4 Concerning Reasons We Lost Our Way in Digital Marketing

In 1994 AT&T paid the princely sum of $30,000 to Hotwired.com in what is widely regarded as the first example of an online digital display ad campaign. Despite its low resolution and rudimentary appearance, it received an eye watering 44% click through rate and from this point forward, digital marketing was born.

For those of you, like me, who are old enough to remember that far back in time – yes, those good old days of dial up networks and waiting 5 minutes for webpages to load – we were given a bold promise.

The promise was that brands (and marketeers alike) no longer had to waste any of their money ever again on advertising to people who weren’t their customer. The internet knew exactly where your customer was, what they were doing, and was able to reach them at the exact moment they were in the market for your product or service.

Putting your ad, in front of your customers, at the right time.

And it didn’t stop there!! We were also sold that we could finally track the success of our campaigns and know for certain that for every $ spent, exactly how much we were getting back in return.

Finally, we could get rid of roadside billboards, stop chopping down trees to print magazines, and the production of cheesy radio ads that no one listened to. The internet was here to solve all our problems and deliver on the fundamental definition of marketing – to place your brand in front of your potential customer. It was every CEOs dream.

Boy did we get excited

<cue wild celebrations>


I can’t help but feel let down by the harsh reality that, despite 30 years of so-called evolution within digital marketing, today we are wasting more marketing dollars than we ever have done before and the original promise that was made to us simply has not been delivered on. In fact, we are far, far from it.

We are talking here about a billion $ problem. 2023 will see in excess of $500bn spent on digital marketing – which is more than the GDP of Thailand – and it’s only going to grow from here. Depending on who you want to believe, there are various figures of how much of this is ‘wasted’ which range from 30% all the way up to 80%. Even at the lower end of this, it would mean that digital advertising waste stands at an incredible $150bn. A problem we believe is worth fixing.

In this article, we explore the 4 main reasons why this might have happened and why we have lost our way. Importantly, by understanding what may have led us to this point, we can set a pathway to help navigate our way back to delivering great marketing for our brands – and putting the right ad, in front of the right person, at the right time.


Reason 1: No one has THE answer

Despite the big tech giants’ attempts to monopolise our data and provide us with THE digital platform to solve all our marketing problems, the fact remains that no one has been able to do this. The likes of Meta, Google, and Amazon have been incredibly clever in positioning themselves so that we must spend our money with them, but none of them in isolation do what they claim to or give us everything we need as marketeers.

At Navigator we recently, and worryingly, discovered that a large hotel group in Las Vegas was spending $25,000 a month on Google Ad Words, targeting their own brand name and own brand domain. Yes – these were people who, instead of typing the hotel name or web domain into their browser, were going to Google and typing it into Google search. This meant that they were effectively spending $25,000 a month to target people who were going to go to their website anyway but could not be bothered to type the hotel domain into their browser – instead using Google as a ‘shortcut’. This is also the same client who currently tracks their Meta campaigns via Google Analytics and claims that Meta does not work as they are getting much better results via Google – which makes complete sense as Google did not create Google Analytics or GA4 to encourage you to spend more money with other platforms and increase their share price instead of their own.

Surprisingly, this example can be replicated with almost any digital advertising platform – as most claim they have THE answer you are looking for, and most were built to compete with each other rather than being accurate.

Its these inaccuracies, and the fact that we feel there is nothing we can do about it, which are leaving us thinking we only have one option – to continue to commit our marketing budgets to the places which are giving us the ‘best’ results.

Digital Marketing Tip

Before picking a platform, consider deeply each problem you are trying to solve and what your business’s marketing objectives are. As each platform has a different strength, you might require a ‘marketing mix’ that delivers on your multiple marketing needs – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be on every platform to get good results.


Reason 2: Good marketing takes time, effort and resource

Many of us are aware that we are living in an unprecedented time of instant gratification, whether that’s expecting our online order to arrive in less that 2 days or checking to see if we’ve gone viral 20 seconds after we post on social media. It’s no surprise that we found ourselves doing exactly the same thing with marketing –expecting it to be a money-making machine from day 1.

We see first-hand, and all too often, that business owners and CEOs hire good marketers but don’t give them the required time, resource, and financial backing to turn their great work into better results. By treating marketing this way it is like expecting the winning number to come in on the roulette table every time they place their chips!

The net result of this is that too many marketeers are expected to win immediately and win big, every time.

If this kind of expectation and pressure were put on me then I would personally default to the least risky solution, and one I could justify as delivering good results just to satisfy those above me – think of the Google search example mentioned earlier.

This has squashed innovation and curiosity in marketing and has led to many brands out there all doing the same thing, reporting the same results to CEOs and business owners who don’t understand that the ramifications of their actions is limiting the full potential of their marketing strategy.

There is no cheat code to good marketing.

Digital Marketing Tip

Try and create depth in your marketing. Good marketing is a process of continual refinement to find what works, and then refine it to become more and more effective. Back your marketing teams with the proper amount of money and resource to find where your potential customer is, and allow them to spend the appropriate amount of money on understanding what your customer is looking for from your business.


Reason 3: The focus has turned from value to money

I loved the series Mad Men on TV. Maybe less of the whiskey at 9am in the morning, but by watching it you can well imagine what the booming advertising industry was like back in the 1960s. Here, in the 2020s, TV advertising is still around, but these days data provided by digital advertising has overtaken oil as the world’s most valuable resource. The one thing both Mad Men and digital advertising have in common with each other is money, and the ability to make lots of it.

As a business, we see a huge amount of mistrust in digital marketing today and we understand why. The feedback the Navigator Team has had from a number of our clients is that they have been sold the dream by so many, and so few have delivered – leading to large scale scepticism and a risk averse attitude. They have also given us the feedback that they felt platforms like Meta are not here to make you the hero. They are in it to increase shareholder value by making money from you, even if you lose money in the process.

Digital Marketing Tip

Take the time to deeply consider the value a particular platform can bring to you. Do your due diligence and collaborate with external platforms who understand to the value of your business, who are there to solve your individual problems, and will make sure you are reaching the people who should be seeing your ads.


Reason 4: Marketing has been overcomplicated

Like most things in life, as time passes humans have overcomplicated marketing. This is in large part due to the fact that we have been led to believe that you need a degree from MiT or Oxford to understand digital marketing.

Elon Musk is quoted as saying; ‘One of the biggest traps for smart engineers is optimizing a thing that shouldn’t exist’. He then goes on to say; ‘when you go through college like studying physics/engineering, you have to answer the question that the professor gives you, you don’t get to say this is the wrong question’.

It feels to me like we have placed digital marketing in the hands of lots of engineers without challenging the questions they have been answering. So now we are left with lots of tools and tech which claim to do lots of things – and in most part do not deliver.

I wonder if we were to do it all over again, what questions we would be asking them to answer?

As I have made clear, the Navigator Team believes that the idea of marketing is very simple – to put the right ad, in front of the right person, at the right time – and the tech behind that can be incredibly complex. This means we can easily lose sight of the simple results we seek by focusing on the tech, not the customer.

Digital Marketing Tip

Place your customer first. The technology behind finding your customer and providing you with the ability to engage with them is almost irrelevant. By keeping it simple and by focussing on this, it will enable your good work to go to the places where you can win the most amount of new customers.


Conclusion: Searching for a marketing solution in the digital age

It would seem to make sense that the more sophisticated tech becomes, the easier it will become to get your ads in front of your customers at the right time. Sadly, this isn’t the case. In fact, it’s actually going to get harder and will continue to get harder, for you.

Global data regulations (such as GDPR), app tracking, cookie deprecation and many more privacy initiatives have led to a significant decline in data accuracy.

If we carry on marketing the way so many are doing so today, placing our budgets in the same way with the same platforms, then it will simply lead to an increase in us wasting more and more money. Something I hope we all agree should be avoided at all costs.

Therefore, it is more important than ever that we get back to the fundamental principle of placing your brand in front of your potential customer. It’s the customer, not the technology which should be the driver.

1st party data (your own and that of platforms who have your potential customers), contextual advertising next to relevant content, and publisher agreements will now play a huge role in the success of you being able to do this moving forward.

If the Navigator team can leave you with one thing it is this. We encourage you to get back to the basic definition of marketing, to find partners and platforms that want to solve your problems and service you in the way you need them to, to have the courage to invest and take time over your marketing efforts to really find out what works, and to create a mix of solutions which deliver for you at every part of the marketing funnel.

I wish you all the success in your new marketing efforts.


Written by: Steve Rowbotham

from the Navigator Team


Are you ready to start your journey?

Let’s discuss your digital goals today