Thomas Barta: If data were a drug, marketers would be the cartel bosses – not Facebook

Facebook’s current data woes point to a bigger challenge: marketers must stop delegating responsibility and take charge of marketing communication again.

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Communication could be marketer’s most powerful tool. But it’s complicated.

Facebook is plagued by questions about its data policies and how ads on its platforms have influenced voters (including in the US election and Brexit). YouTube ads appear next to hate speech. Millions of dollars get lost in agencies’ shady media deals. Many social media metrics remind me of La La Land (P&G cut millions of social advertising dollars without negative sales effect). TV ads appear when the wrong audience is watching.

The list of issues won’t fit this column. It’s perhaps no coincidence that many CEOs believe marketing communication is a mess.

Many marketers are asking themselves: who’s on the hook for all these marcom issues? The answer is you.

Marketing communication is complicated – granted. There are tonnes of media channels now. Consumers are changing habits all the time. Technology moves fast: pixels, AI, programmatic; you name them.

When it’s about complexity, many marketers choose the simple way out: delegating everything to agencies. Selecting the right media? The agency does it. Allocating the budget? The agency should tell us how. And when things go wrong? It’s the agency’s fault.

Don’t get me wrong, agencies are marketers’ lifelines. Many do amazing work. But no matter how many experts you use, you are still in charge.

In a world where you can’t do everything yourself, and where you delegate tasks, you must put checks and balances in place.

The current Facebook saga is a classic. When news broke that data analytics company Cambridge Analytica had acquired millions of Facebook users’ data, marketers – mostly behind closed doors – were angry. “That’s unacceptable,” they said. Many turned to their agencies to demand all sorts of guarantees that the scandal wouldn’t hit their brands.

READ MORE: Ritson – Marketers’ silence on Cambridge Analytica speaks volumes

If data were a drug, marketers would be the cartel bosses – not Facebook. It’s the marketers who choose the medium, agree the budget and approve the booking.

By the way, if you believe your work is complicated, you aren’t alone. Ask your doctor, your IT colleague, or your CEO – you’ll hardly find anyone who isn’t wrestling with a gazillion new tools and technologies.

Complexity is a fact of modern life. The leadership question is how to handle complexity. The answer has two parts: first, keeping full ownership, no matter how complex things become; second, constant quality control. In a world where you can’t do everything yourself, and where you delegate tasks, you must put checks and balances in place. It’s the only way to stay on top of things.

Marketers must urgently take charge again of brand communication, owning it in full and checking more. Here’s an example of how this could look. It’s not perfect, it’s not complete, but it may get you back on top of things:

Message ownership

Every marketer knows that message beats medium. The most sophisticated media plan won’t heal a broken message. A colleague of mine has recently proven how AI models can improve the success of a creative execution, but he says most marketers don’t bother with this level of detail. Yet, if your ad isn’t compelling, forget media planning; your cash will be wasted, no matter what.

Full ownership: As a marketer, you must own the customer insights, the actual message, top-quality agency briefs, the ad’s effectiveness, your research methodologies.

Delegation with quality-control: Your agencies will typically take up things like the ad creation, the research fieldwork, etc. How can you check the work’s quality? Because that’s your job too.

Media mix ownership

Finding the perfect media mix is complicated, but it’s a strategic competitive advantage. How much to spend, where, how? You have to get your hands dirty.

Full ownership: It’s for marketers to own the actual media mix and the factors behind it (the ratios, spend levels, audiences, etc). To get this right, you must also fully understand TV, radio, print, outdoor, Facebook and so on – their benefits and their downsides.

Let’s get back to Facebook as a case in point. The Cambridge Analytica case was, for the most part, perfectly legal. Facebook’s ‘friends permission’ function explicitly allowed developers access to profiles of users and their friends. That’s how an app, developed by Cambridge University’s Aleksandr Kogan and used by 270,000 people, produced data on millions of users.

There was no hack. Cambridge Analytica acquired that data from Kogan – according to Facebook, against its rules. Do other people ignore Facebook rules? I leave it to you to judge (hint: yes).

Facebook isn’t in any way special. It’s a media channel. Marketers who use it must be on top of its risks and benefits.

Delegation with quality-control: You’ll typically find yourself giving media mix analyses, media planning and media booking to external partners. But all of these really do need quality control. Take media agency contracts: how is your agency paying media owners, what are the commissions and kickbacks? That’s very (very) difficult to find out. But we are talking five-, six-, seven-figure budgets. Quality control is your job.

Placement ownership

Here’s an issue low down on marketers’ priority list: where is your ad actually being shown? Recently I saw a striking analysis: ad effectiveness could sometimes be doubled by choosing magazines or TV programmes with highest involvement for your important customers.

Won’t the media agency ensure perfect campaign fit? Let’s think. Media agencies often have bulk contracts with media owners. To hit agreed volumes, they need to shuffle a certain amount of business into a channel. Do they care about your objectives? Absolutely. Do they always act in your best interest? Again, it’s for you to judge.

Full ownership: You must know the effect of people’s involvement with TV programmes, magazines and other media on involvement with your commercials. It’s a detail with big implications.

Delegation with quality-control: Your agency will book the actual placement. Get the lists and at least spot-check that your communication appears where you get most bang for the buck.

Perhaps you find the level of ownership and checking I propose excessive, unrealistic, too much work. I disagree. Think about this: 77% of marketers are in charge of communication, versus 56% in charge of product, and 32% of pricing. If marketers don’t fully own their most important field – communication – what should they own?

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