5 marketing midlife crisis archetypes (and how to overcome them)

As the marketing industry evolves, many organizations are struggling to adapt – causing stress and worry. Here, Mark Holden, PHD’s WW CSO, and Andrew Mclean, Head of Strategy and Planning at PHD UK, explain how organizations typically fit one of five midlife crisis archetypes and what they can do to allay their anxieties.

Any industry that experiences dramatic change will typically require individuals within it to continually evolve their understanding.

Each of the three million people that work in advertising and marketing, globally, are spread out on a continuum based on their level of understanding of some of the more advanced developments happening within the industry – with people at the far end developing a deep understanding of neutral clean rooms, UID2.0 tokens, server-side integrations, and cross-wall garden MTAs.

For some of you, that last sentence will have caused a trace level of anxiety. A feeling that you are not aware of some of these areas. Or certainly not aware enough. This anxiety pervades our industry. Propelling people to have to evolve. But also causing, what could be seen as a marketing midlife crisis.

The primary conditions experienced as one works through a midlife crisis are dissatisfaction, distraction, delusion, disarray, and denial. And these conditions are not limited to individuals.  Organizations can also suffer. With real-world implications for how they manage their marketing.

To bring more clarity to this, PHD has developed the five marketing midlife crisis archetypes, based on the primary conditions. And, after a series of in-depth interviews with leading marketers across the world, explored how to move beyond to create greater organizational health.

Come and meet the five archetypes. And see if you can recognize your own organization.


The Five Midlife Crisis Archetypes (Agencies and Marketing Organizations)

 1. The King Henry VIII (‘Let’s change everything’)

Continual and abrupt changes to the agenda
(with implication for personnel and agencies)
Assessment of best-in-class
(and skill gaps -- to create a realistic point of comparison and perspective for a change)
DESIRED OUTCOME Everyone informed, making fewer but better decisions

King Henry VIII was restless and relentless, forcing change at any cost. Found in agencies and marketing organizations.  In the latter, he is a pitch-shaped corporate battering ram, constantly cleaving through agency holding groups, reworking its strategy, and trying to renegotiate terms.

Right now, we are seeing more and more companies act like this. According to marketing consultancy R3, the number of global reviews in 2020 increased by 24 percent compared to 2015; a symptom that constant searching is increasingly becoming an industry reality.

Rather than follow Henry’s destructive lead, however, marketers in these kinds of organizations would be better off defining clear strategies before engaging with external partners.

Then, they should only go to pitch if they realize that their existing agency partners lack the required commitment, clarity, and vision to help them succeed. Get this right, and they can work out how to define and acquire the right talent, and make themselves a priority client… without making heads roll.


2. The Madonna (‘What’s the new thing?’)


An over focus on the next big thing
(at the expense of what
drives the business, today)


Build measurement framework
(linking all marketing input to marketing output)

DESIRED OUTCOME Everyone focused
on activities that actually contribute

Madonna is a byword for constant reinvention. It’s how she’s survived in the transient world of pop music for more than 40 years. Similarly, ‘Madonna’ marketing organizations like to reinvent their marketing approaches to suit every, and any, pathway.

This agility sounds great in theory, but, unlike Madonna, in marketing, these changes are often done on a whim, and utterly miss the bullseye. From TV to mobile to blockchain to crypto and back to TV again, all in the blink of an eye.

Rather than react to every trend in the market, then, the best marketers are more selective.

To learn how to get that change right, first, you need to improve the linking of your marketing input to your marketing output: connecting media KPIs to marketing KPIs to business KPIs in a causally linked analytical model. With the right models in place, you will floodlight your entire marketing machine and let your people stay focused on activities that contribute towards growth.


3. The Christopher Columbus (‘Where are we going?’)


Little/no understanding of where the business is heading
(and the role for marketing)


Create long-term vision 
(with a roadmap and how marketing contributes to this)

DESIRED OUTCOME Everyone is clear on
the way forward

Some of history’s most exalted explorers have meticulously and successfully planned their journeys to new destinations, and others…not so much. Christopher Columbus, for example, famously set off to find a route to the Far East, but instead ended up in The Bahamas.

In marketing, these kinds of missteps typically manifest themselves in organizations that don’t have a clear map or sense of direction or are unsure of where they’re trying to end up.

To help point them in the right direction, though, marketers have something that explorers don’t: research. In our world, someone has likely already explored previously uncharted waters, and, where they have not (in activities such as zero-based budgeting), we have the equivalent of satellite photography, such as historical market mix modeling, to help us chart a way through.

This kind of planning is essential to success. Smart marketers are already using these tools to chart what they don’t understand and map how to get ahead. So, if your organization hasn’t started yet, you need to catch up. Start by understanding the laws of marketing science (e.g. how marketing investment leads to brand growth), and working these into your brand and campaign development.


4. The Donald (‘Listen to me’)

HOW TO SPOT IT Unsupported and unevidenced dogma on how marketing works

Investment in learning 
(into marketing sciencestarting with leaders first)


enlightened on how marketing works

‘Donald’ organizations claim to understand marketing science and might even quote some of the most salient insights liberally. Sadly, their knowledge is often only surface deep. Some are even resistant to learning new things because they might contradict previous company messages.

To remedy these problems, the best way of improving your knowledge in these essential areas is to make marketing science insights more relevant to the commercial realities of your business.

Start by relating the industry fundamentals to your specific business problems, and, soon, circumstances will work to your good intentions, making your insights more relevant and absorbable.


5. The Harry Houdini (‘It’s magic’)


Confounding with complexity and ‘magic solutions’
(that do not have claimed impact)


Institutionalize feedback
(so leaders can understand real-world impact and/or employees are skilled)

DESIRED OUTCOME Everyone heard
and on the same page

The famous escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini created awe and intrigue around every appearance. There is a parallel in marketing (and agencies) too. Many organizations use bewildering jargon and buzzwords or try to create marketing solutions to problems that were previously thought inescapable or intractable.

Presented as magic, these solutions often disappear almost as quickly as they arrive, leaving everyone confused and wondering what happens next. One of the motivational drivers of the ‘Harry Houdini’ archetype is to confound their audience. Hence this kind of organization tends to be drawn to complexity.

If this sounds familiar, then you need to pull back your magician’s curtain and reveal your secrets.

In other words, be human.


These five archetypes reflect some of the ways marketers are trying to overcome their midlife crises. There may well be others, or refinements, of the five.

But what is important is that we recognize how they are all different. Only by categorizing in this way, can we start to see the downstream impact. And chart a path through.

This is something we explore further in Shift | A Marketing Rethink.

Click here to buy your copy from PHD.

Click here to buy your copy from Amazon.co.uk.