“We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” – John M. Culkin

I love that quote. In just nine words it explains nearly perfectly how the world works. We build tools and technology and, in turn, they change the way we see and interact with the world. Applying this to software, the choices made around language and design patterns has profound effects on how the tools are viewed and used.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the world of marketing project management. This was spurred both by the work we’re doing with Percolate as well as a groundswell of recent interest in the category. Just a few months ago ChiefMarTech.com published their most recent industry landscape. Right after I located Percolate, my eyes moved to the lower-left corner where I was curious to see who was included in the “Projects & Workflow” category. Marketing workflow, of course, is at the core of what we do and when I looked at that bucket I was a bit surprised to see a category full of generic project management software. Generic, in this case, is not a value statement — just a way to describe an application that was designed to manage any project, not specific to the projects of marketing departments.

I’m not surprised, though. This, after all, is how things start. Just as Marshall McLuhan explained that we first fill a new medium with the content of the old, as new needs develop in the enterprise, we start by using existing tools to solve them. As needs develop and become more complex, however, we see the same pattern happen over and over again: generic tools make way for ones that are tailor-built for the problem at hand.

The reason for this, though, isn’t quite so simple and I believe it brings us back to the quote at the top. Although you can make an argument that all campaigns are projects, and therefore project management is a perfectly fine way to manage your marketing, the opposite isn’t also true (that is: not all projects are campaigns). The distinction starts with the word itself: A campaign means something specific to marketers.

Projects are essentially a series of tasks, each of which boil down to four core components:

  • The to-do
  • The assignee
  • The assigner
  • The due date

And in fact, that’s about all the information that most project management software will show you.

A (fully thought-out) marketing campaign, on the other hand, involves not just many potential stakeholders — like partners, internal and external owners, and the end customer — it also must take into account:

  • Channels
  • Brand identity and message
  • Strategy
  • Calls to action
  • Budgets (both for production expenses and for promotion)
  • Timing
  • Location
  • Localization needs
  • Formats

…and more to be successful. This is information that would be housed in brand guidelines or a campaign brief. But in most project management software, this all has to be manually added and (inevitably) updated. Just the fact that there is no central understanding that all these campaigns must live within the overarching rules of the brand is a huge difference between campaigns and projects. Projects are disparate, discrete, and disconnected; campaigns build on each other, and more importantly, build on the brand and its strategy.


Ultimately, all enterprise software is a form of task management. It all exists to help employees move through a workflow, whether that’s related to building a customer base, hiring new workers, or filling out financial statements.

Salesforce, for instance, tracks and disseminates the information salespeople need to figure out how to move a deal down to close. The database houses information like prospective pricing, deal structure, past sales interactions, and quota gaps helps the seller know exactly what to do next — what content to best send to a prospect, how to prioritize opportunities, and who exactly to reach out to within an organization.

Now, all that information that can theoretically be shared in generic task management software; each opportunity could comprise a list of to-dos on a giant “Making Money” Trello board or Asana list. The reason no one actually does this is that the specific needs and vocabulary of the sales department make such a solution effectively untenable. A sales opportunity isn’t a “project” and a meeting isn’t a “task”. What’s more, the specifics of the discipline, like the idea of pipeline, require special kinds of metadata and reporting that simply break down in a generic project management tool.

While some of these things might seem small (we can get over calling a “sales opportunity” a “project”, I’m sure), each carries with it a cognitive cost that when put together can tip the balance of focus from high-value planned work to the low-value, unplanned stuff.

The point here is not that these project management tools aren’t useful. It’s just that as a marketing organization’s needs continue to grow in scale and complexity, we expect it to follow the pattern of every other major department in the enterprise: it moves to a system, tailor-built for its needs, operating with an understanding of its vocabulary.

After all, if it’s true that our tools shape us, it’s easy to see how generic software will lead to generic marketing.