ISBA will ‘up its game’ in 2017, says new director general

Having taken up the role of director general at ISBA at the beginning of 2017, Phil Smith outlines his key priorities and explains why the organisation will be moving away from its defensive position.

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ISBA will be “upping its game” in 2017, according to new director general Phil Smith. Under his leadership the ‘voice of British advertisers’ plans to move from a “defensive” position of protecting advertisers’ interests in the media owner and agency environment to addressing the issues brand builders face in the digital world.

Marketing Week speaks to Smith, who succeeds Mike Hughes who stepped down after 10 years at the trade body, just two weeks into his tenure.

Smith says ISBA has traditionally been a “bulwark for advertisers seeking to protect their interests up against the world of media owners and in the agency environment”. That, he says, is a world that “long gone”, as digital advertising spend continues to grow.

He believes the industry should be firmly focused on the future in order to create a healthy and vibrant advertising industry.

To get there, “it’s not just dealing with the things [ISBA is] already very good at”, such as the challenges around digital, but “stepping up” and seeing how the trade body can “be a catalyst for positive change”, says Smith.

This is to address the widening disconnect between consumers and the advertisers, which is a “real villain” for marketers.

He says: “[ISBA has] been perceived as being combative and in a defensive posture. That might have been fine 10 or 15 years’ ago [but] now we are dealing with a lot of people who are legitimately trying to find ways of making money and serving their shareholders.”

The danger is that various parties in the industry – the advertiser, agency, ad tech supplier or publisher – start to “cast each other as villains” rather than focus on “the real villain”, which is the “gulf that is growing between customer and advertiser”.

Smith says: “A lot of what I see as the cycle of mistrust in the industry has grown out of taking those traditional postures rather than stepping above it and saying, how do we create an alignment of interest that best serves the industry as a whole?”

READ MORE: The big debate – Should clients pay agencies to pitch?

But there are no concrete plans for how ISBA, which has 450 members, aims to achieve these goals or what it will look like in practise. The industry will have to wait until the trade body’s conference in March to find out, according to Smith.

What he does say is that ISBA needs to find places that bring senior advertisers together and to be able to simplify issues for them using its “deep knowledge”.

He says: “Some of the things we deal with, [such as] transparency, viewability and ad fraud, are very technical and we have got more knowledge on this floor than maybe anywhere around the world – from an advertiser’s perspective.”

A unique view

Smith also brings his own wealth of knowledge from a varied career having held the role of marketing director at Kraft and commercial and operations director of Camelot. He has been linked with ISBA for a number of years; he sat on ISBA’s executive committee while at Kraft and took over as chair during his time at Camelot.

Prior to this he held marketing and general management positions on the boards of Kwiksave, Somerfield and Musgrave and was involved in a “succession of dotcom startups” that were “quite successful”. He says he’s had a “real mongrel career” but that it allows him to have some “unique perspectives”.

It’s his experience at early-stage marketing technology businesses that will be useful for ISBA and its members when it comes to keeping up with technological change. Digital media challenges are an area that ISBA should be offering the most support as it’s an area that creates “the most disjointedness between the customer and advertiser”.

He believes people are over-investing in digital because “they know they can’t afford to be left behind” but are not getting a good return on investment for that spend, and have “very little awareness” of where that money is going and what it is funding.

He uses the “very complicated supply chain that exists in programmatic advertising” as an example, citing the “various mouths to be fed from the advertiser’s pound through [to] the agency, trading desks, supply side platforms, demand side platforms and the data processing costs”, as well as issues with ad fraud and viewability.

READ MORE: What are the basic principles for a good agency relationship?

“There’s some real unpacking and light shining on what we are doing [needed] and there is making more sense of it in terms of what advertisers can do in a concrete sense,” he says.

Smith concludes by stating, “there is a lot of basic stuff that we need to get right and it’s of huge commercial interest”. He also admits that the plans for 2017 may sound a “little bit airy fairy at the moment” and that the trade body needs to “work through what [it] can uniquely do and where [it] can bring people together” but he believes it is in the best position to do so.

He adds: “We are advertiser-focused, we get inside the doors of our advertisers so we understand what is happening – not just superficially.”

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