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Oven-ready personalisation; M&C crisis: the best way out…

09 Dec 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Oven-ready personalisation; M&C crisis: the best way out…

The ANA's word of the year has a lot in common with Boris Johnson's Brexit mantra, writes Dominic Mills - everyone uses it, but no one knows what it means. Plus: Saving M&C Saatchi

Sometimes you don’t know whether to weep or laugh. Let’s start with the weepy bit.

The US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is defining, according to a quick and dirty survey of its members, that the word of the year for 2019 is…drum roll…Personalisation.

Oh dear. They’re still banging on about this despite all the evidence — privacy breaches everywhere, the Information Commissioner’s Office warning about GDPR, personal data and RTB and so on — pointing in the opposite direction.

Still, let’s be thankful for small mercies. The ANA’s word of the year for 2018 was purpose. At least that’s done. Other contenders for this year’s prize, apparently, included ‘in-housing’, ‘data’ and ‘equality and inclusion’.

What depresses me about personalisation is that no-one really seems to know what they mean by it, other than a vague idea about being relevant. Come on. When wasn’t relevance a thing to aim for?

Here are some comments from ANA members, attempting to grapple with this slippery concept.

• "Personalization is what customers expect. Every current and prospective customer expects that your brand knows them and can deliver what they want."

• "Consumers are busy. Too busy to invest time with anything that’s not relevant to them personally. It’s all about relevancy, aka personalization. 'Make it all about me.'"

• "In today’s world of 'me,' personalization is how people want to consume information. Experiences need to be relevant and unique to the end user at nearly every interaction."

• "We’re all striving to show value to customers in a way that’s relevant to them.”

• "As marketers, we can no longer think about customers as just a single large group. If we assume all customers are the same, then we are not meeting their needs."

• "Personalization is the Holy Grail of brand marketing. It provides the ability to speak directly to the consumer or shopper with the right message, at the right time, in the right medium."

It’s cliche central. But some obvious questions arise. What happens if your brand is new to consumers or if you’re prospecting? Chances are you don’t know very much about them.

What happens if consumers, as many of them do, place privacy above personalisation? What happens, if in your attempts to get up close and personal, you misread the signals? I know how I feel when they get it wrong.

And why, in many circumstances, wouldn’t you want to treat large groups of customers the same (i.e. with TV)? The fact that next year’s Super Bowl spots have already sold out — and at prices higher than this year — suggests the opposite.

In fact, when these marketers talk about personalisation, what I think they really mean is contextualisation. Which is a different thing altogether, easier to do, just as effective and less risky. But why they can’t say that, I don’t know.

To anchor this idea to current events, it reminds me of Boris and his ‘oven-ready’ Brexit mantra. He doesn’t really know what he means, and nor do we. But the term has slipped into common parlance, so everyone uses it. You can imagine CEOs just going, “Get personalisation done".

And here’s the bit that might make you laugh. A new survey from Gartner (hat tip to Simon Andrews for this) suggests that 80% of marketers will give up on personalisation by 2025 for the simple reasons that either they can’t make it work or that it will backfire.

So why wait till 2025?

M&C’s major/minor crisis

So there I was last Wednesday evening outside Holborn tube when this Evening Standard bill poster caught my eye. “M&C Saatchi in Major Crisis’.

Was this really the big news of the day, beating Trump, NATO, the election, Arsenal's turmoil (as if it couldn't get worse for M&C's top Gooner, David Kershaw) and so on? Or was the Evening Standard being canny with its bill posters, targeting one headline at medialand readers in one area of London and other headlines in other areas?

The headline pedant in me also laughed. Is there any kind of crisis other than a major one? No need for the hype.

Anyway, the ‘crisis’ — for those who haven’t been following the story — has its roots in an accounting screw-up first revealed back in the summer.

I am no student of accountancy, but as far as I can see accounting screw-ups always start small and then worsen. Think Patisserie Valerie, Carillion and so on.

Sometimes it’s not the money per se, but the loss of confidence in the management. They’ve taken their eye off the ball. And when confidence slides, implosion beckons.

The crisis has also led to questions about the M&C business model, based on buying stakes in other so-called like-minded businesses on a promise of ‘shared ownership, shared objectives and shared ambitions’ — where the implied lack of financial control, or as the FT put it, “not shared accounting policies’, becomes a threat, not an opportunity.

As far as I can see, M&C only has one way out of this. I can’t see anyone acquiring it, so its best option is to go private. To do this, it’s got to raise the money from somewhere, but — providing they can reassure lenders/investors that they’re on top of the finances — there’s plenty of VC or private equity money looking for a home. And as the share price is currently about a third of its 5-year highs, it’s a lot cheaper than it used to be.

And the truth is that, despite the financial mess (and the recent loss of NatWest), M&C is still a force to be reckoned with.

The catch is that, unlike a public company, there is no immediate or obvious way out for the top management. And as there are a lot of them (I could never get my head round the ratio of chiefs to wage slaves there) and they are of a certain age, that might be foremost in their minds.

But as things currently stand, their reputations have taken a proper battering. If they value them, they’ve got to stick with it, and that is best done outside the glare of public company status.

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