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Mark Earls on startups, social and why Australia is the perfect place for marketers to try new things

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Mark Earls on startups, social and why Australia is the perfect place for marketers to try new things


Marketing speaks with Mark Earls about the herd, startups, and why we need to get tough on ourselves about social media.

This article was sponsored by The Communications Council, which has announced Mark Earls as guest speaker at the Marketing Effectiveness on Trial Summits and IPA Strategic Planning: Changing Perspectives events in the coming weeks.



Marketing: What is the most common misconception that marketers have about their customers or consumer behaviour?

Mark Earls: The biggest and most important one that strikes me is that people in marketing departments and in agencies, imagine that real humans make decisions on their own most of the time, that we’re like individual little units of consumption. That we’re rationalising or emotional individuals who are separated from everyone else.

And that’s just not true. Most of our lives are lived in the company of others, and our minds, our brains, and much of our bodies are evolved for a world with other people.


That flies in the face of a lot of marketing rhetoric of today which is all about trying to understand the consumer on an individual level. Do you encounter much disagreement?

Ideas about how people behave are embedded in the practice’s business, in a lot of database work and stuff that needs CRM, that kind of thing. A lot of digital work presumes that we’re talking about individuals: ‘how many pairs of eyeballs can we reach?’

We define reach in media in terms of the number of individuals we reach. So, it’s quite hard to get people away from it, to be honest.

The way you do it, is you remind them one: of their own life, two: there’s a whole lot of science that supports it, and three: you can thank the baby Jesus for the work of Mr Zuckerberg.

He’s been amazing at convincing people that ‘oh, yes, people are social, and they do do what other people do.’

One of the easiest ways to engage, say, a C-Suite audience is to remind them how important – whether it’s on LinkedIn or Facebook, and so on – it is for them to learn things from other people around them, or other people they’re connected to.


What’s different about the clients that do understand?

There are two types of clients that understand it.  There are those who understand it but can’t do anything about it; they’re trapped in a practice that is all about individuals. Imagine you’re a business dominated by CRM. That makes it more difficult to understand how you might take the social stuff on. So you’re limited.

The other side is the people that go ‘yeah, that’s really interesting, we could do something with that’, and you start to get a fusion of the two worldviews.

The first group I described, start to feel quite frustrated, which I’m really sorry about, but there you go! The second is going to get some opportunities. If you have a better angle on your audience than all your competitors and you can find ways to take advantage of that angle, you’re ahead of the game. These people tend to do better.


You work a lot with startups and charities, what’s exciting you lately in that world?

There’s a change in the kind of people that I’m seeing running these businesses. It’s a limited data set because it’s just people that I’ve met, but, we’ve been through a period of the last five years where startups have basically been built to sell.

They’re looking to get funding for round one, funding for round two, funding for round three, and that’s it. ‘Hopefully, by the time we get to round four, we’re out.’

There’s been a lot of growth hacking, and not really caring about what kind of business they’re building, so long as they get the numbers for the next round of funding.

What I’m seeing is more people emerging, going ‘well, actually it’s not about the business that I can sell, it’s about building something that I genuinely care about, and the hunt of funding is a hassle, but it’s a means for me to get to where I want to get to with this thing that matters to me.’

That’s a change, people are starting to remember why they do this, for something other than money.

I imagine the quality of the end product is a lot more impressive as well?

That’s right. It’s one of the things about the growth hacking phenomenon that got very popular thanks to Silicon Valley’s startup community. Growth hacking is essentially ‘any which way I can to get you the numbers.’

Doesn’t matter who the customer is or why they’re doing it – ‘I’ll just get you the numbers you need.’

Sure, we all need a bit more of that chutzpah and go-to attitude, but it does, in the end, lead to businesses which are looking for the money only.


We’re talking about the behaviour of the herd. What’s changed most about them in the last five years?

What’s changed most about us! It’s all of us, in every part of our lives. One of the things is that we can see ourselves more in the mirror. There are big events that have been happening, big sudden examples of volatility in politics.

Some tribalism – which is one of the things that the herd mentality leads to – in Trump, in Brexit here in the UK.

The whole post-fact world is about people looking to each other rather than the evidence. Making decisions simply on the basis of what they’ve heard from people around them rather than by looking at any facts, or even authorities. We had a strange thing in the EU Referendum in the UK, when a leading UK politician said ‘oh, we’re bored of excerpts in the UK’, basically disallowing any factual discussion.

It’s really interesting how that’s changed.

That’s a big mirror back on ourselves, which is starting to make people think a bit more about how easily we are led by each other, and some of the downsides of this herd phenomenon.


Where do you see that going?

There are two or three things that are already happening. We are developing etiquette about how to manage our hyperconnectivity. When you sit in a restaurant or bar, there’s a bunch of people at the next table who are all on their phones. That’s not much fun is it, not actually talking to each other?

In other places, people are going ‘no, I’ll put my phone down.’

That learning to manage with the possibility of access to everyone else all of the time, and actually choosing not to have it, is now an agreed set of rules between us.

The other thing that’s going to happen more and more is tribalism. People can spend their entire lives now, really having very little interaction with people who don’t agree with them, who aren’t like them. That’s an interesting thing that we’ve seen already, and these high-level things in politics are just the beginning of it.

You see it in sub cultures; throughout the population, you see more and more tribalism, people who are ‘just like me, doing exactly the same thing as me, wearing the same clothes as me.’

We’re going to see a lot more of that. And, it’s going to be less universal. The big patterns are going to be less clear, and there’ll be more mess, if you like, in terms of cultural stuff.


You’ll be discussing key learnings from an IPA social works initiative. Can you please tell us what that’s about?

It’s a unique project; it’s a collaboration in the UK between the Marketing Society, which represents all the key marketers in the UK, the IPA – that’s the agencies trade body – the Market Research Society, and key platforms: Twitter and Facebook, and LinkedIn.

What we’ve set out to do, in social media marketing, is try and develop, through peer review, some kind of notion of best practice. It really is still a bit Wild West. You could make claims about the value or effectiveness of something, and have no-one check it, and there’s a lot of money going into it.

We’ve now looked at 170 cases in the peer review. We have, I think, nearly 30 that we think are really high-quality cases for effectiveness. We’ve got an insight study as well, and also one about personalisation. We’ve produced studies and guides which we’re going to be offering free to Australian colleagues from September, and it’s useful stuff.

It’s not the end because I think one of the big things that we’ve learned about the world of social media is that it doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop changing, it doesn’t stop evolving, it doesn’t stop having new stuff.


Three things to take away are:

1. There’s a difference between measuring and counting. When you think about effectiveness, and how to do that effective social media culture, you need to distinguish between measuring and counting.

The great benefit of social media (and all things digital), we were told at the start, is that you could measure loads of stuff.

In fact, you can count loads of stuff. You can count clicks, you can count source of views, pass-ons, likes, all these things. You can count things, but measuring things is very different. Measuring things is about working out how a thing is supposed to work, and how that might affect consumer behaviour which might affect business indicators. At the end of the day, we need to connect it all to business.


2. Be tough on yourselves. The Kool-Aid is lovely but just don’t drink it too easily. Be critical in your thinking, rather than merely enthusiastic.


3. The real, not-yet-fully-exploited opportunity for marketers in social media is insight. We’re only just at the beginning of that. As a friend of mine suggested, social media data is like the river Nile. It could nourish half the nation or more, but you wouldn’t want to drink straight from the river. You need to have a filter. You need to think about what the data is, where it comes from, how it’s collected, and how it’s connected in any way to other datasets.

Those are the three big things that we’re going to talk about.

I’m really excited about coming back to Australia, and to see how the market’s been developing. I haven’t been in the country for a couple of years. I’m keen to understand a bit more about how you guys have been questioning, learning from or ignoring the things that have been happening elsewhere. Quite often a lot of the fizz and froth in marketing fizzes and froths, and you need to get on and do your job. I’m really interested to see that.


When here last, did you notice a big difference between markets in the UK or markets worldwide, as to how marketers think here or work here?

I think there’s one difference which – as you guys will know better than anyone else – is the fact that you have a more regionally structured industry in the marketing communications and search sense. In the UK we clearly have one major city, that dominates the industry by a long, long way. That’s a thing that’s different. One of the things that Australia offers to a marketer is the opportunity to do new things, because, particularly in the global organisation – I hate to say it – nobody’s watching.

It’s much better to do innovation in a market like Australia, and then roll it into a market like the US, than it is to do it the other way around.

Equally, if I was running an agency network now, I’d be using Australia as my launchpad into Asia. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s going to come up in the next few years around Alibaba and the rest in terms of what it’s like to work in a Chinese business culture. It’s pretty interesting. I’ve been doing a lot of work in India recently, and it’s made me think again – working with Indian-owned companies – the assumptions that I have about how things go. I’d be learning all the time if I were you.


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Featured events

Mark Earls is a guest speaker at the Marketing Effectiveness on Trial Summits

31 August, Sydney

7 September, Melbourne

11 September, Perth

Special offer: $100 OFF* Marketing Effectiveness on Trial Summit tickets exclusive to Marketing readers. First 100 only. PROMO CODE: EffWeekMM17 Book now »


He is also presenting at the three-day residential IPA Strategic Planning: Changing Perspectives

27-29 August, Sydney

3-5 September, Melbourne


*Not to be used in conjunction with any other offers. Non-corporate members only. TCC corporate members will automatically receive $200 off the non-corporate member price at checkout. 


This article was produced by or on behalf of a partner and does not necessarily reflect the views of Marketing Mag or Niche Media.

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