The “pulse” of marketing in Canada

Dec 09, 2021
Research Thought Leadership

The marketing industry is never boring, but today it is more challenging and exciting than ever. I am fortunate to wear three hats: Chairing for the CMA Martech Council, running a tech agency and operating as a scaleup entrepreneur. Basically, I have a front row seat to observe the speed of how digital marketing is evolving, and in this article, I’m going to look through a strategic lens at key lessons that marketing leaders need to consider. 

The CMA recently released the 2021 results from its annual Canadian Digital Marketing Pulse Survey, in collaboration with Ipsos and strategy. My key insights from last year’s report included three themes: the increasing complexity of marketing, the value of specialist agencies, and the importance of capitalizing on strong and reliable performers in marketers’ toolkits. 

This year, I noticed some new and emerging trends (cookieless world and the expansion of voice into search). There are also some instances where history is repeating itself (increasing investment in data insights and companies proactively building content libraries), which provides an opportunity for marketers to reflect on new strategies to tackle old problems. 

Here are a few strategic themes that marketers should be aware of:

Perceived effectiveness of digital marketing is holding strong

Looking back at the past 10 years of data, marketers have become increasingly confident that their overall digital marketing is effective (increased from 35% in 2011 to 56% in 2021). Marketers have had to “do more with less” in this era of increased demands and fewer resources, so it’s a positive indicator that the perceived effectiveness of digital marketing is holding strong. But effectiveness has plateaued in the last few years. I believe this is correlated with the increasing complexity of marketing and marketers’ lower confidence in their understanding of advances in tech and data. 

A big question to consider is: how do today’s marketers measure effectiveness? For this survey, the top two measures of effectiveness were “top of the funnel” metrics of awareness and customer acquisition. ROI (Return on Investment) was ranked six out of nine and positive customer feedback was last. I was surprised because as a CEO, I typically focus on CX and financial payback as KPIs. 

It is my belief that there is a wide disparity about the expected role of marketing within many organizations. Ideally, companies should have at least three lenses: one that measures tactical vehicle performance, another that tracks marketing operations, and a final dashboard that quantifies strategic health for the executive team.

Mastering digital marketing isn’t getting any easier

Last year, I noted that marketers were feeling the pressure of marketing’s increasing complexity. The trend of struggling to keep up with digital marketing continues, with 43% of marketers reporting they knew enough about digital marketing to “get by” in 2021. Given the increasing complexity and resource constraints, just “getting by” is not sufficient. Marketers are working to integrate new tech, new methods and new processes – all while keeping up with day-to-day tasks on the marketing hamster wheel. The Canadian Digital Marketing Pulse research found that almost half of marketers believe it’s harder to be a digital marketing expert today, compared to two years ago. 

What does this knowledge gap mean for teams and frontlines? Ultimately, companies need specialized expertise. The rule of thumb is to build in-house expertise around core competence using two primary strategies:

  1. Upskill. Companies need to invest more on training existing staff to build competencies internally. Train staff for certifications in project management, agile marketing, platforms, etc. Another great opportunity to nurture leaders is to encourage professional designations like the Chartered Marketer designation from the CMA and stay up to date on industry trends, many of which we discuss in our monthly Martech Council meetings. 
  2. Recruit new experts. Companies greatly benefit from bringing in new specialized talent. Experienced talent can help navigate new advanced tools, tech and expanding data needs. 

While upskilling existing talent and bringing in new talent aren’t new concepts, the current state of digital marketing brings a new urgency for companies to keep up. The core competencies of digital marketing are also changing, which means organizations need to be forward thinking with the skillsets they train and hire for. Marketing is a complex integrated system, unlike linear solutions executed in siloes.

Companies are outsourcing specialized tasks

The Canadian Digital Marketing Pulse research highlights the breakdown of each individual vehicle and whether it’s conducted in-house, at an agency or a combination. Not surprisingly, some of the more mature and core vehicles like website and email are predominantly executed in-house.

However, companies leverage agencies for the more complex and specialized digital advertising and targeting vehicles, such as programmatic marketing and search. Agencies are a great source to implement and execute faster. 

One in four marketers report that their organization’s reliance on agencies has increased in 2021 due to COVID-19. Although this is not as high as in previous years, access to expertise remains a primary reason for adding agency support, which further demonstrates their value. 

There’s a knowledge gap in senior management

Marketing leadership plays a key role in ensuring that marketing strategies are aligned with business goals. 

But 18% of respondents reported that their senior management knows very little about the digital space. This figure remains largely unchanged from last year. Across North America, there is a big performance gap in the marketing industry between companies who excel at marketing and the rest of the pack.

A recent report by Accenture classified teams as "thrivers", "strivers" and "survivors". I suspect that the executives who know little about digital marketing would fall into the "survivors” category, but all CEOs should check their own blind spots to make sure their marketing leaders aren't laggards. A common strategy is to bring in experienced senior experts to help existing teams bolster new capabilities.

Marketers should balance owned versus earned versus paid

Not surprisingly, Canadian marketers continue to increase their spend on digital media while decreasing their spend on traditional media. Assuming marketing budgets remain stable, Ipsos says Canadian marketers intend to increase their budget spend most aggressively on social (70%), search (62%), online video (61%) and email marketing (42%).  

I believe that the growth of each vehicle depends on a combination of three factors: the proven effectiveness and performance of each vehicle, marketers’ ability to use the vehicle for both customer-based marketing and acquisition of new prospects, and the overall ease of execution. But from a strategic perspective, digital tactics need to be fully aligned with business models (which are also changing). The top marketing leaders are data-driven and focused on big outcomes.

From my experience, top companies focus on outsmarting competitors and building SCAs (Sustainable Competitive Advantages). Companies who are over-reliant on paid vehicles need to be cautious because they are at the mercy of digital media giants and the escalating media market. Consider allocating marketing budgets to build your customer base (i.e., customer equity) and acquisition.

Marketing roles need clarification

The “always on” demands of marketing are starting to burn out some marketers. Marketing teams have risen to the challenge in the pandemic, but they feel pressured to stay up to date. In my opinion, more business leaders need to clarify the role of marketing in their organizations. Marketers have to make choices about where to focus. They shouldn’t need to execute 15 tactics at speed. 

It is interesting to note that this year, four out of five strategic themes centre around building and enhancing deeper marketing capabilities. Most marketers want to get to the next stage but building capabilities and training staff takes a bit of time and commitment of budget. Training is also a healthy way to motivate marketing teams to work towards a dynamic and exciting future.

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Geoff Linton





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