Last year at the Festival of Marketing, Mark Ritson took on Byron Sharp to debate the influence of the latter’s book ‘How Brands Grow’. This year, Ritson was on stage with Facebook’s regional director of Northern Europe Steve Hatch as both looked to get answers to some of the most pressing questions in marketing at the moment.
Gone were the podiums and trying to get one over on each other. Instead there was a sofa and nine questions, six from Ritson and three from Hatch, that aimed to get to the crux of Facebook and its future, as well as issues such as targeting and marketing effectiveness.
Ritson went in reasonably hard. Is Facebook falling short of, and in some cases contradicting, its mission to “bring the world closer together”, he asked.
It was unlikely Hatch was going to agree, but he went one further than disagreeing, saying he believes Facebook is in fact “uniquely placed to deliver” on this mission because of its scale, although he admitted Facebook had at times been too slow to respond and take on new responsibilities.
However, he also pointed to aspects of what Facebook does that doesn’t make the headlines, from helping support new businesses to providing a space where people can come together to help under-represented people such as refugees.
“That’s a good answer,” retorted Ritson. “I’m not saying I believe you but it’s a good answer.”
Next, it was Hatch’s turn to ask Ritson a question. And having brought up examples of “the good” on Facebook, he wanted to know what “good work” Ritson had seen on the site.
Typically tongue-in-cheek, Ritson admitted to having a Facebook account but he doesn’t use it. His dad does, however, because “he has very little else to do” and it “stops him drinking whisky before 5pm”.
On a more serious note, while Ritson believes Facebook has a “very clear place in the marketing mix” he also suggested many brands are investing too much of their marketing budget on the platform. “But it’s certainly not a useless tool,” he added.
Facebook as a media company
One question each and no sign of Facebook and Ritson publicly falling out. And so Ritson turned his attention to Facebook’s insistence that it is not a media company despite having an editorial team, moving into original programming and there being data that shows one-in-four British people get their news from the site.
“Is it really possible to continue to claim you are not a media company or a publisher? Surely you are, and you should be held accountable in the same way other publishers are,” questioned Ritson.
Unsurprisingly, Hatch stuck to the company line. “We are clearly a tech company,” he stated, pointing to the fact that Facebook builds products and is driven by engineers, rather than creating content and being staffed by creators.
He then tried to tackle “what lies behind this question”, which is the insinuation that Facebook is somehow trying to shirk responsibility.
We are clearly a tech company.
Steve Hatch, Facebook
Using Ritson’s two examples, he disagreed that people get their news from Facebook, saying that they actually get their news “on Facebook”. And he said it’s Facebook’s responsibility to “manage that” so the things that are seen have the right intent, are credible and trustworthy.
“We don’t have editorial teams, we have rules about protection and safety. We invest hugely to make sure we’re spotting the bad stuff,” he said.
Yet Ritson suggested that Facebook having to make those decisions infers “some form of editorial”. And Hatch admitted there is a “blurring”.
They agreed to disagree.
Coming under scrutiny next was Facebook’s media strategy and in particular its recent investment in “legacy” media such as TV and outdoor. The question raised a round of chuckles and applause, but Hatch used Ritson’s own arguments as a comeback.
He called it “crazy” to separate traditional and digital media and said it was “disappointing” that Ritson would question a brand that was thinking about strategy and then execution.
“We have to recognise we are not the only tree in the park. We start our planning process from ‘where’s our audience and what do they look like’. It won’t come as a surprise that we make sure we max out against Facebook and Instagram first and foremost then we look incrementally at what we would want to do over and above.”
So began a little tete-a-tete. “Media neutrality, very well put,” said Ritson. “But you mentioned trees, what is the best tree?”
“After Facebook? Instagram. I can’t believe you of all people are asking this! It goes back to what is my strategy, what is my objective. We are pleased with our investment,” countered Hatch.
“That is the correct answer. It doesn’t stop it being tedious,” said Ritson.
The mysterious case of Pat Weaver
Ever heard of Pat Weaver? Hatch claimed he had “one of the most profound impacts on advertising” of any individual, but it was clear Ritson had no idea who he was.
Hatch’s reason for bringing him up was his role in media at CBS. He was active at the time of 30-minute soap operas, which was how brands advertised at the time. But he believed they should be scrapped in favour of 30-second ads between programmes.
Drawing an analogy between the shift from soap operas to TV spots, he asked if the move to mobile should be thought of in a similar way.
In short, no, said Ritson. While mobile is “taking an enormous amount of our time it is also a “much poorer technology to deliver advertising on”.
“Mobile works because you do it when you’re stuck on a bus, when you can’t get to a big screen TV. The advantages of a TV screen over a mobile screen are it’s bigger and two people can watch it at the same time. That doesn’t mean TV companies will be the ones on that TV screen,” he said.
Ritson suggested it could in fact be Facebook that is one of the players on the TV screen but said it would need to buy a TV company to get there because competitors such as Google and Amazon have “more TV ability”.
Hatch brought up Facebook Watch, but Ritson predicted it would be a “total and utter failure”.
“The TV companies are shitty at doing what Facebook do. Meanwhile, the great digital companies have to learn how to be TV players and they’re shit at it at the moment. You wouldn’t bet against Facebook but the arena is the TV set,” he said.
Facebook has just made a move into the home with Portal, a new video and voice service. But Ritson said “no one is going to buy that because nobody trusts you”. The question: do you acknowledge there is a trust problem and it is going to have a meaningful effect on your business?
Of course, said Hatch, agreeing with at least the first part of the question although not really answering the second. The big problem, he believes, is the “dissonance” between people’s experience of Facebook and the perception piece. “We have a big job to bridge that gap,” he admitted.
On marketing effectiveness
So far, Hatch had managed to bat back most of Ritson’s questions, so he moved onto something that required less defence and more opinion: micro-targeting. “Are we able to have 5,000 different psychographic targets with 12,000 different messages, or is it a bit of BS and the reality is a bit more disappointing but effective?”
Sitting on the fence on this one, Hatch said the answer is somewhere in the middle. But what he did do was point to a “profound change” that means, he suggested, marketers no longer have to pick between broad reach and targeting because machine learning means advertisers can first go wide and then let algorithms find the audience that is most interested.
And he said marketers should be careful not to say one platform is long-term and another short-term because many can do both. Ritson may have mumbled BS under his breath…
“I’ll bet you think that,” said Ritson. “We’ll see how that plays out.”
The advantages of a TV screen over a mobile screen are it’s bigger and two people can watch it at the same time.
Keeping with the effectiveness theme, Hatch moved the conversation onto viewability and attention, asking for Ritson’s point of view on the future and how best to measure it. The answer to that, it turns out, is Lumen. And the answer isn’t good for Facebook. In its measurements it found that news media garners the best attention, yet no one seems to know about this data because the news media “doesn’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing in promoting their advertising.”
Ritson saved his “biggest” question for last, using Pivotal data showing time spent with digital sites and the numbers of young people on the social network to suggest there is “inherent decay” in Facebook as a platform and brand and questioning if it can really avoid the fate of the likes of Bebo and MySpace before it.
Of course, said Hatch. As long as it doesn’t lose sight of its users. “I do not think anything is predestined but I do think if we focus on what it is that people are doing, how can we provide products and tools in order for them to be able to do that in a more creative and enjoyable way than they are, then that will treat us well in the long run,” he said.
All the questions asked, all that remains is to work out who came out on top. And the reality is Hatch capably handled what Ritson could throw at him and in some cases even got in some digs of his own.
Did Ritson land any sucker punches on Facebook? Possibly not. But what he did do is highlight the huge range of challenges facing Facebook. They are not insurmountable but smaller issues have led to the downfall of more successful brands. If Facebook wants to avoid that fate it will need to start taking more responsibility for its actions and listening harder to its users and advertisers. It’s not impossible but it will start having to bring some openness to its own actions, rather than just requiring it of its users.