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Ashwin Rajan Interviewed on the Future of Marketing



by Ashwin Rajan

Recently, Zeeland Family, a leading Nordic marketing agency interviewed me as part of their Insight Visionary series. The interview is reproduced in full below (not the quickest read).

(Here's the link to the interview on the Zeeland site)


To anticipate developments ahead, we need to realise that digital brings a radical shift in what we think of as ‘products’, ’services’, ‘price’, ’brands’, etc.. and consequently, also ‘marketing’. These words are useful for us in business to describe what we think we do. Consumers and users - the people that actually benefit and develop relationships with our offerings - increasingly see our products and services as events, experiences, emotions, memories, identities and stories. In short, as the stuff of life.

Digitalisation is the technological force at the heart of this shift. When physical products and services start to become digital, they turn first and foremost into information. Information has no fixed location or form. It can be in multiple places instantaneously and simultaneously. Products and services used to exist in a fixed place and time, and that gave them value. The ‘bank’ used to be a specific place, the ‘store’ used to be a specific place, the ‘school’ used to be specific place that operated at specific times. Not any more.

That brings us to why marketing as we know it starts to disappear. Marketing was necessary to bridge the gap between the origin of a product and the event of its consumption. So if the bank was on the other side of town, and I did not usually go there, the bank’s marketers attracted me via traditional channels to close the gap. Note, I use the word ‘attract’ - i.e they had to pull me to the bank, which could not come to me. Now the bank can be wherever I am, via digital technologies. Today I am carrying the bank in my pocket, tomorrow the bank will be embedded right into the product I am staring at in the display. Its not about attraction anymore, its about action.

So, consumers will encounter products and services not as something out there that they could bring into their lives; rather they start to experience them as they live. Business offerings start to appear and disappear based on who you are, where you are, who you are with, and what you are doing. If it’s not relevant, interesting, useful - right here, right now - you won’t want to waste your time starting a relationship with it.

So the shift happens from marketing products and services to marketing context. Marketing as a business function starts to merge with product and service design.


The biggest challenge felt by marketing in the coming years will be just more of its biggest challenge now. And this challenge isn’t a lack of resources or investment or technology or skills or ideas - it is the lack of customer attention, the lack of the customer’s available mental time.

It is interesting, people seem to have endless time and attention for whats meaningful to them, like games. But in a world drowning in noise, they are increasingly impatient with things that cost them time and attention without an return on that investment. This is the necustomer cost, it’s an ‘attention cost’. It is one that businesses need to first recognise and then manage. Consumers will at first avoid and then progressively despise brands that cost them unnecessary attention, thereby sharply eroding the brand’s value.


Marketing is so much about buzz that at times it can cloud the marketers’ vision itself. I think a great levelling of sorts is coming due to digital, which will force marketers back to the basics, simplify and rethink.

A concept like ‘omnichannel’, for example, is a messy one that brings more confusion than sense to strategy. Omnichannel tools provide centralised control over multiple channels, but they also give the illusion that continuity and consistency (in experience across channels) are the same thing. I question that. Do consumers really want continuity in experience across channels? Quite the contrary, I think they use different channels for very different reasons: they adopt television, mobile, or the street for that matter, driven by very, very different motivations and goals. And their expectations from each channel are only widening in an increasingly digital world. So when they experience continuity in a brand or product following them around (just because they clicked once on an ad somewhere) their conclusion is that the brand is consistently annoying!

I’d rather invest into understanding each channel deeply, in the context of the customer, the business and competition. I’m dismayed that a lot of marketers and ‘growth hackers’ think of email as a channel; but really, email on desktop at the office and email on mobile on the metro serve very different purposes and answer to very different user expectations. So what omnichannel are we talking about?​

I suspect that marketers will find the ghost of Marshal McLuhan standing at their shoulders after all these decades, saying: “The medium is the message.” And it’s turning out to be true: products and services are becoming indistinguishable from the media via which they are delivered. So the pizza that you walk down to the supermarket to purchase is very different from the pizza that getsdelivered to you via UberEATS, because of how you experience it.


There are so many, because we at an on-going inflection point that could last half a decade or more before some sort of new normal emerges, if at all. But there are indicators which I think point towards brands that are truly native to a digital world, and so will continue to be very interesting. Some of their characteristics are:

  • Product / service indistinguishable from marketing or channel characteristics.
  • Being an upstart or a contrarian and upending the status quo of existing and entrenched industries, often inviting controversy.
  • Bringing experiential, tangible value in terms of mental, physical and emotional benefits to customers.
  • Serving multiple customer groups from being multi-sided services, and creating value from allowing these different customer groups to transact.
  • Change habits and lifestyles while appealing to people’s aspirations.

For the moment, I’ll name two very different brands with the above characteristics : Uber, and Femen (the international women’s movement).


The agency-client relationship is mutating right now. Marketing, product and innovation competencies are shifting in-house into client organisations. Companies are moving towards building up full stack teams for innovation, teams that include design, marketing, insight, research & analysis, all the stuff that agencies typically provide.

So, one of things agencies will have to start getting used to is their clients being their own counterparts embedded into the client organisation. Soon, agencies may find that the client is smarter and knows more about their domain than they do.

But, an organisation can only move in any direction only through consensus. And so client organisations, no matter how well stocked on competencies, will still need an external entity to challenge the consensus view. And that I believe will be the new role of the agency. The agency will then bring not just people with skills, but more importantly a well developed point-of-view. It will have its own take on the world, a unique approach and hopefully will help the client see new opportunities and acknowledge challenges.

To do this, agencies will have to invest into developing capabilities that are a hybrid of think tanks and startups. They will have to convince clients to pay them to be constructively challenging. They will have to offer a wider diversity of unconventional skills, such as various specialists, cross-pollinators, connectors of dots, consumer evangelists and empathisers. The core purpose of the agency will be to give agency to clients in defining new purpose, identifying and shaping new markets, setting new directions, or accelerating towards goals. Unlike today, agencies will start to look less and less like each other.

We’ve been experimenting with this model at Fabric, an innovation consultancy that I founded, and I’m excited about the possibilities.

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