Reverse-Engineering Creativity To Drive Brand Performance
Data-driven marketer with $50m optimized and 8,000 experiments run — Mike Taylor — shares a powerful new framework for creative strategy. Fusing principles from evolutionary biology to marketing science, forged by the experience of building a 50 person agency, “Marketing Memetics” will help you identify what creative is likely to win, even before you test it. Learn to break campaigns down to their component parts, or ‘memes’, and remix what works to drive growth.
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Nothing is Original
Despite advancements in technology, our brains still work the same as they did back in the Stone Age. With a finite number of ways to hold our attention, everything we 'create' is a combination of what came before.
Keep a Swipefile
Most marketers try what worked for them before, or what they heard worked elsewhere. They either get lucky, or they get it wrong. You can improve your odds by building a collection of tested and proven ideas.
Every creative work can be broken down into its component parts, or 'memes'. If you do this enough, you’ll start to notice patterns: tactics that work again and again, across multiple campaigns.
Nothing New Under The Sun
Nothing is original
How to use memetics
Meme Cycle Time
Technology spreading memes
When memes fail us
Protect against memes
In Defence of Marketing
The value of memes
Memes causing conflict
Memetics as a science
Nurture is Nature
How memes evolved
Memes In The Machine
The future of memetics
Why read this now?
Maybe you're like me and started off in performance marketing because you were good with data and technical stuff, and now find yourself pulled into uncomfortable conversations about brand and creative. With every algorithm update and platform change you're losing more and more control over optimization, and are increasingly realizing that soon creative testing will be the only growth lever left. You’re also senior now, and need to be more ‘strategic’ to operate at the highest levels.
You're not the 'Don Draper' type and don't think relying on your gut to make important brand and creative decisions is a good strategy. You know there must be a better way: if you can just reverse-engineer what makes the best creative perform, then you'll have a framework to follow to get reliable, consistent results and an unfair advantage over the competition.
If you've ever been in one of these situations, you're likely to get a lot out of this book:
- Feeling like a fraud when you’re making creative or branding suggestions
- Unsure of how to tell if an ad is ‘good’ before testing it, so you struggle to prioritize
- Tired of relying on a clueless ‘brand marketer’, designer or copywriter to give you ideas to test
- Constantly testing but never feel like you're really learning anything or getting big outcomes
- Seeing a high volume of failed experiments and nothing is really working for you
- You're terrible at brainstorming creative ideas, but you can follow a framework or remix a few ideas
Most marketers know why creative testing is important, and they usually pick up enough statistics to know how to test, but they struggle in prioritizing what to test, and get mixed results with fewer learnings than they'd hoped. This book fixes that problem by providing a framework I've found useful for systematically testing and learning what works, with less time and money wasted. What’s more, it sets you up nicely to take advantage of new AI tools that promise to radically decrease the cost of producing creative. When you can create anything for next to nothing with AI, the new bottleneck becomes deciding what to create.
Who is this for?
This book is for marketers looking to make their creative performance more reliable with a repeatable and scalable process. If you are constantly testing different message and design combinations in order to rapidly improve performance (or you want to be), the lessons from this book can help you approach this process in a more structured way, so that you maximize your chances of success, and decrease the cost of testing variations that were doomed to fail.
Every marketing channel requires good creative for performance, from advertising to email, and content. No matter what you're doing in marketing, part of your job is going to be choosing what designs and images or videos go with what messaging, text and adcopy. It's always going to be helpful to understand why some combinations get outsized results, and what's different versus the majority of combinations that fail miserably. If you're in charge of any of the following areas in a marketing role, this book will make you feel confident defending your strategic and tactical decisions on what creative / content to test:
- Creative Testing
- Brand Strategy
- Conversion Optimization
- Social Media / Virality
- SEO & Content
These are the dark arts practiced by top VPs, CMOs and Entrepreneurs that got them to where they are today. They don't always call it 'Memetics' – that's just me adding some structure to the topic by borrowing principles from evolutionary biology – but every single successful marketer I've studied has followed a similar process and work to the same principles. This rarely taught outside of the secret playbooks of high-performing growth marketing teams, so to learn this you either have to do thousands of tests yourself, or be lucky enough to work with someone who has.
Who is this NOT for?
Many of the traditional marketers or creative types I've talked to really hate the concept of this book. They aren't comfortable with data, and rarely do creative testing. One Head of Performance for a big agency told me "my clients wouldn't need this: they never run more than one variation of an ad per year"! These marketers believe in the power of the 'big idea', and care more about whether their campaign wins an award at Cannes than whether it performs for the business that hired them. They practice marketing like pre-historic shamans practiced medicine. They hide behind the myth of 'long term' brand value, always promising the results of their campaign will hit next year or next quarter, when unsurprisingly they'll already be onto their next job.
These old-school marketers think all creative is unique, that only humans can be creative, and that the process can't be reverse-engineered. They believe customers really care about their marketing strategy, and that subjecting themselves to a few focus groups here and there is enough to know what people want. Respectfully, they're wrong. They won't read this book, but if they did, they'd find that almost nothing we create is original, that everything that performs has appeared in many forms before, and that these patterns can be learned and used to ensure greater success. They'd see that customers allocate very little brainpower to deciding what to buy, they don't care about your brand, and they rarely know what they want until they see it. Only through testing can you discover this, and if you never do any testing, your learning rate will be zero: you'll always be in the dark.
About the Topics
About the Author
I’m a data-driven marketer and former agency owner, with $50m spent, and over 8,000 experiments run. I’ve had this idea stuck in my head for 6 years, but have always been too busy to share. I owe a large part of my success in growing Ladder to 50 people to thinking about marketing memetically – those familiar will remember the Playbook, 800 proven growth tactics that formed the core of our service offering. In writing this book I hope to pass on the best of what I learned: replicate my most successful memes, so to speak.
After reading “The Selfish Gene” by Dawkins I was blown away. Here was a book that came out in 1976, and coined the term ‘meme’, but is still largely unread by the marketing community. Once I saw how powerful the ideas behind evolutionary biology could be when applied to marketing, I started to see it everywhere. Learning to reverse-engineer the memes behind successful campaigns, became my single most important skill. It led me to work with an impressive roster of brands, and get mouth-watering results in difficult competitive situations. Now you get to benefit from it too.
What is Memetics?
Memetics is a concept from evolutionary biology that deals with the transmission of culture from person to person. It’s the idea that ideas themselves can evolve as they spread, just like genes do in our cells. Applied to marketing it can help you identify what makes high-performance brands and campaigns 'tick', so you can more reliably reproduce the results. You can learn to break campaigns down into their component parts – called 'Memes' as per the original definition of the word – allowing you to identify what elements are contributing to growth.
Where is Memetics used?
The application to marketing is obvious, but memetic principles have also been applied more widely, for example in the Russia-Ukraine war, the GameStop meme stock rally, and to elect Donald Trump in 2016, all of which I touch on. I also show how Memetics has been used to 'vaccinate' people against disinformation, neutralize nasty rumours, and break up adversarial groups. Wherever you need to predict what people want, in order to effect change in their behavior, you'll find Memetics useful. Whether you use it for good or evil is your responsibility.
Where did you get this idea?
I first got interested in this topic after watching “Everything is a Remix”, which inspired my Medium post “Nothing new under the sun” in February 2016. I realized the power of the idea 2 years later, after reading The Selfish Gene by Dawkins in March 2018. Over the next 3 and a half years, I built up 75 pages of notes on the topic. Reading “How Netflix Reverse-Engineered Hollywood” showed me how to map memes, “Perspective is everything” taught me their value and “Mobile ad creative: how to produce and deploy advertising creative at scale” gave me a framework for testing them. When I finally wrote about it again in November 2021, it quickly became the most popular post on my site. So I committed to writing the book.
What are your qualifications?
I’m no scientist or academic, just a motivated practitioner. I graduated with an MSc in Economics before my first marketing job in 2010 at Efficient Frontier (acquired by Adobe). I co-founded an agency called Ladder in 2014, and grew it to 50 people before leaving in 2020. I also taught marketing at General Assembly, Startup Institute, and LinkedIn Learning, where 250,000+ people have taken my courses. Recently I’ve been consulting and building new products (vexpower.com).
When is the book coming out?
I have been writing at least 4 x 250 word essays per week since the first week in January 2022, which planned to give me 52,000 words by the end of the year. I ended up writing 85,000! I pulled everything together into a coherent structure and plan to self-publish when it’s ready. My essays form the core of the final book, combined with additional unpublished content and additional language to bring it together.
You can read what I have written so far here: