Don Draper Is Dead: Why Growth Hack Marketing is Advertising’s Last Hope

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 21:  Actor Jon Hamm on stage at The Paley Center For Media's PaleyFest 2014 Honoring "Mad Men" at Dolby Theatre on March 21, 2014 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Actor Jon Hamm on stage at The Paley Center For Media’s PaleyFest 2014 Honoring “Mad Men” at Dolby Theatre on March 21, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

We have a certain image of what great marketers should look like. David Ogilvy with his pipe, Don Draper with his whiskey, Alex Bogusky on the cover of Fast Company.

Of course, each of these embodied their own era in their own way. But look at the last crop of billion-dollar brands, which in the last half-decade rose from nothing to ubiquity: Facebook, Zappos, Airbnb, Square, Uber, Evernote, Spotify, Twitter, Dropbox.

And their junior, but high-velocity cousins: Udemy, Kickstarter, Warby Parker, Bonobos, StumbleUpon.

Who marketed them? Not Madison Avenue, that’s for sure. There’s not a traditional marketer between the lot of them. In fact, Facebook’s one stab at working with outside “professionals”—a television commercial done by Wieden & Kennedy—was an embarrassing waste of time and money.

So who was the marketing genius behind these massive success stories? Guys like Sean Ellis, Josh Elman, Chamath Palihapitiya, Noah Kagan and Aaron Ginn.

In other words, not Don Draper but a bunch of people you’ve never heard of.

As Andrew Chen, an adviser to many of the companies, put it, something has replaced the vaunted VP of marketing position. It’s called a “growth hacker,” a sort of marketing and engineering hybrid who develops growth engines—referral programs, stunts, API integrations and other deeply analytical and engineering-based campaigns.

Think Hotmail’s “PS I Love You” (perhaps the first example of growth hacking). Think Dropbox’s “Get Free Storage” referral program, which drives something like 40 percent of its user sign-ups. Think Mailbox’s massively viral 1.25 million person prelaunch waiting list. Think Airbnb’s early integration with Craigslist, which built the service on the back of another—for nothing.

The game has changed. Now, everyone is hiring a growth-hacking team.

Deep down, we already know that the traditional strategies are dead or dying. That’s why we laughed and shook our head when Myspace tried to relaunch with a $20 million television campaign. It’s just intuitively obvious to even average people that that is not how brands are built in the online era.

In some ways, no one laments this shift more than me. After all, at 25, I found myself the director of marketing at American Apparel, an international fashion retailer whose marketing is instantly recognizable by twenty-somethings all over the world. You think it’s going to be fashion shows, back-page glossies, parties and celebrity partnerships, but it turns out that’s a thing of the past.

I was the VP of marketing that Andrew Chen was talking about. You make it to the mountaintop and then find out that you clawed your way to the top of the wrong peak.

Are the foundations of the industry being disrupted the same way that the start-up world was? And is that disruption coming from the very start-ups they created? I think the answer is clearly “yes.”

However, I don’t feel too sorry for myself, because pretty much everyone in the marketing, publicity and advertising industry is in this position. Every tactic, every strategy, every model, to say nothing of the books, television shows and movies that glamorized it all, has to be reconsidered in light of the stunning success of these brands.

When a new business launches on a $14,000 Kickstarter raise, a $30,000 investment from Ycombinator or some other angel, they’re sure as hell not going to turn around and spend that money on a chief marketing officer. They’re definitely not going to retain some expensive PR firm for five figures per month.

Are the foundations of the industry being disrupted the same way that the start-up world was? And is that disruption coming from the very start-ups they created?

I think the answer is clearly “yes.”

And considering the fact that they are building marketing, referrals and social sharing into their products, will they ever need anything like the services provided by the old firms? Will they need the skills that took generations to refine and build? Or has this new, iterative approach made it mostly irrelevant?

Today, if you are starting out in the industry, I think it is far more likely that you’ll be doing marketing for a company trying to go from nothing to something (like a start-up or some small, lean operation) than you will snag a gig helping a Fortune 500 company grow 2 percent larger. It’s just the way the math works.

As the market sloughs off waste, the big traditional jobs go to the workplace veterans. What’s left are the new companies, and they need something drastically different. They need something big. And they don’t really care how to get users—just that they come and come fast. That is, there is no allegiance to what is supposed to be done. Forget commercials, forget billboard, forget even your standard online banners.

That whole playbook is irrelevant.

I’m not heralding some brave new world. Not everything is going to change—even Google did a Super Bowl ad eventually. But you also cannot dismiss the shocking trajectory and marketing behind the companies we’re talking about by saying they’re “just” tech companies, because they are more than that. They are brands. More importantly, in 2013, everyone is at least partially a tech company.

And this is the whole point. It took a group of geeks running tech companies—more in love with beautiful code than art projects or Times Square billboards—to see through the status quo and develop a new way. They had no patience for intangibles and gut instincts, so they developed an alternative.

Let’s face it. They beat us. So it’s time to join ‘em.

Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author and adviser to many brands and writers. His newest book, Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising, focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry.