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A tale of two conferences

16 Dec 2014  |  David Brennan 
A tale of two conferences

When will insight and analytics really start talking the same language, asks David Brennan.

I've been privileged to have been invited to speak at two major conferences in the past couple of weeks, which have been informative in themselves (I have seen a number of impressive papers presented) but raise some big questions when I compare and contrast their very different perspectives.

The MRG Conference in Berlin was a delight to attend, even if my paper (I presented the 'Truly Madly Deeply' research on behalf of Newsworks) was constantly obstructed by technical gremlins. I sometimes think that media researchers are like the goalkeepers of our industry; still playing on when many of the more adrenaline-fuelled players have retired to a pub in Chingford.

So, plenty of familiar faces, but the standard of the presentations has changed out of all recognition since I started attending MRG conferences in the days when Wham! were still together.

Instead of the technical dissections of reach, frequency, demographic profiling and recall studies that used to form the bulk of the programme, we were treated to a diverse selection of thoughtful and relevant insights into the modern media consumer.

Data, it was agreed, will become the new lifeblood of a cleaner, more efficient, waste-free TV advertising future."

The standard of the presentations was a revelation. New research methodologies and better presentation technology has certainly helped make things far more interesting, but I was particularly impressed by the powerful use of storytelling to showcase the insights and contextualise their relevance to the audience.

Highlights included Sean Adams' presentation on News UK's neuroscience study of Times readers' tablet and print usage; Thinkbox's Oliver Robertson presenting the latest in their 'Screen Life' series; and Anthony Jones' fascinating look at journey printed mail takes from the doormat into the home*. We were also asked to consider the 'meaningfulness' of brands, look at the Millennials' changing use of media and explore how big data is transforming our business.

I left feeling well-informed, engaged with the content and excited to work within the world of insight. It often digs deep, in a search for universal truths which can be applied to the data hungry disciplines of planning and marketing. My only sense of regret is that these universal truths often come packaged as small pieces in an infinitely complex jigsaw puzzle, never quite forming a whole and often struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing digital landscape.

Then, last week, I was asked to chair a session at the Future of TV Advertising Forum. This was much more focused on the here and now, ironically, as more data emerges from the myriad trials and ramp-ups of new advertising technology. Data, it was agreed, will become the new lifeblood of a cleaner, more efficient, waste-free TV advertising future.

The obeisance to King Data came as no surprise after the opening presentation by Jon Watts of MTM. He showed the results of a survey conducted among 80 or so top media decision-makers across Europe; the dominant interest was in programmatic trading and addressable advertising. Other media-led opportunities, such as new creative formats, lagged far behind.

This saddened me slightly; it wasn't that long ago that media was going to be the new creative, leading advertisers through the interactive maze with a toolbox full of digital tricks. It feels like the media agencies are battening down the hatches, reverting to their core skills of data analysis and management.

This could be a reflection of the new reality but I think there is still a major job to be done in terms of persuading advertisers that it is their reality. It was interesting that the only advertiser to participate - Richard Brooke, Unilever's European Media Operations & Strategy Director - was cautious about the hype around addressable advertising, emphasising the point that there is relatively little wastage in mainstream TV advertising, as most viewers are worth something to mainstream brands, and what wastage there is will not be reflected in the cost of the campaign.

Attending these two very different conferences in the space of a couple of weeks, I was most struck by the contrast in their language and content."

Fewer doubts were expressed by the vendors of programmatic solutions to TV's otherwise bleak commercial prospects (although, to be fair, most presenters predicted TV "wouldn't be going down the pan anytime soon" or similar sentiments). Still, possibly buoyed by the MTM research, in addition to a number of impressive campaign performance statistics, there were some brave predictions of programmatic's impending take-up, especially from the USA.

This is not to say, by the way, that programmatic won't have a significant role to play in TV trading, nor am I inferring that addressable advertising will be a damp squib. If we can separate programmatic from real-time bidding or auction-based trading, and instead look at the data-matched targeting being offered by Channel 4, it can even play a significant role at the higher end of the TV advertising market.

If Sky can continue to scale up Adsmart, we will see more examples of innovative targeting and new money to TV. Both can create real efficiencies at the margins. Whether both will be so central to the future of television advertising that they begin to block out the host of new opportunities that are beginning to emerge through digital convergence is a much bigger call.

Insight had little part to play in proceedings, although a presentation by Marcela Tabares of A+E Networks and Mike Bloxham of Frank Magid Associates provided one of the highlights with a forensic look at the power of programme context to boost the emotional impact (and therefore the effectiveness) of a TV commercial, although creative/emotional 'matching' is more complex than simply choosing programme genres.

It made me think how these kind of insights could be employed to improve the algorithms, or if the algorithms could ever fully represent the complex relationship between ad creative, media context and the consumer's constantly changing mindset. More than anything, it made me realise there is still a massive gap between the worlds of insight and analytics.

The most interesting aspect of the Future of TV Advertising Forum was the shift from the future to the present as we attempt to make sense of the new data that has emerged. The case histories showed some impressive efficiency gains. There was a palpable sense that we are past the proof of concept stage - at least with respect to programmatic and addressable - and it is now a matter of 'how quickly?' rather than 'if?'

Attending these two very different conferences in the space of a couple of weeks, I was most struck by the contrast in their language and content. They both yielded some fascinating insights and ideas but, as is often the case these days, they came at it from very different angles; technology vs. consumer, behavioural vs. insight, server vs. survey.

Of course, it is never a case of one vs. the other; the real truth lies somewhere between. Just like the ill-fated construction of the Tower of Babylon, though, we'll never get there if we can't speak the same language.

*Disclaimer - I helped Royal Mail with some of the research presented by Antony.

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