be split, we know the indivisible individual must also be split. That individual customer can be split into many categories, including life stage, mood, purchase intent, relationship status, and others. So our messaging, if it is to truly live up to the promise, must vary for each of these elements.

How can we do that? It is difficult to write an ad for a mass audience. How do we write a different ad for every member of that audience? And several versions for each member?

I’ve been reading about agencies that are building automation technology to match messages to the many varied customers. “Robots” match messages to different audience members.

So this is the atomisation of marketing. The audience is atomised. Agencies and marketing departments are atomised, all reduced to their smallest parts. And then reduced again.

News media organisations have followed this atomisation trend, dividing digital from print, mobile from digital, iOS from mobile and further.

It’s a long way from the 18th century.

What do businesses need today? I’d argue that it is not another specialised agency, or additional marketing specialists. Or robots.

Today, businesses are searching for the equivalent of the Higgs boson. That invisible force that holds things together, that brings order from chaos.

It is theorised that the Higgs boson keeps everything from flying apart into individual electrons and neutrons and quarks and other sub-atomic bits. It makes atoms possible. It makes you and me possible.

I’ve seen a hunger in business for a marketing partner that can act like the Higgs boson. Someone who can pull things together, rather than splitting them into smaller and smaller pieces. Who can keep the customer in focus. Who can help marketers understand, not just analyse. Who can focus on the end and not just the means to that end.

This could be an agency or a media company or someone else, acting as a true partner of the marketer. There is definitely an opportunity for a news media business to provide this perspective and help their clients remain successful.

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.