PCI President and CEO Robert W. Sprague encounters the ghosts of marketing past, present and future.
I was working alone on a frigid late December evening. I sat at my desk, the only illumination the blue-green glow of my laptop screen. It was not surprising that I was by myself; it was that season when clients, partners, and the minds of many marketing agency employees seem to vanish long before the holidays officially begin. Outside, the few shoppers and revelers hurried along the street, bundled against a biting wind.
I was musing over my agency's performance. All in all, it had been a fine year, but the outlook concerned me. What lay ahead, in the new year? What surprises awaited us once the holidays were over, and clients descended upon us like a cold front sweeping in from the arctic?
As if to echo my mood, the wind outside raised a particularly baleful howl. I glanced outside to see if the forecasted wintry mix had materialized. The air was clear. But when I turned back to the laptop I drew in my breath, gasped, and sprang to my feet.
Because there, on the screen, had appeared the ghostly visage of my long-dead business partner!
Now, I am not one who believes in paranormal happenings. Certainly this was the result of some problem in the office network. "Bah," I said. "Some bug."
But then the face began to speak. "Tonight you will be visited by three Spirits," it announced.
Truth be told, I had already partaken of some of the spirits I keep in my credenza, but the apparition on my laptop seemed more vivid than could be explained by that indulgence. "Heed their words," it added, "or be doomed, like me, to wander the Earth in search of more impressions." As the wind rose to another mournful howl, the face faded from the screen.
I shook my head and chuckled. I would have to mention this to my therapist. In the meantime, I thought it might be good to splash some cold water on my face.
But no sooner had I turned toward the door than I saw a figure backlit in the hallway. He cut a dapper figure: wide lapels, slicked back hair, martini glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other.
"I am the Ghost of Marketing Past," he announced.
"Cool," I uttered. "But why do you haunt me?"
"I was how you used to reach people," he replied, "long ago. It was a more innocent age." He blew a smoke ring and sipped his libation.
"Things were so simple then," I agreed. "It was broadcast and print. You could be on any network you wanted, as long as it was ABC, NBC, or CBS."
"Audiences were homogenous, or we thought they were," said the Spirit. "They saw what we wanted, when we wanted them to."
"And measurement? Who cared?" I exclaimed. "Take me back, Ghost of Marketing Past. I want to go back there."
"These are the shadows of marketing that has been," the Ghost replied. "It was what it was, don't blame me. Blame that one!"
He pointed, and I whirled about. There was another figure slouching on my office sofa. This one was unkempt, and indistinct. For some reason my eyes had difficulty focusing. Then, to my amazement, the Spirit seemed to morph from male to female, and then back again. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
"I am the Ghost of Marketing Present," said the figure, turning briefly elderly and then into a pre-teen.
"Totally awesome," I muttered. "But what are you? Traditional? Digital? Social or PPC? Red or blue?"
"You never know what I am," he/she/it answered, morphing from urban professional into soccer mom. "You think it's all about digital, and then a client wants outdoor. You decide that video is back, and then no one wants to pay for it."
"Don't I know it," I sighed. "Everyone wants to know what the latest trend is. Just when we think we have it figured out, Google changes its algorithm."
"Even in the spirit world, we don't know when they will do that," admitted the Ghost.
"Make it clear for me, kind Spectre," I shouted. "Tell me how we should specialize. Where should we go?"
"Go that way," said the Ghost, gesturing towards my office chair, which was suddenly occupied by a third apparition. She — for this was clearly a she — was as sharp as her predecessor had been diffuse. Young but mature; sophisticated but down to earth. There was something unmistakably millennial about her.
"I am the Ghost of Marketing Yet To Come," she said smoothly.
"Didn't see that coming," I said. "Tell me then, what does the future hold?"
"Ah, but you already know that, don't you?" challenged the Ghost, with a smile that was both impish and all-knowing.
"I suppose I do," I mused. "No one channel or strategy is going to serve tomorrow's audience. Effective marketing will rely on a strategic balance of paid, earned, owned, and shared media. Everything will be digital, but will incorporate time-tested crafts like storytelling and design. And we'll have better metrics than ever before to guide us."
I was so into my own words that I failed to notice that I was alone again in my office. I checked around me, but there were no more ghostly visitors or electronic apparitions.
My heavy mood had lifted, and my heart was filled with joy knowing that the path forward was reaching audiences throughout their day, in a way that feels natural to their life, when, where, and how they wanted to receive communication. I ran to the window and opened it, calling out to the first passerby I saw.
"Hello! Hey, there!" I shouted. "Tell me what day it is today?"
"Today?" he answered. "It's the middle of the frickin' night, you idiot! Go back to bed!"
To our clients, friends and partners of past, present and future: on behalf of the entire PCI team, I wish you all a happy holiday season. We look forward to working with you in 2017 and beyond.