What Is The ‘Holy Grail’ Of Marketing?

martinkihnupdatedData-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 vice president at Gartner.

“You would think that the digital advertising industry has found religion given all the talk about the legendary ‘holy grail’ these days.”

So said AdExchanger back in 2009, and seven years later things haven’t changed. We still talk like a bunch of “Da Vinci Code” fanatics on shore leave at Medieval Times.

What is marketing’s holy grail? Culprits come and go, and they tell us something about our collective preoccupations of the moment.

In 2009, the year we found religion, Acxiom’s CEO Scott Howe (then at Microsoft) identified the holy grail as “cross-channel marketing.” A few years later, Luma Partners’ Terence Kawaja agreed we’d have the holy grail when “all media channels become digitally addressable.”

So maybe it’s multichannel marketing. Not so fast.

By 2014, we were hearing from questers like LiveIntent’s Matt Keiser that “the holy grail that the industry has been searching for” is … cross-device addressability. A Conversant creative exec agreed, saying the grail was, “How many people can we talk to today?” And Tealium’s Erik Bratt hosannaed that it was “the universal customer profile.”

An industry analyst put it to bed: “Cross-device is the holy grail for marketers.”

Finally, we grail watchers could retire to our castles to tweet. Or could we?

The Grail Gets Rebundled

Last year, an AOL leader took to the NewFronts and said his major priority was “reaching the ‘holy grail of the rebundle.'” The what? Then industry veteran Eric Picard declared that the real grail was “the ability to push the advertiser’s goals directly into the publisher’s direct ad server.”

The actual Holy Grail was supposed to be the cup from the Last Supper carried to the crucifixion, used to collect Christ’s blood and then – in a burst of 12th century Anglophilia – shipped to a fortress in Britain. There it lay in wait for the knights of the Round Table, Monty Python, Indiana Jones, Tom Hanks and hapless modern marketers to unlock its untold wisdom.

There seems to be a big leap downward from universal magic to, well, “the rebundle.”

It gets worse. In recent years, the industry seems to have lost focus, flitting like an unmedicated ‘tween from grail to grail in a frustrating quest for mojo. Variously, the holy grail has been identified as:

And in a refreshing expression of fiduciary honesty: a “successful exit.”

While some logged-on Lancelots sought the grail in marketing tactics, others gazed upward. They drew inspiration from more spiritual sources.

Monetate’s Sarah Etter wrote that the grail was nothing less than “being relevant.” Media exec Pete Longo pegged it with a single word: data. And on its commerce blog, IBM identified the sacred relic with that lint trap of marketing bloggers: the internet of things.

More human-centric pundits suggested the holy grail was “customer loyalty” or – more intriguingly – just “habits.”

Finally Finding The Grail

Of course, marketers are masters of the flogged metaphor. Some of this hoo-haw is just SEO-centric content. On a more serious note, I’ll say after surveying dozens of grail candidates in recent years, a clear winner has emerged – a contender for holy status that appears more often than anything else.

It is accurate multitouch attribution.

Marketers need to know what works, what doesn’t and how to fix it. Call this the fundamental quest. We all yearn for some kind of cross-everything multitouch algorithmic answer. In a word, we want omniscience.

Just two years after AdExchanger’s original post, industry players were talking about the “attribution holy grail.” In 2012, Initiative’s Bret Leece expanded: “I think the holy grail is taking atomic-level data and optimizing the whole consumer brand experience in media to business results.”

TellApart founder Josh McFarland agreed that “multichannel attribution is, of course, the holy grail.” More recently, FourSquare’s Steven Rosenblatt added his amen, calling attribution “the holy grail of consumer advertising.”

The chorus rises. Panelists at an industry confab a few years ago got downright messianic, hailing attribution as not only holy but “the end game.”

Speaking of which, it is smart for us to recall the fate of the original knights who sought the Holy Grail. After much real-time pain and offline trials, three knights confronted the Grail. According to the account in Thomas Malory’s “The Death of Arthur,” they “were shown wonders beyond [what] any man can imagine.”

One of them became a hermit. One lived to pass on word of mouth. And another, the great Galahad, died. Perhaps it’s better to keep the holy grail of marketing where it is right now – just out of reach.

Follow Martin Kihn (@martykihn), Gartner (@Gartner_inc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. All these Holy Grail ideas can be equated to self-fulfilling fairy dust. It seems that the only Holy Grail, if one even exists at all, is to simply know if advertising actually works or not. Think about it this way: A CPG with $10B in annual revenue generates a nickel of free cash flow (e.g. real cash) for every $1.00 of revenue. So when this CPG spends $1M of real cash on a campaign of any type, it then needs to generate $20M in incremental revenue in order to break even on the advertising investment. That’s a very high-bar, but very real nonetheless.

    So, if there is a Holy Grail, it is probably about defining what the advertising is supposed to achieve (before the campaign) and then being able to determine if it was actually achieved (or not). If the high-bar finance mentioned above makes sense, then maybe the real Grail is about minimizing the losses that most advertising creates?

  2. Martin

    I have two words for you: Always On – that is the Holy Grail

    Always On marketing takes into consideration a modern marketing context through which people/device level attribution occurs and so context is spot on and spells the death knell for linear inbound marketing and maybe even the cookie (dare I say it:-))

    the end of campaigns, the end of batch and blasts, the end of….

    Always On relies on many of the ‘ah-hah’s’ outlined in your piece – when we get out of our own way and create true interoperability there shall be peace on earth!