From commodity to lever for growth: The future of media

A year on from Marc Pritchard’s infamous speech, and with brands from Shell to Mars to HSBC reviewing their media, companies are finally realising that getting media right is critical to business growth.


It is only January and 2018 is already shaping up to be another big year for media. In the past week alone Asda, Shell and HSBC have put their media up for pitch, while Procter & Gamble has said it is reviewing its relationship with agencies. And at the start of the year Mars put its $1.4bn media account up for review.

Conservative estimates suggest there is at least $10bn in media up for grabs at the moment, but what has prompted the widespread re-evaluation of what brands want from media?

Issues around media have been making their way up the marketing agenda for a number of years. The likes of Unilever’s Keith Weed and marketers from Johnson & Johnson and Direct Line Group have been vocal about the challenges of viewability, transparency and measurement.

And across the industry, the issue of media governance has been core to what the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and local bodies such as ISBA in the UK have been talking to their members about.

However there have arguably been four major incidents over the past 18 months that have thrust media to the top of the marketing agenda.

READ MORE: Keith Weed – We need comparable metrics in a digital world

The first was the Association of National Advertisers’ 2016 media transparency report, which shone a light on the murky world of the digital supply chain and media contracts. Then, a year ago today, P&G’s Marc Pritchard stood up and in front of a stunned audience at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s annual leadership conference in Florida laid out all the problems in the media supply chain and what he wanted to see fixed.

Then came the YouTube brand safety scandal, sparking mounting concerns over the type of content ads were appearing next to across the internet. A series of measurement errors by Facebook have done little to allay marketers’ concerns that they may have rushed into digital without taking enough time to think about whether it really worked.

For Sam Taylor, head of commercial marketing at Direct Line, Pritchard’s speech made a big impact because it allowed marketers to admit they had got things wrong for the first time.

“While transparency has been on the radar for some time…Marc Pritchard’s speech made transparency the topic du jour in many boardrooms and, therefore, unavoidable for marketing directors,” he says.

“The speech and the subsequent issues of brand safety injected a sense of urgency among brands, their agencies and industry bodies. The stakes were much higher now for brands and therefore watching from the side lines was no longer an option.”

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – P&G’s Marc Pritchard has made the biggest marketing speech for 20 years

David Wheldon, CMO at RBS and president of the WFA, sees the major problem as being marketers rushing headlong into digital. That was in part caused by shareholders and executive boards that wanted to be seen as innovative encouraging the move to digital.

Credit Suisse’s managing director of consumer staples Alan Erskine, speaking at the Advertising Association’s Lead conference on Thursday (29 January), says digital as a percentage of ad sales used to be a key performance indicator for shareholders. But the issues with transparency and brand safety have now made them concerned that any brand spending too much on digital hasn’t done its due diligence.

Wheldon says: “A lot of marketers fell in love with the digital promise, piled everything into it without actually having robust enough data and robust enough test and learn programmes. They then had to deal with the embarrassment of going to the board and them saying ‘I thought you said all this stuff was good, how come you’re now telling us to be worried about it?’”

A shifting media landscape

Pritchard and brand safety might have given marketers the confidence to speak up, but action is what has been required and the spate of media reviews point to a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

The WFA surveyed 35 global brands with spend above $30bn to find out how their approach to media has changed over the past year. On brand safety, it found that 60% are reviewing the procedures and tools they use, compared to just 11% a year prior. Some 54% have started working with third parties to monitor where their ads are appearing, compared to 20% a year before, while 54% have stopped advertising on ad networks where they felt there was unnecessary risk.

The stakes are much higher now for brands and therefore watching from the side lines is no longer an option.

Sam Taylor, Direct Line

On media transparency, the biggest area of change has been contracts, with 52% now including media and financial right clauses, up from just a third a year ago, and just under 40% adding data ownership clauses. Some 40% have increased training and education, not just by hiring in new people but by upskilling staff as well.

“All of that has happened in the past 12 months,” explains Rob Dreblow, head of marketing services at the WFA. “None of these issues are mutually exclusive, whether it’s transparency, brand safety, viewability or ad fraud.

“Transparency has been the number one issue for lots of members, but what we have seen is brand safety escalating fast up the agenda. [Some] 15% of our members feel transparency is de-escalating – well-informed clients are being smarter with their contracts and their relationships are making headway.”

Direct Line, for example, was one of the first brands to partner with third-party brand safety verification platform OpenSlate in the UK. “The technology allows us to add multiple layers of protection to campaigns to ensure it is being shown to the right people at the right time. From the size or format of the ad to the place it’s being displayed, we have the ability to control and optimise our ads in real time,” explains Taylor.

The figures point to many brands spending time listening, digesting the news and considering their position. Only then have they felt confident to make, at first, internal changes such as the implementation of renegotiated agency contracts and recalibration of KPIs.

“The narrative internally in lots of businesses is the shift from media as a commodity that you buy at the lowest cost, to media as a lever for growth that drives a business outcome. Media where brands consider the value not just the price, and that takes a bit of time to work through the system,” says ID Comms’ chief strategy officer Tom Denford.

Changes across the industry

It hasn’t just been marketers who have had to adapt. Google and Facebook have been called upon to improve transparency, allow verification and boost brand safety on their platforms. For the most part, they have listened, particularly at Google on brand safety and Facebook on fake news.

Google says it accepts digital advertising needs to change and highlights improvements in areas such as third-party viewability verification and ad fraud via the introduction of Ads.txt. It also points to cross-industry attempts to clean up the system through ISBA’s contract work, the Coalition for Better Ads and the IAB Gold Standard initiative.

Michael Todd, head of advertising industry relations EMEA at Google, says: “Digital has never suffered from a lack of willingness to change. On the contrary, this is the part of the industry most used to disruption. However, digital advertising is a disparate mix of companies, with very different business models and ad experiences. Historically, this has slowed the pace of standard creation.

“Over the past year, the industry has responded. Let’s be clear – we’re not done, but we are now directly addressing the biggest concerns of marketers and I’m confident that we’ll continue the conversation about the power of digital in the hands of the UK’s world leading creative minds and storytellers.”

A lot of marketers fell in love with the digital promise, piled everything into it without actually having robust enough data or test and learn programmes. They then had to deal with the embarrassment.

David Wheldon, RBS

However, there is more to be done. The WFA says it is still looking for more progress on third-party verification and transparency around brand safety, with third-party measurement and validation also an issue at Facebook.

Wheldon says: “Google has made some real strides to fix some of the problems they had, although there are still some issues that need addressing. Facebook has not made as many strides, dependent on which market you talk to.

“These global organisations need to be held to account a little more globally and [the WFA] needs to look at how it can do that. The frustrating truth is there has not been enough progress on brand safety or viable metrics. Constructive dialogue is good but we need to hurry up and fix things as we look forward into a world of GDPR and concerns around data privacy.”

In the long run, if they don’t fix these issues it will begin to hurt their businesses. Recent headlines around fake news have dented trust in social media – Edelman’s annual trust barometer finds less than a quarter of people trust social media, with the decline caused by concerns they are not doing enough to stop illegal behaviour or extremist content. And there are growing calls from politicians for more regulation if the platforms can’t sort the issues themselves.

“Losing trust is a precursor to losing money. It will hurt them if they don’t fix this,” says Wheldon. “Has it dented their profits? Not yet, but it has dented their reputations somewhat.”

Agencies have also had to change and marketers by and large are pleased that their media partners have stepped up the plate. GroupM says it is having “deeper and more discursive” conversations with clients looking to maximise reach but while reaching the right consumers at the right time on the right platform.

“At GroupM we believe in serving the right ad in the right context and this focuses our attention on viewability, brand safety and ad fraud,” says David Bryan, group operations director at GroupM UK.

“However, the industry as a whole needs to work in rebuilding trust on both sides, working collectively to address the wider marketing concerns seen in digital.”

READ MORE: Marketers must take responsibility for media buying and fix the ‘disconnect’ with agencies

Wheldon, who works with Zenith in his role at RBS, says the media agency has been “fantastic” at dealing with the challenges he has put in front of them and the tough questions he has asked, although he questions if the same can be said about all agencies.

The future for media

The influx of reviews would suggest not everyone is, or at least that brands want to see what else is out there. But ID Comms’ Denford suggests it also points to a bigger trend in media – that as scale becomes less of a competitive advantage due to the rise of auction-based and biddable media, brands are having to look elsewhere.

“To [FMCG] businesses, getting media right is so critical. They need to be eliminating waste, buying media that drives business outcomes and being smarter. There is growing recognition that that is the competitive advantage,” he explains.

“If most of 2017 was taken up with marketers figuring out their position, now it is about what is the three- to five-year strategy for media. 2018 is the beginning of that implementation.”

The narrative internally in lots of businesses is the shift from media as a commodity that you buy at the lowest cost, to media as a lever for growth that drives a business outcome.

Tom Denford, ID Comms

Exactly what that looks like will depend on the brand. For Wheldon at RBS, the key issue is around data and trust, particularly with GDPR coming in. He believes that will have a real impact on how marketers reach consumers, as well as what Google and Facebook can do with their audience’s information.

Direct Line’s Taylor also believes data will be important as the market moves to mass one-to-one targeting. “The challenge is about taking everything we have learned across programmatic display and beginning to apply that to other media channels to deliver targeted messaging at scale.”



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