Marketing trends are always changing, and it's so important to stay relevant. What are the latest trends, and how does one stay abreast of them? Is it better to be an early adopter or to see which trends stick? To address these questions, we’re asking experienced CMOs and marketing executives to share their “Top 5 Marketing Trends That Leaders Need To Know.” As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Tsai
Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us a bit of your 'backstory' and what brought you to this career path?
In school, I always did really well in math and science, so I went to UC Berkeley to study Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. A couple of years into it, I remember having an epiphany while sitting in a class—I don’t think I can do this for the rest of my life. It was interesting and I was good at it, but it was missing something. I wasn’t sure what.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now say that the thing that was missing was culture. Humans were missing (at least mostly missing). I switched my major and graduated with a degree in Mass Communications. After a little detour through radio sales, I went into Media Planning, in which I found a great blend of science and humans. For the next 25 years, I continued to broaden my experience in Marketing, doing different types of the thing I love—applying science to understand humans and participate in culture.
Sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a mistake you made when you were first starting out?
During my brief stint in radio sales, I was a Sales Assistant, which meant that I answered phones, did filing (really aging myself with this one), and data entry. When all the filing and data entry was done and the phones weren’t ringing (which was often because I am seriously amazing at both filing and data entry), I would sit around with nothing to do, so I’d play Solitaire on the computer.
One day my boss brought clients into the office, one of whom spotted me playing Solitaire and made a comment to my boss. Until that day, I had essentially been the perfect employee, but the perception that moment created was that I was a slacker. The lesson I learned is especially important to those of us in Marketing—perception is reality and even the smallest experience can create the wrong perception. Especially in today’s world where there is seemingly nowhere to hide, what you and/or your brand does when you think no one’s looking matters.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
Usually, the answers to these kinds of questions talk about bosses or mentors. I certainly have those too, but the person I’m thinking of is someone who worked on my team at two different companies for almost 15 years. At a certain level (and in general, you reach this level earlier in an advertising agency than in other types of companies), your individual success is more reliant on your team than your own personal output.
He was on my team during my “formative years” and I have no doubt that without him, I would not have had the chance to develop my skills as quickly as I did. The way he enabled me through empathy, hard work (in some cases stupidly hard work) and alignment taught me a lot about what I wanted to be for my managers and clients.
Are you able to identify a 'tipping point' in your career when you started to see success? Did you do anything differently?
The “tipping point” for me was in 2006. About 5 years prior to that I had decided to move into Digital Media because I thought it was so much more interesting that your media plans could effectively talk back to you and tell you what was working. But it wasn’t necessarily sexy at that point. The big budgets were still in “traditional” and the digital stuff was often an afterthought—a box to be ticked with the leftover scraps of budget.
Flash forward to 2006 and digital had grown to the point where it made strategic sense for UM to combine the digital and traditional teams. I took charge of a much larger team and began to flex the innovation and measurement muscles we had worked so hard to build in Digital to the rest of the team. It put me on a completely different playing field and I never looked back, except to reflect on the following lessons I learned:
If something seems like it could legitimately change the world, it’s probably smart to learn about it, especially if it’s something you find interesting. Yeah, it’s hard. And yeah, it’s not going to have the prestige (or maybe paycheck) of something that’s established… yet. Be patient, and even if it doesn’t pan out the way you thought, at the very least you’ll have that diversity of experience.
Speaking of diversity of experience, it’s hard to overestimate the value of bringing different perspectives and approaches to old problems. I started in “traditional” then went digital, then combined those experiences to better effect. But I didn’t stop there. I’ve now led creative teams, built websites, written press releases, directed video, and a whole host of other stuff that wouldn’t have crossed my desk back then. And I can confidently say that that diversity of experience is one of the things that makes me most effective in my role today.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
After leaving Visa, I had not targeted Ad Tech in my job hunt. I lucked into hearing about Captify because an old colleague worked here and knew that their head of marketing was leaving the company. I was intrigued by the concept and agreed to do a stint as a contractor while they continued the search for a full-time person.
As soon as I peeked behind the curtain, I knew I had to figure out a way to stay in this role (which I did because I’m crafty like that). Our data is true and it’s fresh (both in the traditional and Kool and the Gang sense of the word). Nobody lies to their search bar like they do to social media or surveys, so starting with a data set of that type and size is amazing. But that’s not enough. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest data set if you can’t extract the goodness from it. That was what I saw when I looked behind the curtain—the technology and the people to turn data into intelligence. That’s what makes Captify a very special place, and I hope to be behind this curtain for years to come.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? Tell us about it!
I think the most exciting stuff we’re doing is finding new things to make smarter with Search Intelligence. We started with digital display/video, but there are so many other places where our data can improve strategy, activation and measurement. We’ve built up a pretty robust TV business. We’re pushing into Digital OOH. We’re innovating in the measurement space (one of our Insights Directors was just published in Applied Marketing Analytics). We’re looking at how our data can support journalists with real-time insights. We’re really just scratching the surface of the use cases for our data, and if the first use cases we’ve applied it to are any indicator, there is a ton of benefit still to be realized.
Being at the forefront of the marketing space and leading diverse teams, what resources or tools do you use to you stay abreast of the ever-changing landscape?
I think the most important thing that I prioritize in my information intake is diversity. Especially in the algorithm-driven world we live in today, it takes extra effort to make sure that you get different angles on a story or trend, not just the ones the machine thinks you’ll agree with. Follow people you don’t like. Supplement marketing trades with coverage of the same topic from a different sector.
The other thing that I think is super important is to find inspiration wherever you can. In my experience, inspiration rarely comes from reading something about marketing for marketing’s sake. A personal example for me is an interview with Rick Rubin that I recently listened to. That gave me more ideas for what I could do differently in my job in one hour than I’ve gotten from a whole month of reading marketing newsletters.
In your experience, is it possible to forecast upcoming trends? How does this process work?
It's definitely possible. We do it all the time at Captify. Nobody’s 100% accurate 100% of the time, but our batting average is pretty good because we’re starting with a lot of very good, very recent data.
In terms of marketing trends, I think of it as more of a portfolio. I start with a handful of possibilities, think through the likelihood of follow-on outcomes, then make bets on which seem the most likely. I rarely bet on just one thing, and I like to make small bets before I make big ones.
In marketing, would you say it’s better to be an early adopter of trends or wait to see if they stick before allocating resources?
Obviously, it depends on the trend, but I would say that in general, it’s better to be on the early side. Maybe not the very first, but on the early side because the head start you get on most people will give you a significant advantage if the trend is real. In one of my answers above, I talked about my experience in being an “early adopter” of digital media planning, which ended up giving me a major advantage 5 years down the road when people wanted to “digitize” everything else. If you’ve tested and learned before the big swings take place, you’re going to be in the best position to ride the wave.
That said, the major drawback is what happens when the wave doesn’t come. But I would argue that this isn’t as much of a drawback as people usually think. “Fail Fast” is a popular phrase (and just so happens to be a core value of Captify’s) for a reason. Learning from a “failure” isn’t a failure in the traditional sense of the word, because it still sets you up to be smarter going forward.
What are some of the past trends that you embraced, and what results did you see?
Online video was a trend that I remember being pretty early to the game on. At that point in time, video quality still wasn’t great and the prevailing wisdom at the time was that the ad experience wasn’t great either. But we tried it and started seeing some very compelling numbers (to the point where we questioned the accuracy of the data).
We started doing more and more of it, learning more and more about it, and soon enough we were spending more in video than in banners. By being early to the game, we were able to understand that the value of video inventory was much higher than the pricing and supply would indicate, so we were able to take advantage of that for a while as others caught up.
Can you share a time when a strategy didn’t deliver the results you expected and what you learned from the experience?
There have been a number of times in my career when I’ve been surprised that certain pieces of creative haven’t performed as expected. The strategy seemed solid (and probably was) and the execution was tight and polished, but for some reason, it just didn’t resonate. As a result, there are a couple of things that I have tried to build into my process:
Test ideas when you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to run global focus groups and quantitative surveys for every piece of creative you release, but you should try to get some outside perspective. Why? Because humans aren’t very good at checking their experiences at the door when they evaluate work. Usually, the teams who create the work (usually agencies) and the teams who evaluate it (usually clients) have 'baggage'—an understanding of what the creative is trying to do, a base knowledge of the brand or product, or anything else that prevents them from accurately predicting how their target audience will respond.
Do whatever you can to try to simulate the environment in which your target will experience your creative. Obviously, it’s not possible to simulate it exactly (see baggage point above), but there are some little things you can do. For example, save the strategic setup for after you see the creative. The target won’t have the benefit of seeing a bunch of slides that tell them why the thing they’re about to see does its job. Put yourself in the mindset of the target, then just experience it. You won’t get a second chance to see it for the first time. You can see the strategic stuff afterward.
What factors should leaders consider before jumping on a trend?
Here are a few questions I ask myself when I’m trying to figure out if we should get on board or not:
Does it really matter to my business? In the best-case scenario, how much will it impact my business (either positively or negatively)?
If you run a business that trains pilots, VR could be a real game changer. If you’re a hot dog maker, maybe not so much. Can I “fail fast”? What is the minimum you can invest to get meaningful learning?
If you can get some early indicators of what it does for you (or doesn’t), that will make the next decision much easier. What value does it add for my target audience?
What is motivating adoption for them? If you can understand what problem it’s solving for your audience, you can figure out if there’s any additional value you can add.
Based on your experience and success, what are the top five marketing trends leaders should know about in 2023?
- Uncertainty - We’ve all been hearing words like “recession,” “cost of living,” “energy crisis,” “layoffs,” etc. but I think there’s a broader theme of uncertainty that is underlying all of this. There is no historical precedent for what we are going through, so nobody knows what to expect. Since there’s no “playbook,” marketers will optimize for agility and will seek out real-time sources of truth that can accurately tell them what’s happening now, so they can react quickly as people continue changing their behaviors at breakneck speed.
- Generative AI - Everybody’s talking about it. It’s definitely going to change the world. But let’s not forget that people don’t really want to talk to robots (more on that in a second). I know a number of writers who have half-joked about AI taking their jobs. The important word here is “half.” As people become more familiar with the possibilities and limitations of Generative AI, they will realize that AI can’t replace people—at least not yet. Writers and designers who embrace technologies like ChatGPT or DALL-E in the same way that they embraced Photoshop or spell-check—as another tool in their belt that can help them elevate their art.
- Humanity as a differentiator - AI is just the latest in a long line of technologies that promises human-like interactions with the efficiency and accuracy of robots. But like the technologies before it (automated phone menus, voice recognition, Clippy, etc.) it will be years before the interactions can pass the human sniff test. Amidst all the noise about AI, there will be a population of marketers that leans into humanity to make real connections with their fellow humans.
- Sustainability - The climate crisis doesn’t wait based on the state of the global economy. The economy may slow progress a bit, but numerous companies have set net-zero targets and they are going to need to continue progressing that agenda. Greenhouse gas emissions from marketing activities will come under the microscope in a more meaningful way this year and companies will use that data to develop strategies and products that reduce and offset the negative impacts of our industry on the environment.
- Privacy - Regulation (or threat of regulation) will continue to push us towards a more optimized model that’s good for users and advertisers. We’re still in early stages of this. I don’t think anyone would argue that the user experience of pop-up cookie banners on every website is helping the core issue. As the countdown to cookie deprecation keeps ticking, we’ll see some innovation in this space that doesn’t make things worse for both parties.
Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be?
I wish that Empathy was a characteristic that was more revered. I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I believe that empathy is the key to great marketing. When you can understand someone’s situation and motivation, you are in a much better position to communicate with and influence them.
In the digital world that we live in, you don’t really have to engage with people or content that doesn’t align with your views. That leads to closed-mindedness, which is dangerous. So the movement I want to inspire is about really understanding why.
Why does she believe that? Why did he do that? Why does that seem like the right thing to him?
If you ask those kinds of questions, you’ll become a better marketer, but more importantly, a better human.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn here.