Are you a performance marketer… or a ‘Chief Dot Connector’?

Last week, an 800-strong audience at PM Unlocked welcomed a new type of event for London – with a rallying cry that performance marketing is breaking out from the bottom of the funnel.

With my ears still ringing from THAT outro video, a week on from PMW’s first large-scale live event has provided time to reflect on the main themes that coursed through the presentations, panels and conversations on the exhibition floor. 

Chief among them was this: performance marketing is often regarded as a discipline with an identity crisis – but for all the right reasons. Is it just about short term conversions? Is it only about ‘pay-for performance’ channels and nothing else? Should we call it ‘activations’ instead? Is it a ‘stupid’ phrase (as quoted in another marketing publication recently)?

But at our Performance Marketing Unlocked event, standing among hundreds of buzzing attendees from such diverse backgrounds, I realised that this ‘identity crisis’ isn’t a sign of a practice that’s in peril. 

It's a sign that it’s growing. At warp speed, engulfing all in its path. 

… and people are struggling to catch up and define what that change means for the marketing industry. 

The confusion comes from its rapid evolution, as more consumer touchpoints become measurable and as the boardroom demands greater accountability for its marketing spend. Whether you work in PR or branding, creative or customer retention – we’re all becoming performance marketers now. 

That’s not to say other marketing disciples are becoming defunct. We need great branding, creative and PR more than ever too – it's just that much of the growth from these skills is coming from better audience insights, smarter targeting and greater transparency with other departments.

Across three stages, the exhibition stands and the main plenary, we witnessed brands, agencies, tech vendors, data experts, trade bodies, students and CEOs all eager to share their experiences and learn one essential thing – how can I use data in a smarter way to achieve my business goals? 

In his keynote presentation, Tom Kendall, Head of Digital EMEA at IBM, demonstrated how his team ‘ungated’ the software and hardware giants' internal customer information from across departments, developing new frameworks to help upsell to leads more effectively – with some impressive results. It was a forensic example of silo busting that left many in the audience inspired (certainly going by the LinkedIn posts following the event). 

But the biggest murmur of acknowledgement came when Tom described his job as being the ‘Chief Dot Connector". Central to his role was identifying opportunity gaps across the business to get more out of data. To be a good performance marketer, you can’t just look at ‘pay for performance’ channels in isolation; data, insights and creative from across the business all help inform the decisions made when investing in these outcome-driven channels. 

Breaking out of the funnel 

Over the two days at Unlocked, for every session on a paid channel, there was a talk dealing with an organic channel too. Caroline Harrison, Head of Digital Marketing at HSBC, relayed how the financial company is harnessing new paid search techniques to get ahead of the cookie-depreciation curve, while Neil Mandell, Senior Digital Marketing Manager Samsung, outlined the electronic giant’s paid social success and work with influencers. 

Then we also had fantastic examples of organic success. Sam Pennington, Senior SEO Manager at New Look showcased how smarter uses of product listings boosted sales and cut overstock at the fashion retailer. Meanwhile John Thornton at Surreal cereal captivated a standing room-only audience on his adventures (and misadventures) in social media copywriting – with nary a paid channel in sight. 

Bringing the two together elegantly was Fredereic Vandersmissen, Marketing Director and Budweiser and Bud Light Europe, who recounted how the beer brand ‘won the World Cup’ on social by using its more experimental organic activity as a testing ground to ensure its paid social content was highly engaging, thus lowering the R&D costs needed to make the paid content fly. Another example given – ‘hacking’ the Giphy algorithm to ensure Budweiser football gifs were shared more on dark social channels like WhatsApp and WeChat during the games – was a particular stroke of genius. 

Somewhat inevitably given the news headlines, generative AI was the talk of the event, eschewing the metaverse when it came to predictions for the ‘next big thing’. While examples of its use in research and copywriting are already emerging, several sessions at Unlocked highlighted applications for Chat GPT web scraping and fulfilling ‘specialist’ roles –  accelerating key functions within performance marketing.

But these messages came with a health warning. What happens when all marketers start using the same AI platforms in their bidding software? Will it just be robots bidding and working against other robots, driving up prices infinitely? The discussion spilled onto the conference floor and onto social media comments made long after the curtains closed on the main stage.

The spark of connection

The post-pandemic era has rightly shown that working from home can be just as productive, if not more so, than office bound activities. But as our glowing delegate feedback indicates (and to paraphrase a famous old Heineken slogan) a live event like Unlocked can still refresh parts of the marketing mind that Zoom calls cannot reach. 

The serendipitous nature of ‘IRL’ meetings can spark that all important ‘eureka moment’ – connecting to people, connecting to ideas, connecting to departments, connecting to data …connecting the dots. 

Closing out the event Greg Levine, Chief Operating and Growth Officer and Vitality summed it up succinctly: “If you ask me ‘what are the two key skill sets in the world that are most in demand’? I'd probably say it's software engineers and performance marketers. Why? Because the battleground of the future is how you acquire, retain and monetise customers.”

While taking stock at the official PMW afterparty, it struck me that the people in the room were part of an industry that had just spearheaded much of the UK’s ad growth in 2022; defying the economic gloom and giving us reasons to be cheerful. 

So let’s raise a glass to the dot connectors everywhere.

Next year we’re gonna need a bigger venue. 

By Robin Langford


Performance Marketing World 

Thank you to our partners, Performics, Croud, Making Science, Assembly Global, BrightBid, Rakuten Advertising, VEVE, Nucleus, Tealium, MediaVision, SegmentStream, PromoVeritas, Wavemaker, Mei-Digital and the DMA.