“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” Albert Einstein

Too often I hear marketers ask, "how do I break through the digital clutter?" And yet, no one seems to wonder how we ended up with all this useless debris in the first place.  

As an industry, we’ve congested the internet superhighway with a fleet of junk vehicles. Think of all the emails, display ads, social posts, promo websites, in-app ‘download now’ buttons vying for our attention, getting in the way of the things we ultimately want to enjoy. There are over 1B websites in existence today, and over 4 million apps available in App and Play stores, the majority of which have no real point, no real value, no purpose.  It's as if we’re caught in a marketing innovation arms race, chasing our competitors’ new tactics, vying for more attention, shouting louder and in more places simply because we can.  We never stop to actually ask the question: should we?

The result: We’ve become satisfied with fractional engagement rates, we’ve become accustomed to a disproportionate amount of digital product and media waste. And the net-net: the noise has become the internet.

But the promise of the digital revolution was so much better. Programmatic was supposed to make everything hyper-relevant, and therefore hyper meaningful, hyper useful.  Instead, it's just made a brand’s role in my life more ubiquitous and more creepy.  Mobile ads were supposed to make my journey more connected to things of potential interest around me, and instead they’re just an annoyance on my screen between me and the content that I care about.  Now brands are flooding to messaging apps without a real sense of the conversation they want to have.

Many years ago, I worked with Google to help inspire the industry to think differently about digital marketing.  We had the naive idea that by improving what kinds of ads marketers created, we could improve the entire internet for everyone. We wanted to make every interaction count. We made Project Re:Brief, an experiment to re-imagine advertising, as a springboard in that direction. And while I recognize that ambition may take longer to materialize, I do believe there may still be hope for us yet.

And I see a potential path to get there. It starts with a simple question: What value or meaning are we bringing to the world? If an object, be it an ad, a piece of web copy, an app, a how-to video doesn’t have a reason for being, then maybe it shouldn’t exist. If we create things for the world, we have the opportunity, and I’d argue the responsibility, to ensure they’re engineered with intention.

This is no radical idea, Anthony Ulwick, innovation guru, has long been a proponent of purpose-led product design. His notion of outcome-driven innovation guides much of our product strategy at Y Media Labs.  And I’d argue the reason behind the most remarkable digital experiences—those that know exactly what they’re on this planet to do—is that their creators imbued them with that purpose. Think of Amazon Prime ’s 2-day delivery, Nike+ Fuel Band, Delta’s mobile app, Tinder’s swipe, Yelp’s rating system, all vast improvements to a customer’s journey, not moments of disruption along the way.

You see, marketing folks could learn a thing or two from product people in this regard.  We let the shiny stars of innovative technology or channel strategy steer our course. Which is why we lose sight of the north star.  Our work should solve real problems, honing in on and delivering value in the space of unmet needs, or as Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen puts it, focusing on a product’s “job-to-done.”  Consumers reward those brands that do this very well.

A great example is The Home Depot (full disclosure: they’re a client).  They’ve earned a reputation as a leader in omnichannel retail, not by going after headlines in Techcrunch or playing first-follower to their competitors’ channel strategy.  They pay deep attention to their customers, and they are customer-outcome obsessed.  That’s how they knew they wanted to solve a major pain point: when you’re in a store, it’s hard to find stuff, like those 1.5 inch finishing nails.  So they invested their time and energy in perfecting assistive search, and wayfinding in-store to get customers the right aisle, bin and inventory count straight from their mobile phone.  It’s not the sexiest of innovations, but it’s one of the most powerful ways they’ve found to serve their customer experience.  And it’s driving significant impact by dramatically increasing their mobile-assisted sales.

Home Depot wasn’t thinking about fun new toys for their customer, or getting them to play games; instead, they were thinking about their customer’s needs.  Eliminating digital clutter is all about restraint and discipline. It requires sacrifice.  A great person in advertising once said, “a principle is only a principle if it costs you something.” The moment you can’t justify a feature, a call to action, a pixel, a new cool shiny toy (no matter how next gen) as playing a valuable role in a person’s life, is the moment you need to say no.

The long and the short of it: our work as brand builders - the big as well as the small, needs to have a clearly defined purpose. It needs to know what job it’s supposed to do, and it should strive to do it flawlessly. And that job is not one that serves a business or marketing objective, but a very human customer objective.  By virtue of that alone, it will serve the business.  A famous Apple onboarding message put it best, “There’s work, and then there’s life’s work.”  Why settle for anything less? Why put more out into the world, when we can put better.