Nick Timon

Putting Advertising in Context

To be effective, contextual targeting must start with the strategy and not with the media however thanks to increasing restrictions on the use of cookies in digital advertising, behavioural targeting is giving way to contextual.

The Beginning is not the End

Programmatic has come to dominate online advertising over the last few years. According to Zenith it is predicted to grow to over $98 Billion by 2020. However, much of its underlying functionality relies on tracking individuals behaviour via cookies and third-party data, so-called behavioural targeting. But now, thanks to GDPR and the increasing restriction of cookies, cookies are becoming increasingly problematic, if not illegal. And given the latest guidance published by the ICO pressure on the industry to abandon cookies is only going to grow.

As a result, advertisers are starting to place increased focus on distributing ads based on the publisher environment - a method called contextual targeting. Because this method does not require the tracking of individuals it doesn’t need cookies, so avoiding any privacy issues.

However, there are practical challenges with contextual targeting. For example, in a recent Digiday article on the topic, Matt McIntyre, head of programmatic, EMEA for Essence was quoted:

“The breadth of opportunity now is far higher for contextual targeting. But there isn’t a very structured way to know what type of information we will get in order to reach a decision based on what the context is.”

In other words, the available technologies that allow advertisers to understand page context at scale and then match it to a relevant ad are still quite immature. However, understanding the context of a page is only one challenge, making sure a relevant ad is served into it is quite another. For that, you need to bring strategy and creative into the mix. But doing so will require a complete unpicking of how the industry has evolved over the last 20 years. It means getting out of our carefully constructed industry silos and creating a far more integrated workflow that links strategy through to creative and media in a much more connected, indeed contextual, way.

The Medium is the Message.

In 1964 Marshall Macluhan famously wrote that the “medium is the message.” By this, he meant that the characteristics of a particular medium are what shapes human behaviour as opposed to the content itself. In some ways, he was correct - for evidence, we only have to see how mobile phones have radically reshaped today's society. However, clearly content matters too!

Too much of the debate around contextual targeting has centred around the medium and not enough on the actual, you know, ad. This is because the conversation is being dominated by media agencies and ad tech providers. This has to change.

Because as an advertiser, not only will you want to select an environment suitable for your brand and audience, you will also want your creative to match that environment too. But as it stands, the creative is often made by a completely different team in a completely different building, often months before the campaign goes live and with no clue as to where it will end up being placed. This is especially true when distribution is done via programmatic where placements are at best opaque. But how did this happen?

What gets measured, gets managed.

Before we dwell too much on the issues of contextual targeting, it has to be remembered that the cookie-based targeting it seeks to replace is no panacea. In recent years, a number of major advertisers have been rethinking their targeting strategies, with many feeling that they have targeted too narrowly and this has cost them growth.

In reality, a major reason why cookie-based targeting has managed to gain such dominance is not that it is more effective, but because it is more measurable. But just because we can track a users path to purchase more effectively - it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the most effective route. Other factors come into play. It is an unfortunate fact of life that “what gets measured, gets managed.” As a result, because marketers can measure their campaigns better via the digital layer, they increasingly favour methodologies that support this. As a result, we have come to see an increased reliance on sales activation type marketing and programmatic. While they are much more measurable, the results may actually be driving effectiveness down. This effect has been thoroughly explored by the likes of Binet and Field. Historically contextual targeting has not lent itself to tracking as easily and so has fallen behind in the pecking order. But now the industry has no choice but to respond.

One of the best routes to start doing that is to not only contextually align the creative to the publisher environment, but these must also align to the audience interests and all of the above must be relevant to the brand. In other words, each step must be contextual to the one before. Only then will you actually get a high-quality result. The unfortunate fact is, very few brands manage to achieve this.

Breaking down the silos

For many forward-thinking brands, the end of the cookie era is not a bad thing. In fact, it is an opportunity to re-align the industry and at a time when digital transformation is at the top of the agenda. For many industry insiders, the splitting out of media and creative was one of the biggest mistakes ever made. But now there is an opportunity to reverse that. In a recent Marketing Week article on digital transformation the L’Oreal Chief Digital Officer Lubomira Rochet stated:

The deepest part of the digital transformation is de-siloing the organisation and having people come together as a team

In order to do this, you don’t just need a willingness to collaborate you need platforms and processes around which to foster that collaboration.

Networked working for the network age

The Codec platform is designed to not just help brands understand audiences in a much more granular way. It is also there to help foster better working relationships and workflows between the various teams in the marketing value chain.

We help Insights teams understand the audience segments relevant to their brand. Then we load these onto the platform so the creative and media teams can understand what type of content the audiences engage with and where. This allows them to collaborate around the same data set to create the assets and media plans in a much more joined-up way.

The end of the cookie era is one of those once in a generation opportunities when an entire industry is forced to re-think its current trajectory and start again. It offers us a chance to re-align the entire industry and put strategy and creative right at the heart of the operation. By doing so we will not just create more collaborative workflows but also better experiences for audiences, and of course, vastly improved results.

Next post