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Dominic Mills: what I learned at ISBA Advertising 3.0

02 Mar 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Dominic Mills: what I learned at ISBA Advertising 3.0

From dealing with dysfunctional supply chains and outdated measurement, to ditching the cynicism about purpose or quantifying creativity, Dominic Mills shares his take-outs from ISBA's annual conference

Sitting in on the day at the ISBA Advertising 3.0 conference last week is always instructive, not least because a) you get exposed to client thinking from the leading practitioners, and b) because you get a wide perspective from across the industry.

Here are some of the things I picked up:

The wheels turn slow, but they are definitely turning

It’s fair to say that when director general Phil Smith (pictured top) moved into the hot seat at ISBA in 2016 he determined to put the organisation where it needed to be — front and centre of the industry. With all the negative currents swirling around — loss of trust (with the public and between different parts of the industry), a chaotic and dysfunctional digital supply chain, and outdated measurement systems, to name but three — someone had to take a lead, and it could only really come from clients.

A few years on, and it is clear that ISBA is moving ahead on all these fronts with the support and achieve participation of the advertiser community. Advertisers have acknowledged that rebuilding trust with the public starts with them, whether that means easing up on bombardment or making more informed and careful choices about media placements. There’s a definite sense of progress.

In this area, I love the ISBA initiative of offering advertisers an advertising experience MOT, a straightforward way to check whether their approach safeguards the consumer, avoids bombardment and optimises investment. And they’ve appointed two skilled and experienced mechanics in the form of Nick Manning and Derek Morris to dig under the bonnet.

The holy grail of cross-media measurement is moving forward too in the form of Project Origin.

And there’s ISBA’s programmatic supply chain investigation, conducted with PwC. Just getting this study off the ground — 12 months plus — is an indication of just how crazy the system is and how it’s evolved in such a way as to make third-party auditing incredibly hard. But it’s coming, in April.

Remember the pendulum always swings too far

It feels like an age ago but it was only 2017-18 when ads from the likes of Waitrose and Mercedes started popping up on terrorist recruitment sites. Every week seemed to bring a new outrage. At that point the term ‘brand safety’, hitherto really only a minority interest subject, suddenly became a boardroom issue.

Not surprisingly clients and agencies swung into action and started blacklisting any keyword or term that could possibly incur reputational damage or lead a brand into controversy.

So when Brand Advance’s Chris Kenna (pictured above) told the ISBA audience that the blacklisting of words like ‘interracial’, ‘gay’, ‘Muslim’, ‘gay’, lesbian’ and so on was rife, with the consequence that brands were missing out on opportunities to connect with these diverse audiences, I was both surprised and not.

Surprised because, in this day and age, brands increasingly claim they want to connect with these marginalised, if large at an aggregate level, audiences.

And not surprised because, in the panic that ensued three years ago, it was obvious that the pendulum might swing too far. Keyword blacklists took precedence over whitelisting, which is easy to understand because a) they’re simpler to compile and b) better for any arse-covering.

The good news is that Kenna’s message seems to be getting through to the more enlightened clients and agencies. Last week Mindshare announced that it was developing an LGBTQ private marketplace in conjunction with its Skyy vodka client.

There’s a double benefit here: one, brands that wish to reach these consumers can do so now in more appropriate environments; and two, niche publishers that serve these communities get the chance to get a share of the media budget.

Don’t always be cynical about purpose (as long as it’s small ‘p’)

Regular readers will know my default position on purpose is scepticism, Coke last week being a case in point. But sometimes you have to put your doubts to one side.

Step forward Katherine Newby Grant of P&G, who unveiled a list of initiatives (and ads) that made you go ‘ok, these people are serious’ about purpose.

Mediatel News editor David Pidgeon alluded to it here. The examples: P&G’s one-pack-one-donation model for Pampers, first to Unicef to distribute to the poorest countries, and now extended to nappy donations for premature babies; tackling ‘period poverty’ — which can harm young girls’ education prospects — by donating sanitary ware to schools; and, for Pantene, encouraging female self-empowerment by recruiting the likes of trans campaigner Paris Lee and acid attack victim Katie Piper as brand ambassadors.

Of course P&G is not alone is such initiatives (Dove has successfully mined this field for many years) but Newby Grant made one critical point about such ‘force-for-good-initiatives’: act first, then talk about it. Quite right. One thing that really bugs me about purpose is that it’s usually all talk and no action.

The other thing: these are what I’d call ‘small p’ purpose examples, rooted in and relevant to the brand.

Mind you, the inner cynic in me made a brief appearance at one point at ISBA, when Unilever media boss Luis Di Como claimed that brands with purpose grew 69% faster than those without. Even if you accept the figures (I take them with a pinch of salt), I think he’s messing with cause and effect: one reason Unilever’s brands with purpose grow faster than those without is because they’re the ones that get the love, the attention and the budgets.

Creativity can be quantified (sometimes)

Taking things with a pinch of salt, I’m usually equally dubious about claims (which tend to come from marginal players in the digital eco-system with some spurious science to sell) about the impact of different creative treatments or iterations.

I’m not making this stuff up: I remember a study that said mobile phone ads with a green background did better than those without: fat lot of use to, say, Vodafone — especially if anyone suffers read-and-green colour blindness.

Nevertheless, Craig Percival and Louise Vincer from GSK made me sit up when they said that, for Corsodyl, 5-35% of the ROI on adspend came from targeting (i.e. the media choice) and 50-80% from the creative treatment. Yes, there are some wide variations in those figures, but they give you a solid base from which to start briefing your agencies.

And they’re from GSK, a science company, so I believe them. Better still, Vincer (who has the fab job title of marketing acceleration director) is a real scientist, with a doctorate in chemistry to boot.

The wisdom of experience

We might ask ourselves whether one of the reasons the industry has found itself in crisis is down to the marginalisation of what you might call marketers with some grey hairs and (sticking with the MOT analogy) a few miles on the clock.

The result is that experience, or what, as Mark Evans of Direct Line described it, “old-fashioned” values tend to get cast aside by, he says, a cohort that self-classifies as “digital marketers”.

He’s right: marketers are marketers and they should no more define themselves as ‘digital’ marketers than they should as ‘analogue’ or ‘legacy media’ marketers. It’s a bit like doctors: they’re doctors first and paediatric or geriatric specialists second. Push comes to shove, they don’t say: “Sorry, I can’t treat you because I’m a paediatrician and you’re not a child.”

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