There’s something rather thrilling about the combination of marketing and technology—this tantalizing notion that taking the brilliance of a Don Draper-like character and wiring his genius up to a database to address your particular needs before you, the consumer, ever express them.
But the gap between that fantasy and reality is wide. We’ve all had awkward experiences where marketers have overreached, irritated us, done more to get in our way than help us along. The digitization of our world has provided marketers with more power than they’ve ever had before, but they’re still learning how to use it. (Oddly enough, so are we.)
Phil Fernandez, the chief executive of Marketo (MKTO), a San Mateo, Calif. company that makes marketing automation software, recently stopped by Fortune‘s New York offices to talk to me about this generational transition. We had a wide-ranging conversation that’s far too long to include here, but at one point, Phil went on a tear that seemed to crystallize the shift.
Below are his words, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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To marketers, you’re a series of random digital interactions. But the marketer wants to take you somewhere. The mission of marketing is to take people on a journey to some outcome: buy more, tell your friends, whatever it might be. In this world where we’re swimming in all these technologies, that mission becomes: how do you get your voice heard and take somebody to some destination you care about? It’s fine to get someone to click on a banner ad. It might even be fine for that to turn into a shoe purchase at Zappos. But how do they get you to buy again? To tell your friends what a great experience it was? To become loyal there and not someplace else?
A huge amount of data are being spun off, which provides the ability for businesses to think about this stuff in ways that have never been possible before. “I know that half of my advertising money is wasted, I just don’t know which half”—that’s century-old nonsense now. That data give you the ability. But data are not enough. How do I as a marketer actually make sense of all that? How do I take you on a journey? I can’t go into a marketing meeting anymore where people aren’t talking about “journey maps” and “engaging experiences.” Marketers are starting to think about—rather than “How do I do a campaign?”—”How do I craft an arc and take each individual on some kind of a journey to buy more, advocate more, do whatever it is I care about in my business?” That’s the mission.
It’s a two-way dialogue. The data are typically coming from the customer doing something. Marketing used to be thought of as a campaign, a TV ad, an outdoor placement: “I’m going to talk to you.” But when you touch that device, you’re talking back—somehow, some way, consciously or unconsciously. What’s necessary in this world is to move from talking at people and trying to break through attention barriers to start to create dialogues and use data in ways that isn’t jarring.
The new craft becomes: How do I use these new technologies and weave them in to take someone somewhere? It’s fine to gather a whole bunch of data and know more and more and put people in little boxes. But then: What do I do with it?
Marketers can’t forget their old craft. They still have to choose the right color and create the right message. Marketing has this arc of creating desire, creating need, needing the new car every year. But then the marketer’s job becomes action—not just yelling at you over and over again until you say ‘uncle.’ How do I actually get into a dialogue with you and understand your needs? If it’s a car, how do I take you down a track that talks about fuel economy or space for a family or cost of ownership? Everybody has a different set of preferences. Now you have these data you can use to create journeys that actually speak to each person’s preferences. Done well, it’s way more cost-effective than mass advertising.
This item first appeared in the Nov. 6, 2014 edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology. Sign up here.