The reinvention of media planning

Advertising is a glitzy, glamorous industry that thrives on the latest trends. Woe betide any agency that doesn’t have a point-of-view on diversity and inclusivity, climate change, identity politics and the ‘Age of Coronavirus’.

These subjects rightly inform the creative work that both reflects the world and helps shape it, as demonstrated by ITV’s brave advertising following Diversity’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent.

And while media agencies will want to flaunt their viewpoints on the hottest topics, they still have the more mundane task of reaching audiences efficiently and cost-effectively on multiple platforms and devices in a world where common currencies that informed media planning before no longer exist. In the absence of anything better, the industry has adopted impressions as its base currency, with disastrous results.

Data, not research, has become the de facto basis for planning, and media agencies can weave a compelling and relatively sexy story around their data assets (and the ones they’ve white-labelled), but not across linear and digital together and even across digital channels.

Robust, accurate cross-media measurement has been an open-wound for several years and no commercial entity has stepped forward to pioneer, innovate and provide a solution.

Some media agencies have built in-house systems that claim to do the job, but maybe it’s just too hard, too basic or doesn’t attract the right kind of headlines. And media trading is where the money is.

Now though, this just feels like a missed opportunity. In the absence of a commercial solution, advertisers have grabbed the steering wheel and are now driving the bus.

Last week saw the launch of the new framework for cross-media measurement developed by the advertiser trade associations. The WFA, representing all of them with strong backing from the ANA and ISBA, has ploughed its hard-pressed resources into developing an initial approach, founded on the fundamentals of Governance, Standards and Metrics, Privacy and Technical Infrastructure.

Collaboration with the other industry stakeholders has been initiated by the advertisers in the absence of other leadership.

The full version of the WFA framework is a dense, somewhat complex read running to 19 pages that requires plenty of caffeine. It provides strong evidence of just how intricate the proposed solutions will need to be, and it is honest in its messaging. This is just the start.

And while global standards can be applied, the solutions will always be local. ISBA is setting the pace with Project Origin and working across the industry to examine solutions to this Rubik’s Cube of a task.

So, where do the media agencies stand on this subject? It is high up the wish-list for the biggest advertisers and while the IPA is supportive, it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the agencies. No, it doesn’t carry heart-racing kudos but it is an opportunity for thought-leadership and even business development. Any agency that can help provide cross-media solutions will be talking the client language.

The opportunity is there for an agency or agency group to be as upfront and vocal on this subject as they are for more inwardly-facing subjects such as the diversity and inclusivity of their workforce. But this focus on the core job seems to be absent.

Paradoxically, there has been a lot more ‘hot topic’ talk recently about one subject that really is as old as the hills: attention. This has always been the point of advertising and always will be. Gaining people’s attention is the most basic principle and is like the exotic plumage on a male peacock’s tail, to borrow from Rory Sutherland.

Agency groups such as Dentsu Aegis are building propositions around the ‘Attention Economy’ and Professor Karen Nelson-Field has cornered the market through great, evidence-based work on the effectiveness of a focus on attention.

There is no doubt that gaining the public’s attention when it’s sliced so thinly is critical, but it’s not so simple. Not all attention is equal; in the pursuit of capturing and keeping people’s attention, new techniques that artificially create peaks can actually be both illusory and harmful. The Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ is eloquent in dramatizing the methods used by some digital platforms to maximise and monetise attention. It may not be new news, nor even perfect as a documentary, but it does highlight the dangers of using the advertising equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs.

Grabbing people’s attention isn’t so hard in a world where there is so much sensationalism and so little nuance. QANON is attracting the world’s most susceptible people with its bizarre content, which some people believe must be true because it’s been published, and is therefore ‘research’. In reality it’s mass-scale propaganda designed to appeal to the insatiable human interest in the most egregious aspects of life.

People are attracted to the lurid and eye-popping and today’s world provides a daily diet of such material on multiple channels, with social media content increasingly being used to supply the content for mainstream media, in a reverse of the old order.

Advertising works best in a symbiotic relationship with its environment and the mood of the audience.”

Advertisers need to be wary of riding on the spikes of this kind of attention. None of this would happen if it didn’t drive advertising dollars. It isn’t healthy for brands to effectively fund this kind of coverage in a vicious downward spiral, and it is highly unlikely that advertising around sensational content is likely to cut through when the editorial is so dominant.

‘Car crash’ media should be avoided as part of a strategy of effectiveness management, not just brand safety. It’s also a petri dish for fraud of many kinds.

Advertising works best in a symbiotic relationship with its environment and the mood of the audience. There is a reason why ads that reach people in a conducive mindset are proven to work better without having to try too hard.

While cross-media measurement and attention look on the surface to be only loosely related, there is a thematic connection. It is the core task of media planning to ensure that advertising works.

At one level this is basic exposure (human viewability) but most importantly it is to give the advertising the best possible chance of success. Managing exposure across platforms and devices should be a daily task for the planner using all the tools available to achieve these aims and compensating for the lack of common metrics and currencies through the application of experience and judgement.

Beyond exposure lies attention but seeking attention for attention’s sake should not be an aim and media planning and trading practices that essentially fund artificial attention ‘highs’ should be avoided at all costs.

So judicious cross-media planning should be priority number one and media agencies should do everything they can to innovate and invent with leading research and data techniques, just as they used to. They can and should support the advertiser associations and academic experts such as Karen Nelson-Field, but most of all they should structure their resources to provide media planning that prioritises multi-platform ad exposure and a responsible approach to attention.

After that, they can parade their plume feathers as much as they like.

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