The Dodo Brand: How We Must Adapt to Survive the Future of Marketing – InboundCon
Last updated: May 4th, 2023
In his keynote presentation at InboundCon, Fab Dolan (Product Marketing Manager at Google) challenged our assumptions about and provided us with guidance on how to survive the future of marketing.
Alex Rascanu: The final presentation for today will be delivered by Fab Dolan who is Product Marketing Manager at Google. He’s here not representing Google, but himself. Before you start your presentation perhaps you can speak a little bit about your background.
Fab Dolan: Yes.
Alex Rascanu: I appreciate that. Let’s give Fab a warm welcome.
Fab Dolan: Perfect. Thank you so much Alex. And thank you everyone for sticking it out. I know that it’s late in the day. I am going to promise to keep it light. The introduction denoting that I work at Google, I’m not representing Google is probably a good one because it actually liberates us to talk about some more fun stuff. So if you’re going to tweet, tweet that it is @fabdolan who said that, not Google said this will happen or else I’ll have to come talk to you and awkwardly tell you that you got me fired. So let’s try to avoid that.
I do want to talk a little bit about my background because I’m actually not cut from the same cloth as most of the people you’ve heard from today. I am not an inbound marketer. I do inbound marketing as part of my role at Google but my background is actually in very traditional CPG advertising. So I worked on big brands like Cheerios, Nature Valley, and Green Giant. So these iconic brands who when they view the world still view it through the lens of buying influence, that the deepest pockets can win the marketing battle. And so I switched halfway through my career to working Google which you can imagine is a very different culture and different environment. And there I lead our brand marketing efforts in Canada.
So not the Google brand but rather our vision for what brand marketing should look like in this new digital age. And as part of that I hope that you can imagine that I spent a lot of time thinking about where technology is headed but also how we should be thinking about that technology as marketers. And so I want to share some that with you today and specifically in three kind of buckets.
I want to talk about how technology is impacting what we should be doing in terms of business design and how we actually function as marketing departments in this day and age. I want to talk a little bit about how we should be bringing campaigns to market. But I think you’ve heard from so many great speakers today that I’ll probably touch on that least. And then the final thing, and I think perhaps the most important thing, is talking about how we should behave as marketing professionals in an era of exponential change in technology.
So how we shape our careers and how we should be looking at future opportunities. In order to do so I do want to break it down into a few compartments. I see some familiar faces from an event that we did earlier in the summer. So I hope I’ve tweaked the presentation enough. Give me a thumbs up, thumbs down if you think that it’s improved. I’m always trying to improve a little bit.
I want to start by kind of leveling the playing field and talking about what we know to be true at this point in time. What we know to be true is that all of us in this room are working and living in an era of exponential change. What does that mean? Exponential change results out of much of our world being shaped by the technologies that we create to augment it. Now human enterprise has always been linked to what we can do with technology from creating fire to books and so on.
But now we’re in a special time because computing technology and information technology is fundamentally different than anything that we’ve created. And it’s fundamentally different than anything we’ve created because it moves exponentially. Since the creation of the telephone and subsequently computers after that, and mobile computing, and software and so on, this technology is moving exponentially. And exponential growth is very different from linear growth.
Linear growth is something that we have a very easy time understanding. If I ask you to step outside this room or this building and take 30 linear steps, 1-2-3-4 and so on. And let’s say that, generous for me, that one step equals one meter. After 30 steps you’re 30 meters away from the building linearly. Right? It’s easy to wrap your head around.
But if I ask you to do the same exercise exponentially 2-4-8-16 and so on, after 30 steps you not 30 meters away but more than a billion meters away. And in fact you’d have to walk to globe many times over in order to do so. And for that kind of change that we just fundamentally can’t wrap their heads around as humans because we evolved in a linear age. I’m sure some of you don’t believe me right now but I want to pause and think about just even my own career. So I started as a marketer at General Mills in 2007. And so here all things are either fundamentally different or didn’t even exist when I started my marketing career.
The iPhone didn’t launch in Canada until 2008. Tablet as a category which are set to outpace PC sales didn’t exist until 2010 in the way that we know them now. Kickstarter which funds more arts projects in pure dollars and quantity then the National Endowment for the Arts in the US didn’t exist. Bitcoin and an entire new virtual currency that is now starting to be recognized by governments around the world didn’t exist. YouTube and Netflix today during peak Internet traffic periods represent 50 percent of the downloaded traffic and they didn’t exist in their current form.
In fact YouTube which Google owns, if you don’t know, was listed in our financial reporting at the time as non- material, basically irrelevant at that point in time. And now it’s one of the primary brand platforms for our industry. And that’s to say nothing of other changes that we’ve seen in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics and the list goes on and on and on and on. This is the kind of world that we’re living in and what I submit to you today is that this is only the beginning because as dramatic as this change has been over the last couple decades, and we do have two and a half billion people online, we have so many more to go.
Innovation is like Lego, pieces of Lego on a table. We invented the technologies of tomorrow with the technologies of today. So the more pieces you put on the table to be able to combine in new combinations and permutations, the more possible outcomes and new ideas that can come out of that.
So think about all the innovation that we’re seeing today and imagine upwards of five billion more people each with 85 billion neurons in their head innovating and connected and creating during this exponential age. It’s really hard for us to wrap our heads around which brings us to what we don’t know. What we don’t know is how to think linearly. Our software and our hardware just wasn’t built for it, this software and hardware. And so we see things like this.
In the late 90’s if you were a newspaper ad exec, you could be forgiven for saying, “You know what, the next decade will be another three to five percent growth,” because that’s what we’ve seen for half a century and that’s what I know in a linear world to be true. But in fact the changes that were happening all around and the forces of change that were impacting that industry resulted in a decade of huge losses. $40 billion worth of value evaporated from the industry, hundreds of papers went extinct and thousands of jobs were lost and an industry was changed forever. And I think that’s a very tragic story but I think what is more tragic is that when we fail to think exponentially and we continue to think linearly is that we actually miss opportunity.
In the mid-1990s the US was heavily investing behind mapping the human genome. About a year in, billions of dollars spent, they were one percent complete and critics said, “Well one percent, one year. It’s going to take a century to do this. We will waste trillions of dollars. We should stop today.” But those who understood the progress that was being made and understood the realities of exponential growth meaning that to get from 1 percent to 100 is roughly seven doublings, knew that we were almost done. And indeed we finished it within years and it would’ve been a huge loss to humanity and science had we stopped.
That is the kind of opportunity that we miss. And so what we don’t know is exactly what the outcome is because I think much the same as we were at one percent at that point in time, we were at one percent of many things that we don’t know where they will be in a very near point in our future.
What some say is that we’re leading to a world that’s about abundance. What does abundance look like? Well abundance from technology looks kind of like this, and this is the only shameless Google plug that you will hear from me today, because after all this is not a Google talk. But abundance looks something like this. A driverless car that is synced with my phone so it knows my schedule, it knows what’s in my Gmail account, it knows that I have a flight that day, it knows the weather and it knows the traffic in Toronto.
So when I wake up in the morning and I have to fly to San Francisco it knows that and so picks me up at the exact right time based on the traffic conditions that day, takes me to Terminal one, drops me off I get out, go about my merry way and the car leaves. And what does the car do when it leaves? It goes to pick someone else up.
Why? Because I don’t need to own a car if I have access to a car whenever I need one. And the resulting impact on our civilization is that if I don’t need to own a car and you don’t need to own a car, we collectively don’t need so many cars, which means that we can have fewer highways, fewer parking garages, and we can reimagine our communities around green spaces and better use the investment that we currently put into maintaining cars. So that’s one example abundance.
Another example of abundance looks like this. So the 90 servers that made up the computer Watson, that beat the best two human players in Jeopardy, did two fantastic feats of computing. And we do not give it enough credit. In fact many of us don’t even know that it happened.
The two amazing feats of computing, the first was that it actually had to learn what it knew. Many people think we can just program it to know all of these facts. But of course there are limitations to that. So what Watson did was actually read hundreds of millions pages from the web and did statistical analysis to be able to understand with a 95 percent confidence that something like President Obama is the president of the United States and so on and so on and so on. So that was the first that it actually had to learn.
The second and perhaps the most dramatic is that it had to understand complex human language. Think about the game Jeopardy. Think about the kinds of answers that are posed to contestants. I’ll give you one example. What is it? It’s a long tiresome speech and no jokes about this one actually, delivered by a frothy pie topping.
What is a meringue harangue? I certainly didn’t get that question. Maybe there’s someone in this room that did and had the answer. But the two human players didn’t and Watson did because it understood complex human language and it understood the rules of the game and it understood the things that they had to actually learn. And a future that’s full of abundance Watson doesn’t play game shows. Watson through the power of tablets all over the world and Cloud computing brings a Dr. Watson to the fingertips of everyone in remote corners of this planet and dramatically lowers the cost of health care. That sounds pretty cool right? It’s a pretty cool example.
But there’s another outcome. Not a Google talk. The other outcome is one of adjacent tragedy. And tragedy in this instance is when the technologies that move us forward do not bring us progress. And this is what it looks like. For companies it looks like situations that we have with Kodak where a company that was once worth $30 billion dollars with 140,000 employees can be supplanted in short time by companies like Instagram which when it sold for a billion to Facebook had just 13 employees, 13, 140,000.
They also look something like this. In the US in the last ten years we started to see a fundamental decoupling of productivity and unemployment. This is something we’ve never seen before. As employment goes up productivity tends to go with it. But as we invent new technologies that don’t require an employee to actually do the thing that you’re trying to do, productivity can continue its rise as employment does something else. And so that is a completely different future.
It’s a future that might look more like this where we move from a stable middle-class to a winner-takes-all economy. A really great example of this is 99designs. I have really mixed feelings about them because I think they’re a really cool and innovative company. But a winner-takes-all economy is one where things like education through massive online open courses, things like design work through things like 99designs, are low- cost or free to the masses. So we all have access. But it’s much harder to make a stable living as a teacher, and it’s much harder to make a stable living as a designer because fewer of us cash in on the big prize and only one or two of us do. That is a future that’s very tragic.
And so that is our grand challenge. The challenge of our generation is choosing between abundance and tragedy. How do we do that? How do we do that when in effect we are all island dwellers? I’m sure many of you are wondering why I call this presentation The Dodo Brand. Obviously it has something to do with the dodo bird. And I believe that much of what we can learn about how to be innovative and how to be successful in our world, we can learn from the natural world.
Ecology and evolution has been around long before us and has pretty much perfected what it means to be innovative. And in fact in engineering circles we try to mimic these qualities as much as possible. So if you’re trying to build a new building in Dubai and need to make sure that the air conditioning runs to full strength but is incredibly energy-efficient, you can look to termite mounds to see how they cool their habitats.
If you’re trying to take a plane and make it bigger, stronger, faster but also lighter and cheaper, why not look to the cartilage structures within sharks, birds and other animals. This is the field the Biomimicry. And I believe that what we can do is actually learn more than just about the physical world around us. I believe that for those of us in this room, those of us who work in an idea- based economy can learn how the natural world comes up with new ideas and learn what happens to species and entire ecosystems when those ideas fail.
So that’s why this is called The Dodo Brand because the Dodo Bird was on an island near the coast of Madagascar completely undiscovered by humans along with a bunch of other species mind you that are less famous to us. It had developed skills for survival and success over hundreds of thousands of years and yet in less than 100 years from meeting humans, after we hunted them, we had rampant deforestation on the island, we introduced new competitive species that both competed for food and also hunted them as well like dogs and rats and so on, the Dodo perished from the earth. And it was the combination of these factors that we’re moving so quickly and a bird that was moving on evolutionary time which was too slow to keep up. And I think about that when I see things that are happening to our own industry.
I’m sure we talked a little bit about mobile today. Mobile came even faster than the companies that were inventing it knew. Google, Facebook, all these companies that were working on these devices, Apple, we didn’t even know it was going to come so quickly. And yet to get 100 million users for the landline phone took 90 years. For the cell phone it took 17 years. Our Android devices got to 100 million users in 2.5 years and there’s another platform that did in about the same amount of time.
Yeah there we go, we’re not too tired. Okay. That’s the kind of exponential change that we’re seeing. And it’s completely transforming our society but it caught us all off guard even those who were creating the very thing that we’re talking about.
But I believe that we are not dodos. Our advantage over those birds, and other creatures for that matter, is that we can move faster than evolution can. We can be self-aware of what’s going on around us, both the pressures and opportunities, and we can change the course of history. And so it starts with kind of knowing where we’re going. I have talked a little bit about where technology is going. I will do some justice to where I think marketing is headed and how those technologies will help us as well. But making predictions is pretty much the surest way to look like a fool. So I’m glad we have this on video.
Let’s talk about what the adjacent possible is. So I’ve talked a little bit about mobile. What I see is kind of the next step for us is not mobile but ubiquitous is that we move from sitting at a computer at our home to having a computer in our hand, to having computers all around us. IP addressable devices such as your fridge, your TV, your toaster, your toothbrush, it’s getting that cheap that we can do so.
You see companies like Tile that are able to put an IP addressable device that is attached to your keys so you never lose them again. But it goes even further than that. There are companies that are working on devices that use biometrics. So a device that you can put on your wrist and use it to log into your bank account that’s linked to your heartbeat.
There are companies like Braingate that are working on chips, and have done so by the way entirely for patients who need to control prosthetic limbs, but chips that go inside your brain and are based off the electrical signals that your brain uses. The future that we’re headed to is where everything’s connected not to just a handful of devices. And so as marketers we need to recognize that the same way that we learned a heck of a lot about someone’s context from knowing what their smartphone was doing and where it was, we’re only going to have more information in the future to be able to deliver really great experiences to them, things that are entirely personalized to that individual. And so I say we’ve gone from online to non-line to something like bio-line where it’s about that individual.
The other thing that I think we’re on the cusp of is what I probably ambitiously call the death of TV. But it’s not really the death of TV, it’s the change of TV and the transformation because we have always been a culture and a civilization of storytellers. And so we will always be so and so it will always be about the content but it won’t be about the box.
So we’ve gone, the same way that we’ve seen exponential innovation elsewhere, from a world where we have three or four channels, the General Mills of the world could put down a bunch of money and buy a TV spot to say, “I want to buy a program or an advertisement on I Love Lucy,” and reach 80 percent of the viewing audience, to a world in the cable revolutions where we had hundreds of channels to now a world with Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and so on where we effectively have infinite channels.
We have a channel for pretty much everyone there. And the really fantastic thing that’s happening as we move more of that content to digital platforms, and this is where I think inbound marketers have a head start because they have always thought about content – is that we’re moving to a world where advertising is about choice. We’re moving to a choice economy on advertising.
Things like YouTube’s TrueView are putting the choice in the hands of the consumer to say I want to watch this ad or I do not want to watch this ad because it’s not for me. And so everyone wins when advertising has to be just as great as the content that you’re about to watch when we all opt in.
This is not a Google presentation hence the name “The End of Search.” The other thing that we’re trying to do whether it’s Google, Facebook, Apple with Siri, Amazon, and we heard from Bing today, we’re all trying to make great personalized experiences. We’re trying to cater to each and every individual. And if you’re trying to do that in terms of search, you want to get rid of the searching. And that’s where we’re going. We’re going to experiences that have extreme personalization.
Things like Google Now. This is a shameless plug too. But Google Now as an app and Siri as an app, they work to try to predict what you want and try to deliver that before you even want or even know that you want it. So I talked about my car knowing where I wanted to go and all that kind of stuff. All the car knows how to do is how to drive from point A to point B. The real magic is in the phone.
The phone knowing that I have a flight that day, knowing that I love the Toronto Blue Jays and there was a game on just at that time, so he’s probably going to search for the score so why don’t we just present that to him before he even puts anything into the search bar.
It’s these kinds of things that create personalized experiences. And this is what we’ve come to expect as a society from the products that we use. So why wouldn’t we expect it from the marketers who are trying to win our hard earned money? That’s the kind of experience that we need to start delivering, extremely personalized. Even Google Maps is kind of moving in this direction.
I can talk more afterwards with people but Maps is moving to a world where if you search for something and I search for something, we actually get very different results. The streets are the same, the buildings are the same, but the landmarks that are highlighted are completely different. You might search for CSI and see all the different, if you’re visiting, you see the generic landmarks around here. But the other point that I would see is my dogs Zoe’s veterinarian that’s two blocks down that I’ve searched for that address before. So Google knows that it should highlight that on the map as well.
So it’s these subtle changes that we’re starting to see that they’re personalizing everything around us. And the only way to keep up with all this change is that we’re automating most of it. In fact about 40 percent of agencies that are buying for the big companies are using some type of programmatic buying for their media at this point. And in fact in the US they’re leading the charge. One in five dollars that are being spent on online advertising are being done programmatically which means that a computer algorithm is actually making the decision to buy or not.
We’re seen this in advertising. We’re also seeing it with high frequency trading on the stock market. More of our world will be automated because frankly we just can’t keep pace. We don’t think fast enough. And the one thing that I ask out of anyone in an inbound marketing position is that as you do this, the other side to data and automation is measurement.
Please, please, please do what you can to measure real economic value as opposed to just likes, fans, followers and generic engagement because if we’re ever going to convince these big companies to invest behind the things that we love dear, we have to make it work for the CMO that’s spending $70 million a year on television advertising because they are always going to see what we do as a big bet. So we need to talk about real economic value.
So how do we survive? I don’t really know, but I have two guesses. I mention that we can learn from the dodo in a way that we can learn from someone else’s failure. I also believe there is a road map in ecological and evolutionary innovation that we can follow and I have two thoughts for today, just two.
The first is the Daphnia flea, this wonderful cute little crustacean. The Daphnia flea does something really fantastic. It can switch depending on the nature of its circumstances from asexual reproduction to sexual reproduction. Now those of us who don’t know the difference. Asexual reproduction is basically when you split a cell and it’s effectively like cloning. There’s no mixture of a male and a female cell there and what you get is a really efficient process for taking what’s working and just multiplying over and over and over again. It’s more efficient but it can be risky if what you need is change. And if what you need is change, you want to have sexual reproduction because sexual reproduction allows for more cellular mutation and allows for different possible outcomes.
This crustacean can actually switch from one into the other. And how it knows to switch from one into the other depends on its habitat. If resources are tight, if times are tough, what it actually does is switch to sexual reproduction even though it’s less efficient because it’s more likely to generate mutations that will yield a positive outcome. And that is what our company needs to do. That is what our marketing departments need to do.
In this time of change we need to change how we play the game. Too many of us are reacting to all of this change and trying to make efficient what we already do. But what we already do is proving not to work and so we need to change. So that’s one suggestion.
This a really great example of that I think. SnapTax is this app where you can basically take a picture of your forms for taxes and it will file your returns for you in less than 10 minutes. And what’s really great about this is that it wasn’t developed by some really kicka** startup in San Francisco. It was actually developed buy Intuit, a massive decades-old organization. And they did so by actually starting a small division within their company whose only real mission was to destroy their core product. They wanted to cannibalize themselves before they were cannibalized by someone else. Pretty cool.
The other humble suggestion that I would have today is that we think more like maple trees. The maple tree has some really fantastic seeds, right? Two seeds put together at one end of the pod in the flat end. And the net effect is that when they fall they spin like helicopter propellers which generates lift which carries those seeds further and further away from the tree. And what that does is it allows them to cover a broader area and not compete for the same resources. Really fantastic.
From a human linear brain perspective, it’s very easy to look at that and believe in intelligent design, believe that there’s a tree that knows where it’s standing and knows where it needs to plant a new seed because how else could it know to do this. But in fact innovation through revolution always happens at the level of DNA and it happens in small, small increments with perhaps the most difficult success metrics of all, life or death.
If it makes the maple trees life longer, more successful, that idea is a good one. If it’s in any way neutral or detrimental, probably not so good to keep going. But it does so at a small level and yet as humans when we think about good ideas, especially as marketers, we think about big campaigns.
I talked to a CMO of an insurance company. I won’t name the company. He is planning out campaigns and products four years in advance, four years in advance. If anything that I’ve told you about the pace of technology and change is true, he is planning for a future that will not exist, at least not in the way that he sees it. And yet what we do all the time as humans is try to plan big strategies.
If we’re not walking in a room with a slide that says, “Strategy,” on it, then we’re not earning our paycheck. And we believe that there are these perfect ideas that we can bet big on, but what I submit to you is that what we know from evolution is that it’s the small ideas that win because small ideas evolve and grow and we don’t bet the farm on any one thing.
A really great example of this is [DellBo] [DellBo] when they started knew that they couldn’t compete in a fashion industry that was based on big lines; spring, summer, fall, winter. And so what they did was come up with something new every single week. And if that was a success they would expand upon it. And so they get this incremental evolution in growth and big ideas and I think this is where inbound markers can win because the stuff that you do can be really, really cheap.
It’s really easy for you to take risks and figure out whether you’ve cracked a new insight, whether you’ve got that new campaign idea. In a future that’s built on this, it’s you guys that lead the charge in the TV campaigns that are last in line. That is what I believe.
So to close thank you for your time. I think we need to look more externally in order to solve the problems within our organizations. I think we need to be more conscious of what’s happening around us and the technologies that we’re inventing and I believe that we can do so and that there’s a roadmap for success. So thank you very much.
Alex Rascanu: Thank everyone for taking part in InboundCon, the first inbound marketing conference in Canada. It was very much a community event and I’m very thankful to everyone who has taken part in it as an attendee, as a volunteer, as a speaker. We hope that you will join us at the inbound marketing Toronto meet ups which happen every month on the 3rd Thursday of the month usually at the BNOTIONS office. Paul Crowe from BNOTIONS is actually right here. They’re kind enough to host us on a monthly basis. We’re really trying to build an inbound marketing community here in Toronto and we’ll see where it takes us. Join us for the ride. Thank you.
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