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The Road To Now: Marketing’s Existential Crisis

Drew Leahy
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We’re living in the most tactically-proficient, platform-specialized, hyper-efficient era of marketing, yet we've never been less effective at achieving meaningful business effects: 

  • Long-term sales growth 
  • Market share increase
  • Deeper penetration (new customers) 
  • More profit and cash flow 
  • Reduced price sensitivity
  • Increased loyalty/retention 

The truth: Marketing has been in a perpetual state of existential crisis for well over a decade now. 

We’ve grown into an industry full of artists, storytellers, relationship builders, community builders, showrunners, content creators, hackers, optimizers, evangelists, and romantics. But nobody wants to be a marketer. 

We build “media companies,” not marketing departments. 

We sell “hope in a cup,” not hot bean water. 

We grow “relationships,” not customers. 

We run ads that apologize for being ads. 

We know more about TikTok and Google algorithms than we do about people. 

And if we can’t measure it, we don’t do it. 

Is it really any wonder that marketing has failed to support sustainable growth for so many businesses?

Marketing has turned into an undisciplined discipline. But before we can illuminate a path forward, first we need to explore the road that got us here.

And it's not pretty.

Micro divorced from macro

As evermore media channels and platforms emerge, evermore tactical specialists emerge to fill them. 

We need our platform and tactical specialists more than ever. But we’ve grown so preoccupied with specialization that we’ve ignored the fundamental principles underpinning their effectiveness. 

Consequently, marketing has become uber-tactical, hyper-specialized, and ultra-siloed. 

  • Performance marketing
  • Demand generation 
  • Content marketing 
  • Growth marketing
  • Brand marketing
  • Field marketing
  • Account based marketing
  • Social media marketing
  • Influencer marketing
  • Video marketing 
  • Inbound marketing
  • Product marketing (don’t ask me how that got spun off) 
  • CRM marketing 
  • Loyalty marketing

Redundancies galore. 

Ask 100 marketers what pipeline means, get 100 different answers. 

Ask 100 marketers what demand marketing means, get 100 different answers. 

Ask 100 marketers what content marketing means, get 100 different answers. 

Ask 100 marketers what GTM means, get 100 different (really confusing) answers. 

And can anyone else figure out the difference between a segment portrait, ideal customer profile, brand avatar, or buyer persona? Ya, me either.

Bottom line: Our industry is home to 1,000 specialized dialects but no universal language. 

Marketing needs to zoom out: In our increasingly specialized world, if we want to take a step forward, first we need to take a collective step backwards towards marketing fundamentals. 

We need a universal language. 

Marketing communications disguised as marketing 

“Why aren’t we growing?” asked the marketer. 

 “You need to create more demand!” said the marketer. 

Ya, ok. 

As if the communications team can magically drum up market demand with a well-placed ad or strategic narrative while ignoring pricing, product, distribution, or market adoption. 

Marketing has become synonymous with marketing communications. It’s not. 

Marketing communications is one tiny part of marketing, dare I say the easier part. 

We're starting from the end (tactics), not the beginning (strategy). And we’ve disregarded the other 3 Ps, which, by the way, happen to be the more important levers in our arsenal. 

Instead, marketing has morphed into a one-dimensional industry wholly reliant on tactical brilliance of the communications kind. 

We’re not marketing at all; we’re shiny-toying with our brands. 

Sometimes we hit a homerun. Most of the time we strike out. But it’s all in the name of “content.”

Obsessed with big amounts of the wrong data

We have a data problem: too much of it and not the right kind. 

Most businesses have no access to long-term data but loads of short-term platform data. 

Clicks, likes, impressions, comments, shares, CPL, CPA, CPC, ROAS

It’s never been easier (or more satisfying) to track and achieve immediate results (and the addictive dopamine hit they provide). 

But while short-term, immediate feedback looks great in a dashboard, it biases our activity toward the bottom of the funnel since long-term data is harder to track. 

Short-term data begets short-term thinking. And round and round we go. 

We don’t need more short-term data. 

We need fewer but better data points that show how marketing actually grows brands: over the long term.

Deceived by digital advertising 

Google loves to take credit for sales that would have happened anyways. 

It happens with display. It happens with branded searches. And it happens with purchase-intent queries.

But if someone purchases from you after searching for your brand name on Google, that’s not a Google sale; that’s a brand sale. Though that’s not how we track it. 

Just like when someone clicks on an ad from a purchase-intent keyword like, say, “buy project management software,” that person is already in-market looking to buy now. Google is just facilitating the transaction, not creating demand. Though that’s not how we track it. 

The result? We’ve been deceived. 

Digital is largely a brand channel that we’ve over-valued as a sales channel. 

Brand plays a much larger role in online sales than most think, though we’re not treating it that way. 

Eating at separate tables 

We’re now well over a decade into what I’d call the evidence-based era of marketing. 

Not only do we have compelling evidence about how marketing actually works, but we have multiple groups of marketing scientists and econometricians arriving at the same conclusions. 

Credible, consistent, and empirical. 

It's not perfect, but it’s damn good. 

Yet most of the digital-first world has no idea this data exists. 

It seems like every day I read another article or LinkedIn post that implores marketers to do what marketing science proved it can’t do 10 years ago. Yet here we are, repeating the mistakes of the past, over and over again. 

Academic marketers and digital marketers have lived in two different worlds for far too long. 

It’s all pointless conflict. 

We need each other now more than ever, and the bifurcation hurts everyone.  

Marketing like we’re sales

Marketing has shifted away from a discipline that builds brand and accelerates demand to a discipline that supports sales. It’s losing its influence within the organization. 

  • Sales teams outsize marketing teams
  • Marketing teams exist to drive sales leads
  • Content supports sales enablement
  • Marketers commissioned on short-term sales activity 

Especially in B2B, marketing drools over the exact moment a sale is made at the expense of influencing future demand, profit, and cashflow. 

When sales dominates, marketers have no choice but to rely on short-term metrics to justify their existence (and keep their jobs). And short-term activity works, but only in the short term. 

Self-taught and proud

Digital ushered in an entirely new generation of self-taught marketers. 

For the first time, everyone could be a marketer, not just MBA grads, marketing academics, or corporate ladder climbers. 

A blessing and a curse. 

The problem wasn’t that digital bred a new crop of self-taught marketers (I was one of them). It was that most of those marketers never got real training or experience in the core principles underpinning the discipline. And many still haven’t. 

The internet democratized marketing.

But it also bred an entire generation of tactic-heavy marketers with an unfettered and misplaced scorn for everything that came before them. 

Instead of embracing the past, they declared it “Dead.” 

Who remembers 2012?

“Advertising is dead. Long live content marketing!”

Flash forward three years and every content marketer on the planet was using paid ads to promote their blog posts and grow subscribers. 

For the better part of the last decade, I’ve watched marketing get reinvented a hundred times over. 

Content marketing. Growth marketing. Demand generation…

Each time, not much different than the last- well, except for a more fashionable name. 

(I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.)

Fundamentals, core principles, and a respect for marketing’s lineage don’t exist in enough modern marketing departments. And that’s a problem. 

Obsessed with ROI

ROI is the most misleading metric in a marketer's toolbox.


It's an efficiency metric, not an effectiveness metric.

It can tell us how efficiently we've converted $1 into many, but it can't tell us whether or not that was effective for our marketing. At all.

Efficiency ≠ effective.

For example, want to increase ROI?

Super easy:

  • Target in-market buyers or existing customers (easiest/quickest/cheapest to convert)
  • Reduce ad spend (more spend = lower ROI usually)
  • Only advertise in season (spend when it's hot, not when it's not)
  • Avoid the top of the funnel like the plague (too far from purchase)

Works. Every. Time.

Then watch as you go out of business for:

  • Failing to reach and influence out of market buyers (future buyers)
  • Not spending enough money (you can't save your way to growth)
  • Over-investing in upselling and retention (growth comes from acquisition, not retention)
  • Never expanding your buying pool or growing base sales

But hey, look at that ROI, right?


ROI by itself is a dangerous metric. And marketer's need to stop obsessing over it.

ROI obsession, often masked as attribution obsession, biases our action toward the bottom of the funnel.

As soon as we invest in longer-term brand activity, and as soon as ROI dips because of it (it's supposed to), we retreat back down the funnel. 

As marketer's, it's our job to deliver more absolute profit. To do that, we need to spend money building brand with the whole market, not just the part that delivers the highest ROI. 

But that's not what’s happening. 

Instead, we’re giving ROI too much power over our decisions and pursuing activities that actually make less profit but drive a higher ROI. 

Growth impaired 

At the same time we have a subspecialty in marketing called “growth marketing,” sustainable growth has never been more fleeting. 

Can’t make this up. 

Somehow growth has fallen solely on the shoulders of the digital side of the marcomms. team? 

Meanwhile, we’ve ignored the market and their adoption rate, the business and its strategy, the budget and its limitations, and, most importantly, the who and the how. 

Growth isn’t pumping up your pipeline or running more ads to in-market buyers. At least not the sustainable kind. 

Sustainable growth is a byproduct of two things working in harmony: mental and physical availability. 

That means building brand with your entire category, then creating more doorways to the market through your product, pricing, and distribution. 

That’s a long-term business problem, not just a marketing communications problem. And it starts with market orientation, not product orientation. 

The path forward: from existential to sustainable   

While marketing has become an increasingly divided, stubbornly short-term, undisciplined discipline, there’s no better time than now to get this train back on the rails. 

Otherwise, sustainable growth will remain a chapter in a book, not something we actually achieve. 

Marketing needs a media-agnostic, cross-departmental, evidence-based framework that simplifies, codifies, and connects every part of marketing- big and small - so it actually works. 

And that’s exactly what we’re going to deliver in Marketing, Fast and Slow. 

We don’t need crude funnels, vague flywheels, or patently-obvious frameworks to lead us astray.   

We need a system of principles that explains how marketing works and how we do it- all of it, not just the sexy part. 

No more silos. 

No more short-termism. 

No more excuses. 

No more tactical misery. 

We’re living in the era of evidence-based marketing and the next generation of CMOs will know the fundamentals of marketing. 

It’s time to make amends with our undisciplined past. 
We give you: Marketing, Fast and Slow.

Marketing's Existential Crisis

We’ve grown into an industry full of artists, storytellers, relationship builders, community builders, showrunners, content creators, hackers, optimizers, evangelists, and romantics. But nobody wants to be a marketer. Is it really any wonder that marketing has failed to drive sustainable growth over the last decade? 

Chapter 2:
Unifying Our Discipline

Marketing needs a media-agnostic, cross-departmental, evidence-based framework that simplifies, codifies, and connects everyone in marketing- specialist to specialist – so that it actually works. Luck for you, we have it: Marketing, Fast and Slow.

Chapter 3:
Building A Brand

Ask 100 marketers what brand building means, get 100 different answers. In this chapter, we provide a better, more practical definition of “brand” along with the steps needed to build one. The secret to long-term, profitable growth isn’t more sales today; it’s a stronger brand tomorrow. And we have the proof.