Articles tagged digital transformation


Artificial Intelligence is difficult to define and even more difficult to build. You’d never know it from reading the news, though. Recently, every tech company and agency is touting how their AI is revolutionizing their industry. Alibaba has one that passed the Turing Test (no, it didn’t). McCann’s wrote a better ad than its human employees (well, more because of its human employees), and Google’s scheduled a hair appointment over the phone without any human intervention (okay, this one merits some consideration). The articles that examine these advancements almost universally include a section about how disruptive the technology will be – ultimately rendering humans useless and putting us out of the job.

In reality, all of these projects are interesting, some of them are nonsense, but none of them are scary.

While I genuinely believe that AI will become so powerful that it will doom the human race, I think that dystopia is centuries away. I’m far more bearish on its disruptive impact this decade, particularly on the marketing front.

Nonetheless, I’ll provide a few tips to bring your company’s marketing efforts up to parity with some of the industry leaders in AI:

  • Write good creative
  • Build good infrastructure
  • Collect good data

In other words, exactly what you’ve always strived to do, and exactly what a broader digital transformation empowers.

Fundamentally, all AI platforms operate in the same way. They ingest data, both structured and unstructured. They organize that data and use it to respond to novel requests. They then process feedback and use that to make better responses in the future. To make the AI smarter, it is still incumbent upon us to give it good working data (creative assets, placements, messaging, brand guidelines, etc), ask it intelligent questions, assign value to its responses, and continue to provide it with novel data over time.

In the case of McCann, their AI succeeded because it was fed data from some of the most successful ad campaigns in recent history. It was able to break down the individual elements that made them successful and combine them into new assets. But the underlying data - the brilliant ideas that taught the machine how to be brilliant - were decidedly human. Marketing isn’t completely objective – at least not yet. It’s relative to our culture and our society at this moment, and it requires thoughtful curation. It was only two years ago that Microsoft thought they could automate culture, and the result was a runaway AI Twitter handle that almost immediately devolved into a racist troll. Even in this future, creative minds are as valuable and imperative as ever.

Likewise, the systems need to be taught how to learn, and this requires feedback. In digital marketing, this feedback system is our website, the analytics behind it, the way that we translate our business requirements and goals into digital values, and all of the third-party technologies that both guide and process the consumer experience. Strategists, analysts, and engineers are all critical to a successful AI.

AI isn’t about replacing the value created by good ideas and skilled labor. It’s about applying the same best practices that make marketing work today to new systems that can make more out of the components we create than we could otherwise. As easy as it is to break down AI relevance to marketing fundamentals, we are all still at risk of becoming complacent. If anything, this underscores the need to ensure that your company understands its own digital transformation.

More and more breakthroughs in marketing are technologically driven, and companies that lag behind on their infrastructure are being outcompeted by savvier rivals. Their ads aren’t finding the right audience. When they find that audience, they aren’t serving the right message. When they serve the right message, they’re overpaying for it. The end result isn’t just inefficiency, it’s irrelevance, and it happens faster today than ever before.

So stop worrying about AI, machine learning, or whatever term they use next month to describe smarter, faster marketing decisions. Instead, keep your creative team doing what they do best, and make sure that you have a data infrastructure in place to make the most of it.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Photo credits: Gerd Altman


“[You] insist upon forcing a square peg into a round hole, because in a round hole you, being a round peg, feel tight and comfortable. Now I call that irrational.”

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Kenelm Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions

Agile is the new black. Or at least that’s what its proponents from the software development community proclaim. Since its introduction back in 2001, the Gospel of Agile has gradually moved with evangelistic fervor from engineering teams to other parts of organizations, all the way up to the C-suites of F ortune 500 companies. Beyond its merits, Agile is undoubtedly aided by its name – after all, who doesn’t want their organization to be associated with a word like “agile”? In fact, Agile has become so dominant in the industry that its critics can be looked down upon on social media as being the engineering equivalent of a “flat earther”.

On the surface, Agile would seem to be the ideal, forward-thinking set of principles and methodologies for digital transformation and web and mobile development engagements that we work on every day at Maark. However, based on our own experience and witnessing the experiences of others, I have grown to question that perspective. While I believe that certain aspects of Agile principles and methodologies can be highly beneficial in development projects that we undertake in the services business, a religious adherence to Agile is much like trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

A Quest for the Silver Bullet

Agile was first introduced in the early 2000s as a modern response to the old school waterfall methodology. The waterfall approach, which has its origins in manufacturing and industrial engineering, was brought over to the world of software development during the early years of computer programming. A waterfall project has a series of sequential phases (requirements, design, development, testing, and delivery). Since a phase is dependent on what came before it, each phase must be completed before the next starts.

The primary benefits of waterfall are that the scope and timeframe are agreed to and known beforehand; it’s predictable, driven by a plan, and has built-in methods of accountability. However, the waterfall approach to software development has long been derided because of its inflexibility in dealing with changes, inevitable unknowns until the full product is built, and a tendency to sacrifice testing when time runs short.

Enter Agile. While the waterfall approach focuses on upfront planning and a strict adherence to that plan, Agile is all about flexibility and iteration. With Agile, a product evolves over time, and plans are constantly reevaluated to adapt to changing conditions. Priorities are set together on a collaborative cross-discipline team, and then implemented through small phases called sprints. A product using the waterfall approach will be releasable only at the very end of the project, but an Agile-driven product will be releasable at the end of each sprint.

The promises of Agile are alluring and seductive: adaptability, responsiveness, a launchable product at end of each sprint, and a transparent, collaborative environment in which business stakeholders and the development team work closely together to plan and prioritize. Fueled by such potential, Agile has ruled the roost for over 15 years. In fact, a whole cottage industry has developed around it: over 40 variants of Agile; consultants, books, and certification programs; and even new job titles. Terms like sprint, scrum, and user story have become a natural part of the vernacular for most any professional in the tech space.

However, in spite of the accolades, be careful not to think of Agile as a silver bullet and appropriate for all contexts. It’s not.

Something is Rotten in Denmark

As Agile spread in popularity in the 2000s, we at Maark began to incorporate Agile principles and practices into our teams and projects. We assigned scrum masters, created user stories in Jira, restructured projects into sprints, and even experimented with planning poker for time estimates. But, in project after project, its benefits proved elusive.

One might offer a critique and say that Agile didn’t work for us because we weren’t committed enough to its principles. Or perhaps we didn’t follow the methodology rigorously enough or implement the right variant of Agile. Sure, there were many ways in which we could have done Agile better. But, at the same time, I don’t believe any tweaks or changes to our approach would have had a significant impact on our results. Instead, I would argue that we uncovered a deeper, more fundamental problem: that there are almost intractable tensions between the principles and practices of Agile and the real world in which we operate.

First, Agile principles almost inevitably run counter to stakeholder expectations. When we engage a client for a particular software deliverable – whether it is an app or website – the client is chiefly concerned with two things: our ability to deliver the product vision, and the timeline and budget required to do so. The vision often evolves as we work with the stakeholders during the planning stages, but, at the end of the day, the stakeholders want to know where we are going to finish before the first line of actual code is written.

The reality is that much of the larger world outside of software development runs upon predefined plans and predictive results. And most stakeholders who inhabit that world naturally expect to structure engagements in a similar fashion. Therefore, trying to force Agile into this environment naively assumes others will (or even can) adjust to these values and methodologies.

Second, Agile priorities often clash with the priorities of the stakeholder. One of the primary tenants of Agile is to empower teams and create a learning organization. As such, misdirections or deadends are considered not so much failures as much as they are educational opportunities. This perspective contrasts starkly with stakeholders that I spend time with. Misdirections made during development will never be thought of by clients as “valuable learning experiences”. Instead, they are major blunders that could potentially cost them a strategic opportunity, sales, or, in extreme cases, even their job.

Third, Agile tries to combine two worlds that don’t easily mesh. Agile requires everyone involved with the product to be part of a collaborative decision-making process. The theory is great, but it places a huge demand on all of the parties. It requires the stakeholders not only to be intimately involved in developing the product, but also to be savvy in both Agile as well as the principles of software development. In the end, clients engage us because they don’t have bandwidth or expertise for this level of involvement.

Others are also reaching similar conclusions on the shortcomings of Agile. Over the past few years, I have seen a steady increase in developers reacting against it. Blog posts with scathing titles such as “Run Away from Agile” or “Agile Is The New Waterfall” illustrate the frustration that some have with the methodology. Even Andy Hunt, one of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto back in 2001, believes it has lost its way in his “The Failure of Agile” blog post.

The S.W.A.T Approach

At Maark, we’ve taken a pragmatic approach to the shortcomings of waterfall and Agile and adopted principles and techniques that work best for the realities of the services business. We don’t do Agile; instead, we are focused on being agile, moving quickly across an enterprise as a “S.W.A.T. team” to deliver pragmatic value to our clients. In my follow-on post, I will dive into how we moved from Agile to develop app and website solutions using a S.W.A.T. approach.

Rich Wagner is the Managing Director of Engineering of Maark where he leads the development team and spearheads the technology strategy of the agency. He has led the development of multiple enterprise apps, mobile apps, and websites for Fortune 500 companies. Rich has also authored over 20 books on software development and other subjects.

Photo credit: LiveTrucking


The CMO who only delivers traditional marketing tactics wrapped in better analytics is losing relevancy

Much of what we do in marketing today seems anachronistic. We’re running campaigns to change minds. We’re chasing people around the Internet with banner ads. We’re still investing in the invisible value of impressions. Is that marketing in the 21st century? Is that what it takes to build a brand? While we try to shift focus from mere ad-making to data-driven, sometimes-automated ad-making, we may be missing the larger point. Digital transformation is not only about more relevant ads and content, it’s about better products. Actually, it’s mostly about better products.

You change minds when you change the product experience. The integration of data across channels and the personalization of content should be in the service of delivering a better end-to-end customer experience – because it’s the experience with the product or service that makes a brand today, and not much more. And that’s really what’s on the plate of the CMO tasked with spearheading digital transformation. They need to drive loyalty by delivering a better experience. Turn customers from one-time buyers of the product, which has traditionally been the goal of marketing, into lifetime users of the brand. From buyers to users, that’s the idea.

But to envision, and then ultimately deliver true product or service innovation is an extremely tall order for many CMOs. Connecting with a generation of digital natives – whether in B2C or B2B environments – is completely uncharted territory. CMOs raised in a pre-mobile culture, who have yet to commit themselves to learning the details of planning and executing leading end-to-end digital experiences, are finding themselves competing with CDOs (Chief Digital Officers) and CCOs (Chief Customer Officers) for ownership of their company’s vision for transformation.

CMOs who shunt the vision and execution of their digital transformation onto someone else ultimately put the company’s core value at risk. A financial services company, for instance, too narrowly focused on hard returns from their investment strategies, and not enough on the digital experience around consuming their products or services, won’t be saved from digitally immaculate competitors by investment returns alone. Core to the company’s value as those returns may seem, the end-to-end experience customers have with products and services is what ultimately determines whether they will be a lifetime user of the brand, or a one-time buyer of the product. It’s a new kind of CMO that both understands how critical the end-to-end experience is to the perceived value of the product, and how to get it right.

In B2B contexts, the challenge is the same. Take an enterprise software vendor who may be focused on delivering the broadest feature set in their market. As they look to attract a developer ecosystem around their products, they will struggle to compete for attention with outmoded portals, deficiently documented APIs, or anything in the way of startup-like usability. As good a marketing plan as they may have, they will have almost no chance against a competitor with a more limited feature set packaged in an experience that developers enjoy.

Everyone is competing on experience in nearly every industry, whether they’ve recognized it or not. No one is competing on marketing tactics. The CMO who is only delivering traditional marketing tactics wrapped in better analytics is moot. The value of the digital CMO is not that they mask customer experience issues with campaigns, but that they champion and deliver on a vision for a better end-to-end customer experience.

Marketing tactics are part of the job, for sure, but they should follow from the product experience. Amazon, for instance, can justify outspending Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Kroger and Best Buy combined in advertising because they can be sure that they have the experience right on the other end of the ad. Netflix spends a billion dollars a year in advertising aimed at driving potential subscribers to an experience that is so far superior to their cable cousins that they now have more subscribers than the top six U.S. cable companies combined. And while a billion dollars is a lot of money, Netflix has always been outspent by its competitors by many billions of dollars. Fortunately for Netflix, ads won’t make their competitors more attractive to consumers. They’ve got to first deliver a Netflix-like experience.

The digital CMO needs to think hard about the experience they are trying to deliver and how to be successful delivering it amidst such significant transformation. They need to think about how their product or brand strategy changes in the context of cultivating lifetime users. They need to think about messaging and how their narrative carries across the entire experience. Beyond “creative” as a brand or campaign deliverable, they need to think about experience design in general and how their brand standards and narrative are manifest in digital assets such as software interfaces. And what about those interfaces? How do you build truly exceptional software experiences? This is now core to the brand.

The successful digital CMO may need to have the broadest range of skills in the entire enterprise. They are being asked to outline the future of the company, the way it will interact with customers and the types of products and services it will create. They are being asked to craft a better experience, not to create better ads.

For more on building digital brands check out a recent episode from Agency on Record, our podcast about creativity and technology in a commercial world:

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Photo credit: Rick Miller


The usual big plans and big vendors mean big delays and big expenses for the content management initiatives of today’s big businesses.

To cross an ocean, you must lose sight of the shore. For a business to change, it must embrace the unfamiliar. Many of the rollouts for large enterprise content management systems, like Adobe’s Experience Manager (AEM), don’t meet their potential because those rollouts are rooted in the familiar: Massive planning with massive partners and not enough focus on pragmatic approaches to deliver value quickly. It’s the exact opposite of digital business. And if you are a large marketer with multiple brands and businesses in your portfolio, that means literally hundreds of web sites to manage and a range of content to disseminate across many digital channels and platforms.

On its face, AEM represents all the value of next generation content and digital asset management. It can give enterprises the foundation they need to act nimbly and in real-time by integrating enterprise content marketing with analytics, audience segmentation, and personalization at scale. However, for many customers who have acquired and implemented it in some form, change has still been slow and disaster feels like it’s lurking behind each code deployment or content update. Even with all this new potential; the problem, the proposed solution, the lack of results…it’s all too familiar. Your transformation journey hasn’t really left port.

Taking advantage of the opportunities that AEM provides requires making some unfamiliar choices. For instance, harnessing the technology requires experts with deep experience in the specific platform as opposed to technology generalists learning AEM for the first time. The ability to configure, control, and manage complex AEM environments comes out of front-line experience from server-side teams that have created their own tools and hardened processes for automating operational tasks. Properly configured automation reduces deployment errors and downtime. And that takes focused, nimble innovators, which are hard to find in monolithic vendor organizations.

The teams you rely on - whether internal or external - to help you deliver transformation cannot themselves require transformation. Many legacy vendors suffer from the same need to overhaul their cultures as the clients they are attempting to serve. That’s why smaller SWAT teams, coming more often from startups than from the Fortune 500, often represent the enterprise’s best chance for change. You are trying to cross an ocean, not boil one, and to do that, you’ll need the small, swift guide boats that can help you navigate AEM’s tricky waters.

Smaller partners also help you focus more squarely on time-to-market over everything else. When industry dynamics and customer behavior were stable, over-planned corporatist initiatives made more sense. Now, they almost never do. Company-wide AEM solutions, while academically appealing to many consultants, lack the pragmatism that should be the first principle of any project that hopes to result in greater business agility. Fostering individual business-unit creativity should be the goal, not the obstacle. Platforms like AEM can support those individual business units looking to get to market more quickly with innovative ideas, but doing so requires lean development models, and an approach to code and component sharing that doesn’t rely on overwrought development.

Embracing the unfamiliar is the only path to transformation. It’s in that unfamiliar space that you will find the innovative tools and processes that really untie the platforms in which the company has invested so much. Choosing smaller, less familiar partners to work on them is going to bring the new thinking, the energy, and the technical wherewithal to help you achieve the change you want. And by focusing on the speed of individual business units, the journey toward transformation becomes an achievable one, mile-by-mile, with value delivered at each leg of the voyage, meaning you can say bon voyage to the old shore, and hello to the new one.

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Ready to embrace the unfamiliar and transform your business? See how Maark can help you get more value from your AEM investment faster.

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Photo credit: Cooper Smith

You ever get that feeling, as you spin through vast libraries of media and information at the twitch of a finger, shuttling between the supercomputer in your pocket to the one on your wrist to the paper-thin one that hinges shut on your desk, that things just aren’t, I don’t know, better?

Well, according to The New York Times, things aren’t. At least not economically. From the article:

For several years, economists have asked why all that technical wizardry seems to be having so little impact on the economy. The issue surfaced again recently, when the government reported disappointingly slow growth and continuing stagnation in productivity. The rate of productivity growth from 2011 to 2015 was the slowest since the five-year period ending in 1982.

The piece contrasts two ideas. The first is that today’s digital innovations aren’t yielding the economic increases that the big-time inventions of yesterday did—electricity, modern transportation, medicine. The opposing idea is that the only thing we can blame today’s digital depression on is for making us more impatient since most industries have not fully embraced the transformation yet and will need to before gains can be realized. That’s the way all technology is, proponents of this side argue.

Meanwhile Silicon Valley continues to find investors and is every day closer to finishing that valley-sized spaceship so they can leave the Earth and all of us suckers behind.

Seriously, though, The New York Times piece is an interesting read. Although its hope vs. cynicism ping-pong tournament seems to fall a little more on the latter scale (cynical pieces always make for more interesting, more cathartic articles for some reason). But whether we haven’t fully committed to digital transformation or we are mistaken about assumptions of ever-marching technology progress, one thing is for certain…hold on, just got an app notification.

Photo credit: David Ingram