Piecing together the future for brands
Ebiquity's Christian Polman summarises the key themes from last week's Future of Brands conference
With so much flux and complexity in the media and marketing ecosystem today, brand owners could be forgiven for choosing to focus on the status quo and not think about tomorrow or next year.
But this was most definitely not the mindset of the 250-plus who gathered for Mediatel’s second annual Future of Brands conference last week.
The industry was well represented, with brands, creative and media agencies, tech companies, publishers, platforms, and consultants all joining in for the great debate.
Ebiquity's CEO, Michael Karg, kicked the day off with a summary of our TV at the Tipping Point research, launched at the start of this month. The study is an evidence-based assessment of what’s happening to linear TV viewing in the age of ad-free streaming, and how this may impact the effectiveness of linear TV advertising in the medium-term future.
Before the event, the report had prompted significant debate in national and specialist trade media, as well as among advertisers and marketing trade bodies. Its implications reverberated throughout the event, and as Mediatel columnist Dominic Mills said: “I love it when someone drops a large rock into the pool at the start of the day.”
Beyond debating the future of TV, there were four principal themes that I heard echoing loudly throughout the course of the day. These were:
- The changing nature of client-agency relationships
- In-housing vs outsourcing
- Thinking and acting short-term and long-term
- Prioritising what really matters
The changing nature of client-agency relationships
A central motif for much of the morning session was the ways in which brands work best with agencies, where and why some relationships have turned sour in recent years (lack of transparency and outdated remuneration models clearly remain key hot topics) and how to make partnerships a bedrock of success.
In a panel session on pitching, pricing, and procurement, Ebiquity’s Martin Vinter, a managing director in our media practice, reflected that both brands and agencies share responsibility for the breakdown in relationships in recent years.
Many brands are still reviewing and – in many cases – changing agencies. But once the tender process is done, Martin argued that it’s important that both brands and agencies work hard to build and secure sustainable, long-term relationships built on renewed and mutual trust.
Agency selection and management is an area we’re very focused on at Ebiquity, and we have a framework and approach that we use with national and global advertisers when reviewing agency support.
Aviva’s former group brand director Jan Gooding agreed, and argued that brands should avoid changing agency where possible or else risk losing long-term memory of what brands do, do well and stand for. In Jan’s experience, pitches are often a hugely disruptive and attention-sapping diversion.
On the agency checklist for Hiscox’s Annabel Venner are: chemistry, innovation, a willingness to push and question the client, honest conversations, and long-term thinking. Hiscox’s approach is incredibly sensible: start three years out, strategically, and then work back to a six to twelve month window for tactical executions.
Ross Duncan of Just Eat – a brand currently looking for a new agency – listed: creative, strategic, and commercial talent; being a behavioural fit for Just Eat’s high-growth, acquisition-led model; and a structural fit – being where the brand needs them, when they need them, with the right service offering.
Meanwhile, Simon Buglione, MD of Sky Creative – the UK’s largest in-house creative agency – said Sky uses agencies to help “join the dots in this complex world to deliver brand consistency”.
In-housing vs outsourcing
Sam Day set the stage for the day's in-housing debate when he said that Confused.com had now in-housed all of its digital advertising, including programmatic and PPC. Their motivations were to drive simplicity, and to form a clear line of sight of the data.
Conversely all of their above-the-line advertising – including heavyweight TV and driver-focused, drivetime commercial radio – is handled by Confused.com’s media agency, PHD.
Hiscox’s Annabel Venner said that the insurance company’s rule of thumb was this: if the agency can’t deliver services cheaper and faster than they can themselves, they in-house it. Similarly, Ross Duncan of Just Eat argued that agencies are there to help brands achieve what they can’t do by themselves.
And Sky Creative’s Rob Buglione advocated a hybrid model of agencies and in-house teams complementing each other and doing what each does best.
The experiences of Annabel, Ross, and Rob very much reflect discussions we have during the growing number of independent in-housing strategic assessments we are conducting for clients.
Our experience suggests that for some, in-housing has enabled more direct data ownership and closer alignment to business strategy, however it comes with significant costs and challenges, and clients should build robust business cases before taking the in-housing plunge.
Thinking and acting long-term and short-term
This was a big topic of the day, which kicked off on a panel discussion on driving digital transformation.
Here the panellists concluded that - although there are now a large number of great tools that enable brands to do extraordinary things in the realm of digital marketing - the overwhelming majority are short-term brand activations and often not effective at delivering long-term brand building.
Panel chair Patrick Affleck from Fetch was concerned that this means brands are focusing too much on short-term efficiency and not nearly enough on long-term effectiveness.
Marie Oldham from VCCP drew warm approval for her loathing of the word “digital”. She went on to say that the efficiency versus effectiveness debate may be a false dichotomy; that brand performance and marketing are actually components of one and the same thing, and to split them is artificial.
Our work in this area certainly suggests that clients drive the most success when they bring these areas together.
Justin Gibbons, founding partner of Work Research, presented the newly-released Brand Gap research his company had done for JCDecaux. Justin highlighted the action-intention gap between what practitioners accept as best practice (Binet and Field’s 60/40 long term/short term split) and what they actually do in planning and flighting campaigns.
The evidence from behavioural science for this irrational brand behaviour, includes: instant gratification, “yeah but… no but…” syndrome, herding, confirmation bias, and the emperor’s new clothes.
Ebiquity’s Nick Pugh, UK managing director - advanced analytics, chaired a panel focused explicitly on the short term versus long term debate, focused on branding, sales, and effectiveness.
Dino Myers-Lamptey from MullenLowe Mediahub said he believed short-termism was every bit as prevalent as the Brand Gap study suggests. The urge to measure what’s easy rather than measuring what matters is almost overwhelming.
Jan Gooding believes that the drive to short-termism was accelerated by CEOs’ and CFOs’ FOMO, while Nick drew consensus from the panel that many brands are optimising media performance suboptimally. Too often, indeed, the focus is on efficiency rather than effectiveness.
Hearst’s president and CEO, James Wildman, agreed, arguing that this obsession has been at the expense of the magic of storytelling. At Ebiquity we agree, and we firmly believe in understanding the role of content and creative in driving effectiveness.
Prioritising what really matters
One of the big dilemmas facing brands, often overlooked, is that there are so many opportunities and too little clarity about what may or may not work.
Walking delegates through the narrative of his first major campaign as CMO of the price comparison website, Sam Day highlighted all the confusion, all the experts with no expertise in a post-truth, fake news world. The ad represents consumer dilemmas in an over-crowded, choice-rich world, but it has strong resonance for brands, too.
Newsworks’ chair, Tracy de Groose, urged that the best way for brands to reengage with the complex, murky media ecosystem is to move away from the small-beer world of inputs and outputs and focus rather on the business outcomes of building brands. This is something we preach day in and day out at Ebiquity; it's ultimately driving business outcomes that matters most.
The ever-changing world of media and marketing can often feel just as confusing for brand marketers. In sessions held during the afternoon, we saw some tantalising glimpses of the future – which for some is already the present.
These included Neuro-Insight’s Heather Andrew sharing how brands can work more effectively by understanding how our brains process and deal with information and emotion, and Barbara du Perron from MetrixLab making an enthusiastic case for the potential of AI to make brand owners’ jobs easier, quicker, and more fun.
The real challenge is being able to focus on what matters and to do today’s day job while experimenting – testing and learning – with new tools and techniques that might just pay off in a major way tomorrow.
Last week’s conference set itself the objectives of looking forward, separating marketers from the day-to-day scrum of running their brands, and taking the industry forward – for the benefit of brands. In those aims and more, it hit the spot.
The real value of Mediatel’s Future of Brands event is that it’s full of real brands who’ve been there, done that, and are there to tell the stories of what works and what doesn’t. We look forward to participating in another great debate later this month, this time all the way down under, at the Future of Brands Sydney.
Christian Polman is group chief strategy officer at Ebiquity