Category Archives: Strategy & Culture

Moving to maturity – The Goldilocks approach to digital marketing…

This is a version of a presentation I gave at DMX Dublin 2017 on 8th March in the Aviva Stadium, in which I implore the marketing industry to take the ‘Goldilocks approach to digital marketing’ and strive towards maturity.

The crux of the argument is that it’s critically important that we as a broader industry are introspective, and we take a good hard look at ourselves in order to push things forward and move onto the next level. Digital is currently in its awkward teenage stage, unsure of the future, generally unsophisticated and to push on we need to be less biased, less sure that digital is a silver bullet, and to really question the things we think are correct. 

As an industry we’ve become biased, overzealous and foolish. We’ve grown smug, we think we’ve found the answers. But as the great psychologist Daniel Kahneman said: Humans have an almost unlimited ability to become blind to our own biases and ignorance’.

We need more understanding that there’s a lot we don’t know, and that a lot of what we think we do know is distorted and wrong.

We need is more critical thinking, to be less accepting and more skeptical about some of the stuff we’re told about digital.

We need less unnecessary complexity. The sheer amount of disconnected metrics, tools and competing voices out there is too much. We need to pull things back and think strategically rather than tactically.

And we also need an acceptance that some of this will work, but some of it will fail miserably, but that’s ok. Let’s not be overzealous and afraid to be wrong, let’s share our failings and learn from them.

The Goldilocks approach to digital marketing is a theory that attempts to find a middle ground in the extremely polarising arguments that hamper the industry, to find a way through the bias and overconfidence.

Within the presentation, I give 5 examples of how the Goldilocks approach applies, and finish with a call to ‘make digital redundant’.

To proclaim that you have a ‘digital’ strategy these days is becoming outdated. It’s like saying you have an ‘electricity’ strategy. Everything is digital now anyway.

We need to bake digital into everything that we do, but also not be biased towards it. To understand it in the broader context, rather than being focused on its minutia.

In this new age of maturity that we’re hopefully entering, It’s not so much about mastering a completely new art of digital marketing, as it is about mastering traditional effective marketing and advertising in a digital world. 

If we’re to really mature, we need to realise that digital marketing isn’t a separate thing, it’s just marketing. 

For links to data and other sources, see below. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to get in touch via @shaneoleary1 or



Links & Data Sources:





Why adland’s data versus creativity argument is a waste of time…

The battle lines have been drawn, sides are being chosen and the world is polarising. On one side, you have the ‘data is the future’ proponents. To them, robots will run marketing, artificial intelligence will replace everyone and programatic, targeted advertising based on consumer’s internet history is the holy grail.

Meanwhile, those who rely on the opposite of big data, the big idea, take up arms to defend their craft. They say that really great ideas aren’t clinical. They’re imperfect, they come from messy processes and often rely on random connections, lateral and linear thinking.

Commercial Creativity

OK, so that’s a slightly magnified representation of the data/creativity discussion, but as we enter a new year, the age old question of whether marketing is science, art or part both it rearing its head again. Recently, John Hegarty wrote a scathing piece outlining his view that ‘daring rather than data will save creativity’ and preaching the virtues of ‘commercial creativity’.

As with many of these debates, there’s merit to both arguments. But, as reflected in wider society society these days, (see Brexit and Trump), both sides are at once conceited, partly right, partly wrong and very biased. I guess it’s sometimes true that our industry reflects the world.

In adland, what’s new is over-prioritised, spoken about in revered tones and seen as better than everything that went before by some, and completely trashed by others. We’ve seen it with social media too.

‘Big Data’

Without wanting to sound like a luddite (or a fool!), adland has definitely become overtly focused on using data for measurement, targeting, programatic advertising and the lure of ‘big data’.

Data helps to unlock insights. But alone it’s worthless. It’s benign. It’s a fire lighter without any spark. It needs to be interpreted and probed in order to sort the signal from the noise. And while it can lead to insights, it doesn’t create great ideas on its own. You may know who you need to reach, when you need to reach them and how to measure success. But you can’t engage customers with data. Forget the thinking that artificial intelligence will take our jobs and render us useless (in adland anyway). The heavy lifting of creativity has to come from a human. What algorithm could come up with Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two trucks?

If you’re pumping resource into data at the behest of creative thinking time, you run the risk of being too concerned with optimisation rather than innovation. You risk giving the world a ‘faster horse’. Plus, there’s the danger of media over targeting and not generating broad reach for your communications.  By only talking to the people the data tells us to, we risk over targeting and falling prey to reductionism that sometimes goes along with data driven marketing.We know from Sharp and Binet & Field’s research that wastage isn’t always to a brand’s detriment. We risk forgetting what makes a big brand – broad salient reach. We risk becoming mechanics tweaking an over optimised engine instead of creators with scope for imagination and experimentation.

Latent Bias

And then there’s the other side of the argument. There certainly is a latent bias within some parts of advertising to ‘the way it’s always been done’. Some fail to see that technology has liberated the communications industry, allowing businesses to grow from nothing to enormous without enormous investment. The perception from this cohort is that data equals boring analytics. That’s a dated view. Tasked with building a brilliant brand campaign, what modern creative wouldn’t want to know the deep, unspoken traits of their audience.

So what’s the answer? It’s simple. Data and creativity should be comfortable bedfellows. They should overlap and combine to make our industry better, not quarrel and backbite to make it worse. We’re at a stage of Darwinian change in marketing, and we can’t afford to be divided in the face of waning influence.

Marketers should heed Jack Welch’s words: “find ways to get – and use – data more quickly”, but use it to spur creative conversations and inspire innovation rather than taking the numbers as gospel.

So who is getting this balance right? Who’s striking the ‘golden mean’ by using data to infuse and invigorate creativity? In a similarly creative industry, Netflix is a great example. Their algorithm is extremely powerful because it’s constantly being fuelled by millions of hours of viewing. Every minute of every show that you watch on Netflix is logged. They know how many episodes of Gilmore Girls you binge watched last Saturday, and at what minute you switched off that horror flick.

The smash hits ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Stranger Things’ were created based upon insights from data mining. The Netflix bot drove everything from genre to character demographics to the excellent social media marketing that surrounded these shows. That’s the science bit. But these insights are only the start point. No algorithm could replicate the menacing mannerisms of Frank Underwood, create a beautifully shot 80s sci-fi drama or understand how to bring the characters to life in a social feed.

Spotify is another great example. Their recent global outdoor campaign won huge plaudits for its creative use of data (and no, that’s not a paradox), playfully highlighting the more bizarre user habits it noticed throughout 2016. Give it a Google, you’ll see what I mean.
Creativity creates value. It creates emotion, fame, salience and difference. Ironically, creativity is also a force multiplier of effectiveness and is vital for giving a brand a competitive edge. Yet the growing belief in “data-only solutions” means we tacitly lessen its importance.

Aristotle once spoke about the ‘golden mean’, or society’s almost biological need to find a desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency. In my opinion, us marketers would do well to remember that. Let’s end the discussion, let’s find the balance.


This piece was originally written for the February edition of Marketing magazine in Ireland. 



The Second Captains paywall – A smart, calculated experiment in new media models…

Full disclosure before we kick off – as you can see below, I’m a huge Second Captains fan. I’ve got the mugs and yearbooks. I know all the quotes, I’ve seen the TV show and I’ve followed the lads since they were fledglings on Newstalk.

And I’m also an avid media watcher, meaning this week’s announcement that Second Captains is moving from its cushy nest in Irish Times towers towards the wilds of a paywalled, community funded model from next Monday made me irrationally excited.

Maracana with the lads

A photo posted by Shane O Leary (@shaneoleary1) on

The Captains have decide to offer fans a ‘metered paywall’ model, in the guise of a New York Times or Irish Times, and will begin charging users €5 a month for a new ‘World Service’ edition.

The show will be kept ad free, and two free shows on Monday will remain, but in place of Thursday’s double bill, they will instead put out one daily podcast between Tuesday and Friday.

Mark, Ciaran, Ken, Simon and Eoin have shown plenty of balls in their media career. They’ve backed themselves to move from Newstalk, set up their own podcast against the backdrop of some scepticism, pitched and their own TV show, and won a new audience through their summer stand-in slot on RTE Radio 1.

In all of this, their fans have followed them.

But this is a different kettle of fish. Asking people to pay 5 quid a month is where the rubber hits the road.

Niche or enormous, there’s no middle

I’ve spoken before on this blog about how media is fragmenting and new models are emerging. Essentially, to succeed in modern media, there are two choices.

On the one hand, you can strive for enormous scale and hope that pays off. Try to make money by monetising your readers through display, print or paywall subscriptions, try to speak to everyone and cast the net as wide as possible. This requires experimentation and a reliance on distribution platforms, since most of us consume our media through social feeds now (and also leads to clickbait). Buzzfeed is probably the best example, but most daily papers play this game too.

On the other hand, you can be really, really valuable to a small cohort of people and hope that they love your work enough to provide enough income. Often, this requires a heavier paywall and ancillary revenue streams like events, merchandise etc. You can see this in effect across media, in places like The Economist, The Farmers Journal, The Information, Skift and in podcasts like ‘The Anfield Wrap’ and Marc Maron. In a similar vein, individuals like Tim Ferriss have created their own mini media empires too. It requires that you understand your fans, are very close to them and relies on you continually creating lots of value for them.

There’s very little middle ground between these two options, and media companies without serious scale or serious relevance are getting squeezed badly.

With the Second Captains paywall, the lads have chosen the latter route.

‘1000 True Fans’

They might not have heard of it,  but the way Second Captains as a brand has grown takes a lot from the ‘1000 True Fans’ approach, first coined by Kevin Kelly. According to Kelly, because of the lowering distribution costs on the internet, it’s now much easier to reach the people who really love what you do. The 1000 figure is just an arbitrary number, but the essence to his point is that if you can find a certain number of people who will buy anything that you put out, who really get huge amounts of value from what you do, and then service them directly without intermediaries,  you’re in business. It’s a theory that’s still very relevant in 2017, as the lads will attempt to prove.

If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you.

The way Second Captains has grown its following has been both methodical and masterful. This move to paywall hasn’t come all of a sudden. They haven’t just started asking people for money, their growth has been staged, they’ve built slowly and smartly creating products and events, branching out into other media and even building their own brands through journalism.

With the new model, they’ll likely be ramping up these extra revenue streams, but critically fans are already used to paying. According to producer Mark Horgan, speaking in the Indo this week, “The way our audience has developed is interesting. Many are the same people who listen every week and they want more. They’ve been dedicated since the beginning. It’s also rolling the dice in some ways, but it’s perfect for this type of journalism. At our last event, in December, we sold out in hours. Part of the deal with the new membership subscription is that members will get first call on tickets.”

The benefit of radio and podcasting is that it also really lends itself to creating strong relationships with fans, since your in their ear for 4-5 hours every week. It seems the lads are now ready to monetise all the work they’ve put in to these relationships.


So what are the economics like? From the outside, this seems like a gamble. Why move from under the brand of a large media group (The Irish Times) that can offer you distribution and fame?

But Killian Woods put out this interesting set of tweets during the week, and, even with back of fag packet sums, the money part seems to make sense.

When you really analyse it, the risk here is small and calculated. The lads have a hugely valuable brand. That won’t be going away. They own their own channels too, which is crucial.

And even if this goes wrong, the worst case scenario is they go back to usual podcasts and sell advertising. I’m also pretty sure that another media company would come calling very quickly. But it won’t go wrong. They’ve done the sums, they know how much their fans love them and they’ve seen other models in media make money this way. This is never going to be an explosive growth business, but I’d be pretty bullish that it’s a smart decision.

Irish people are willing to pay small recurring amounts in subscriptions for a high value service, particularly in sport, and particularly if it’s a company with a strong value offering that you can’t get anywhere else.

Best of luck Second Captains, and congrats on a ballsy call that should show the way for the rest of Irish media.

They never go home those boys.