Moving towards maturity and making digital marketing redundant…

make digital redundant

Let’s be honest with ourselves here for a second.

There’s been hundreds of millions (possibly billions?) in marketing budget wasted on digital marketing because of over zealousness about its effectiveness and misunderstanding about how it works.

That’s not an over claim. Look at the scandalous view ability rates of digital display, the amount of money that brands spend each month on creating social ‘content’ that nobody ever gets to see, or the budget pumped into the latest ‘silver bullet’ (branded apps, messenger bots, ‘influencer’ ‘real time’ or whatever the latest buzzword is).

Agencies are happy to keep pumping this stuff out for cold hard cash, while many marketers are afraid to call them out on it for fear that they’ll be seen as ‘not getting it’.

Everyone in the industry has been guilty of hyping up digital, getting excited about tactics and and forgetting of the bigger strategic picture.

But by focusing on the revered efficiency of digital, we’ve lost sight of the real value of creative advertising.

We’ve lost sight of a lot of things.


As Ian Leslie said in his recent excellent piece about adland…

“The ad industry has been bamboozeled by the rise of digital, because most of it had no idea how advertising worked in the first place.”

Sure, the growth digital has completely changed the ad industry. It’s hugely exciting and has had a bigger impact on consumer behaviour than almost anything else in history.
But it’s has also led to many negative side effects.

  • It’s meant that we prioritise short term, easily measurable data instead of clarifying thinking and focusing on long term brand building.
  • It’s led to biased thinking from marketers eager to cosy up to tech cos and desperate to distance themselves from the supposedly moribund world of “traditional” media.
  • It’s led to many of us thinking like direct marketers, not brand marketers and ineffectually using ‘precision targeting’ to try to engage the perfect individual, while forgetting that wastage is actually a good thing.
  • And of course it’s led to fraudulent practises within an industry that can’t really afford to lose any more credibility.

We seem to have convinced ourselves that digital is this completely different approach and the learnings of old don’t apply.

But as contrarians like Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp and Bob Hoffman have been saying for years, digital is just another interesting tool to add to the marketer’s arsenal. It’s not a panacea for everything and those who tell you it is are either wilfully lying, utterly biased or just don’t know enough about how advertising really works.


But maybe this period of inflated expectations and unnecessary buzz has some positive outcomes. Maybe it’s just the early stages of us truly understanding digital.

As with any technology, it takes time for it to stabilise and for smart people who are impacted by it to really understand and stop get carried away with talk of ‘disruption’, ‘game changer’ and ‘the death of’ everything else.

As a marketer who has only known the digital age of advertising, it’s been all to easy for me to over prioritise it and to demonise everything else as old fashioned. That’s the same for many under 30s in adland. They refer to ‘traditional’ advertising in a pejorative sense, and hail any small new tactical evolvement of digital as a huge step.

Tom Goodwin sums this up well when he says that…

“It’s not unusual in technology leaps to think you’ve understood the power of the new when you haven’t. We thought the wonder of the mobile phone was making phone calls anywhere, when in fact it was a personal gateway to the Internet.”

We’re only beginning to get to grips with the best way to use digital now, and this learning curve will continue for a long time yet.

But things seem to be getting better. And even the past few months, the signs are that our approach to digital seems to be maturing.


Firstly, we’re starting to see a more sophisticated approach to digital that’s more in line with the way we believe advertising works, and less inclined towards believing that it requires a completely new approach.

Let’s focus on FB for a minute.

P&G’s recent announcement about its spend on Facebook advertising is a good example. In line with Byron Sharp’s theories of brand growth, one of the world’s largest spenders is actually moving away from uber targeting and starting to remember the rules that emotional fame campaigns that reach lots of people and get talked about (building mental availability) are far more effective in the long term.

“The inference is they are switching to TV but what’s really happening is a shift to reach and frequency and away from highly targeted buying, but still on Facebook, which we’ve been doing on similar clients for the past two years.”

Ironically, this news could turn out to be a good thing for Facebook, as the digital brand building platform with the largest mass reach in the world.

BBDO’s excellent comms planning division also underline the shift in approach in their recent ‘About Face’ report.

In the past 5 years, brands have focused on building up Facebook ‘fans’ and pushing out organic content to them. But there’s two fallacies at play here.

Firstly, the likelehood is that these ‘fans’ are already existing heavy buyers and thus, this approach contradicts the fundamental marketing theory that for brands to grow, they must aim their marketing efforts at all buyers, as opposed to only loyal buyers.

And secondly, for most big brands their organic reach is less than 1%, meaning their carefully cultivated posts (likely created by an agency on a huge hourly rate), aren’t being seen by 99% of the people who ‘like’ their page, never mind anyone outside of that already qualified base.

Therefore, smarter brands are starting to realise that focusing on reaching as many people as possible is a much more lucrative and viable tactic than micro targeting.

But it’s not just brands that are seeing the light. Ironically, Facebook also supports this return to the same logic that we use for ‘traditional’ advertising, emphasising in its literature to advertisers that ‘reach’ is a much more effective KPI than precision targeting or optimising for engagement.

“By optimizing towards reach rather than towards action-based objectives, advertisers can generate a much larger impact for their brand, more cost-efficiently.”

The excellent Jerry Daykin sums it up well:

“Behind those unintelligible digital headlines, ever changing platform specifications and powerful speeches about consumer engagement & conversation is a simple truth: digital marketing is most effective when it plays by traditional rules, but does so better than traditional media can. The real advantage of digital is often when it can help us broadly reach more consumers, not specifically target fewer.”


Another sign of digital maturity is its continuing integration with other channels. We’re seeing the light that the most effective way to use digital is in tandem, rather than it being expected to do everything alone.

Consistent research has shown that multi-channel campaigns actually make the same budget work harder and more efficiently and advertising across platforms delivers a higher ROI, and that integrated campaigns build better brand associations and more brand equity. Binet and Field’s seminal research found that adding an online response element to a TV advert boosts the efficiency of TV by a factor of 4x.

Digital is strong alone, but better together.

Indeed, the best, most awarded campaigns at Cannes, in Warc awards and in IPA/ADFX tend to be those that use a variety of media to communicate their message, and the average number of channels used in awarded campaigns is increasing.

It’s clear to see that cross platform advertising builds brands in consumer brains better than a single platform. It leads to a multiplier effect. No individual media channel can become a silver bullet for a campaign, not least digital.

Make digital redundant

I’d like to finish with a proposal that I’ve stolen from elsewhere.

As an industry, let’s focus on making the term ‘digital’ redundant.

Let’s not see it as a separate thing. That’s outdated thinking.

Digital is like electricity, it’s everywhere, it’s the thing we build on top of.

Imagine if some new agency came to you with an ‘electricity strategy’.

Digital marketing is not a thing. Digital is a marketing channel, not a marketing strategy. And increasingly, everything is digital anyway.

It should be baked into every idea that we come up with, but it’s also not a replacement for any other tool.

This would mean the death of purely ‘digital’ or ‘social’ agencies too, which in my view would be a good thing for the industry, and lead to less biased thinking.

The call for talent in the future won’t be for ‘digital marketers’. It’ll be for well rounded marketers who understand how advertising really works, aren’t biased towards any one medium and can create an effective integrated plan. People who not only ‘get’ digital, but also don’t put it on an unnecessary pedestal as the silver bullet for everything.

As Jerry Daykin says, in this new age of maturity that we’re hopefully entering, It’s not so much about mastering a completely new art of digital marketing, as it is about mastering traditional marketing in an increasingly digital world.

So paradoxically, the best thing that marketers could do to push digital marketing forward, is to kill the term itself.

But enough of my rambling, there’s bound to be some holes in the thinking above, so what’s your take?





Further Reading

Irish publishers are mis-selling their native advertising offerings…


The Irish marketing scene has finally started to embrace ‘native’ advertising. And it’s about time too.

Working in one of Ireland’s largest creative agencies, it’s easy to spot a flow of time and money as brands move from traditional to digital, and from display to editorial & content.

From INM to The Journal, Maximum to Irish Time, every publisher now has some sort of native offering to support their other revenue sources.

Of course, whether this trend is a good or a bad thing for agencies is debatable, as more of our pie gets eaten by publishers, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

More pertinently, from a creative standpoint, the state of native in Ireland at the moment is poor. And that’s good for nobody. There’s plenty of badly written pieces, poorly shot video, lots of boring brand content wrapped up in editorial and really not much good stuff being put out.

If we mapped the native trend onto the Gartner Hype Cycle, it’d be midway between the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and the ‘trough of disillusionment’. But that can change.


From my perspective, having worked with some big publishers on ‘native’ projects, the issue at the moment is that publishers are fundamentally misunderstanding what they’re actually selling. 

Go to any rate card page for a publisher with a native offering, and you’ll see them crow about social reach, Facebook fans, unique users (one Irish publisher has 8 million unique users in Ireland, which is interesting maths…) and other large numbers.

But to focus on large numbers misses the point.

The core capability that publishers need to bring isn’t access to readership. It’s not about giving brands access to reach. Brands don’t want reach. They can get that much easier and cheaper by just creating content themselves and paying for social/video ads.

The thing that publishers are selling isn’t raw numbers. It’s the ability to deliver creative value in some way.

Currently, many publishers are being lazy. They’re just saying ‘here, we’ll take your content, write a 200 word article around it and put out a Facebook post for you to our audience if you pay us’. Of course, this results in poor ROI.
It’s short-termism, and will only come back to bite them in the long run.

Brands want publishers to offer the things that FB, Google and their creative agencies can’t do.


Shooting myself in the foot?

And native content studios inside publishers do have a USP – they’re often real journalists and can write, edit, shoot and create things that agencies or brands just can’t. That’s the way they can blow agencies out of the water. That’s the way to grow and sustain a native business.

The likes of Vice offer a production capability that is better than most production companies. NYT offers an understanding of multimedia and storytelling that no agency creative can possible compete with. In fact, the NYT’s ‘T Brand Studio’ head spoke about just this subject on a recent podcast.

Imagine asking an agency to create this.

Or this.

Or this.

They wouldn’t know where to start, and they wouldn’t have the capability or platform to do it.

Perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot here by giving out free advice! But I do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. (And of course, native is still just one small part of a wider marketing mix that does little in isolation.)


So my challenge to publishers would be to use your unique skills to do better, and to understand where the overlap between what brands want, and what you can uniquely provide lies. (If that means agencies lose business, then so be it!)

The question from publishers should be ‘What cool creative stuff can we do for you that you can’t get anywhere else?

What’s NBDB (Never Been Done Before)?’

Talk about creative solutions first.

That’s the sweet spot.

Forget about selling ‘reach’, and focus on your competitive advantage.






Adblocking – Stop the blame game and let’s just make better fucking ads!

In 2015, faced with the unavoidable evidence that people’s tolerance for crap, spammy, slow loading digital ads had finally snapped, the IAB made a pretty brave announcement. The body that sets industry standards for online advertising admitted it had fucked up, big time.

“Tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience. We built advertising technology to optimise publishers’ yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty.”

Scott Cunningham, IAB

The adblocking phenomenon has for some reason come as a shock to the advertising and publishing industries. The overlap of better, more widely available adblocking tools and a rising awareness of the creepiness of personalised ads combined to create a perfect storm and it didn’t take long the digital display house of cards started to tumble.

Initially the IAB didn’t rest on its laurels.

Though it holds little real power to command advertisers to clean up the way they buy, create and place digital advertising, the global body outlined new ‘L.E.A.N.’ guidelines designed to improve user experience.

But their tunes has changed.


Less than a year later, the IAB released this statement, in which it outlined why ‘adblocking is wrong’.

As abetted by for-profit technology companies, ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple – an extortionist scheme that exploits consumer disaffection and risks distorting the economics of democratic capitalism. A primary culprit is unethical technology companies seeking to divert ad spending into their own pockets.

“IAB believes adblocking is wrong”

That, to me, is at best a partial attempt to deflect attention by blaming others.
In fairness, elsewhere in the statement there’s a nod to the need to change display advertising for the better. But that’s not the point.

Why the need to apportion blame elsewhere in the first place? Why not just concentrate on our own failings? Why the need to attack adblocking and claim that it’s “evil” and “exploitative”? That’s not going to help now.

At times, our lack of empathy towards people is astonishing. We clog up social news feeds with irrelevant and meaningless ‘content’, freak web browsers out with creepy re-targeted ads and push ourselves in front of browsers in increasingly annoying ways.

And then we blame the people who choose to block these ads and accuse them of stealing from us.

It’s like a a child saying “yeah, we’re bad, but those guys are worse!”.

It’s like trying to scold the horse after it’s already bolted, jumped the fence and run to the next town!


And it’s not just the IAB acting like an ostrich. The prevailing message from a section of publishers and advertisers over the last year has been about a ‘war against adblocking’.

Excuse my language, but that’s horseshit.

It’s real ‘head in the sand’ stuff.

This isn’t about a ‘war against ad blocking’. That’s the wrong way to think about it. And if we keep thinking of it that way then we’ll go on not understanding the problems that got us here.

For the IAB and the advertising industry, it’s irrelevant whether adblocking is wrong or not, we need to just accept that it exists and it’s a huge issue caused by us.

Why waste time carping about users and blaming others when you’ve more than enough on your own plate trying to save a business model that’s burning all around you?

For once, let’s not complain, but instead try to accept and improve the root cause of the problem – our frivolous approach to consumer’s attention.


The first step is acceptance.
At the moment, this industry reminds me of this unfortunate pup.

Because most of us haven’t accepted we have a problem.
Recent data released in the US would support this.

  • 85% of advertisers and 82% of operators “think the mobile ad experience is positive for end users”

… while:

  • 47% of consumers think “the mobile phone ad experience (for them) is positive”
  • 39% of consumers “think ads are irrelevant”
  • 36% blame “poor or irritating format”
  • 40% “believe the volume of ads served to them are a main reason for the negative experience”

Basically, we’re so disconnected from reality that we actually still believe that the majority of people want our crappy advertising served alongside their content.

It strikes me that the solution to this problem is not about attacking adblock companies or the consumers who choose to use them.

It’s not about asking “are we winning the war?“.

It’s about being progressive and asking “do we understand why people use #adblock and are we improving their experience?”

All isn’t lost. Two-thirds of ad block users are open to welcoming ads back into their lives.

Adland and the IAB should take their own advice. We fucked up. Let’s cure the disease instead of treating the symptoms.

Let’s just focus on making better fucking ads!

Of the many pithy David Ogilvy quotes that still ring true for adland today, one in particular isn’t being heeded.

Ogilvy 2

We need to remember that.