Contents and context are as crucial as targeting

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The recently developed relationship between targeting and creative poses a challenge to agency business models.

The big trends in digital advertising during the past 12 months have all been about improving targeting, and by extension all about data.

The tail end of last year was dominated by the adoption of retargeting by online retailers, and subsequently the topic of real-time bidding for display inventory has dominated both the media and the conference platforms. In the social space, understanding the strength of relationships is being explored as a targeting mechanism, both by ad networks like Radium One and by Google itself. We’ve also seen the growing use of the Facebook API, which allows brands to advertise to niche markets at scale.

This trend towards the primacy of data was already apparent last September when I interviewed agency heads for the 2010 NMA Top 100 Interactive Agencies guide. I asked them where the skills gaps were in the industry, and instead of bemoaning the lack of creativity, everybody talked about the need for people who understood strategy and data. Ian Pearman, managing director of AMV BBDO, was particularly candid, telling me that “we all need to bolster our data analytics capabilities very substantially and very quickly. It’s the area where advertising agencies pale, in particular next to traditional CRM agencies”.

This feels like the early claims made for internet advertising starting to come true; the idea that you would be able to deliver individually personalised advertising, with all the waste of traditional advertising removed. But as the importance of DM-style skills grows, what of the creative department? If we can get a relevant, timely message to the right customer, does that reduce the significance of creative?

Back in the spring, it seemed like the balance of power between aboveand below-the-line was shifting. Sky, one of the biggest spenders in real-time bidding, announced that it had auditioned its creative agencies to see if they were capable of what is known as dynamic creative optimisation. The fact that it was the creative agencies that were being asked to show their capabilities suggested to me that the data wranglers were starting to call the tune.

Since then, however, there has been something of a backlash. At the AOP Digital Publishing Summit last month, ITV’s MD of commercial and online Fru Hazlitt called on advertisers “not to fall prey to the idea that targeting trumps content and context”. “It’s not just the who, but the how and the where,” she said.

Hazlitt argued that the success of BBH’s ’rapping farmers’ ad for Yeo Valley is partly down to the fact that viewers are watching it while glued to The X Factor it is part of an overall experience. When I interviewed Mel Exon, founder and managing partner of BBH Labs for a feature on two-screening in the September issue of Marketing Week’s Digital Strategy, she agreed that, for FMCG brands, the need to create great advertising content had not gone away. But she also argued that social media means it’s now better to do one thing that really gets noticed, rather than being in front of people with a repeated message week after week.

This highlights the other great balancing act in digital advertising, that between bought and earned media. Targeting may be coming to dominate the conversation around bought media, at least in the digital space, but as Hazlitt says, content and context are also crucial. As another advertiser said to me, it’s not just getting the right message to the right person, it has to be at the right time and in the right context, even down to being in the right position on the page. At the same time, in the earned media space, the most savvy agencies and advertisers are trying to create “social artefacts”. These are elements of value, often content, intended to generate conversation and encourage sharing in social media. At a conference about Facebook marketing last month, it was no surprise to hear Daniel Heale of agency Digital Outlook talking about moving from ’likes’ to ’shares’ as a measurement of success for brands in the social space.

The irony of all this is that many of the great examples of social artefacts look like nothing so much as great commercials, such as Old Spice’s ’The man your man could smell like’. If there’s a difference, and there is, it’s less in the creative and more in the strategy, the understanding that the creative needs to have both great impact and be delivered in ways that allow and encourage people to comment on, share and parody it.

This new relationship between targeting and creative poses a challenge to agency business models, in that it demands many more creative executions. But it poses just as big a challenge to the creatives to come up with ideas that people want to share and talk about. A common quip a few years ago was that viral was the most Darwinian marketing channel. Social media has exposed the Darwinism at the heart of all advertising.

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