Marketers are told they need to learn to code and work with databases. They should be more hacker-like. IT is now their domain.
The culture of engineering has infiltrated the marketing sector.
But it isn’t just about being about to add in some HTML and CSS. Being comfortable with code and technology no longer is a “nice to have.” It’s a requirement for working in the field.
The real value of infusing your culture with engineering practices comes through its focus on making products that solve problems and doing so with efficiency and scale in mind.
Columbia University describes the role of a mechanical engineer, a subset of the field, like this:
The role of a mechanical engineer is to take a product from an idea to the marketplace.
He/she needs to understand the forces and the thermal environment that a product, its parts, or its subsystems will encounter; to design them for functionality, aesthetics, and the ability to withstand the forces and the thermal environment they will be subjected to; and to determine the best way to manufacture them and ensure they will operate without failure. Perhaps the one skill that is the mechanical engineer’s exclusive domain is the ability to analyze and design objects and systems with motion.
Motion is key to the current landscape of quick, targeted campaigns, optimization projects, and experimentation. It’s also a consideration when analyzing scope creep and project management. You have to be able to manage change that is not always within your control.
Marketing is no longer a static “thing,” and this mindset is essential for both the engineer and the modern marketer. But there are three main areas where marketing could learn from engineering.
Production Without Process
Marketing is about constant improvement, which people tend to associate with constant production: more production equals a higher number (i.e., more visits, more conversions, and more customers).
While this can be true, there is also a lot of waste inherent in this approach. Without processes for producing, managing, and distributing your marketing messages, all that time and effort can seem monumental, especially in comparison to the outcomes.
You can keep making more of the same thing, but unless you can produce it faster, better, and with improved results, you cannot grow. There are only so many billable hours in a day.
Placing restraints on the product is another aspect to consider when preventing waste.
“You can’t over-engineer it,” said Jenny Dahl, an account director at The Integer Group who studied mechanical engineering at Purdue University.
“In engineering, you define the problem, then you define the variables, like budget, and then you solve for that problem,” Dahl said. “That’s just the variables we have to work with.”
With her account team, she often references the movie Apollo 13 and the scene where the systems engineers were tasked with McGyvering an air filter. With a project or retainer, you need to take into account the resources you have and get creative with how you can accomplish the client’s goal. No matter how creative the client wants you to get, there are still restrictions on what you can do and how much you can spend. And this isn't always a bad thing: research has even shown that restraints can lead to more creative outcomes.
But Dahl did caution creating too rigid of a structure in the agency environment:
I think the role of a process-oriented marketer is to put enough processes in place that you can let the creative explosion happen, but it’s a controlled explosion, if you will. You map the process, but you have to give the creatives room to explore and room to move.
"You could argue that it's inefficient -- the creative process is inefficient -- but I would argue the opposite. If you give a creative team room to explore and to play, then you get more and better creative fodder with which to build a campaign around, which is more efficient in the end.
While you can't completely optimize the creative process, you can engineer more efficiency. And efficiency is at the heart of engineering. It’s not just about connecting one part with another or getting it done. It’s about creating a better outcome more quickly and with less resistance.
“We’re A/B testing, we’re consumer testing, we’re testing the shit out of everything, because the end, the goal is to make a campaign that we already know is going to be successful before it even launches,” Dahl said.
While some marketers still like to go on gut, efficiency demands this type of testing. And engineers understand that the first rule is to solve a problem, to create something that is useful and practical. While we were once more than happy to sell any product to anyone, that approach is outdated. Now, marketing must work with product engineers and communicate what people want and what problems the software or product doesn’t solve. They also must be the translators for engineering, communicating how a product works to users.
A Culture of Makers
An engineer is also trained to “do” instead of “strategize”. They are makers.
And marketers have things they need to make -- whether that’s a web app, an interactive content page, or a visualization that pulls in multiple data sources and allows the viewer to filter based on their preference. We have access to the tools, but we need the confidence and the skills to do it.
Dahl once apologized for her background in engineering, trying to overcompensate for her lack of a traditional degree and path. But a senior executive at a former agency pointed out her mistake, challenging her to "own" her background. She comes from a school of "makers," and she should use that in her work with clients.
While we like to think of engineers as lacking creativity and the skills of communication, this is far from the truth. In reality, the field has long been dominated by artists. And these artists are better trained and more skilled in the type of data-based, digital creativity that is needed today.