Why digital isn’t working

Tom Goodwin is the New York-based executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media. A self-styled industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom's column provides a monthly take on how the industry will be shaped going forward.

Times Square

The fastest growing, and by far the largest media channel in 2017 isn’t mobile or social, it’s electrical media. Worth more than a whopping $500bn in 2017, electrical media is killing non-electrical media, thanks to growth in desktop, tablet, mobile, social, native, TV, radio and digital outdoor media around the world.

Electrical media is both very easy to define and entirely unhelpful.

To bundle together such disparate techniques with such very different meaning and strategies is beyond senseless, yet we routinely do this when it comes to how we treat digital media. When headlines are made as large global brands pull media spend on digital with no immediate and clear effect, the industry flaps about in a panic suggesting 'digital doesn’t work'. What silliness. Electricity is a transformative element, it’s wonderful for lighting, brilliant for powering kettles, driving motors, making aluminum, yet it’s a terrible way to power a plane (currently) and it’s a fairly unpleasant thing to try eat (not that I’ve tried.) A few hundred years into its utilization, we’re only now sufficiently experienced and adept with electricity to know when it’s useful and unhelpful and to never criticize the technology, but only our application of it.

When we think of digital only as an ad unit or media channel, we misunderstand everything about it. We take something profoundly transformative and stick it in the most constraining of vehicles - the past. 'Digital' (and boy do I hate referring to it as a noun) isn’t a thing, it’s a new way of thinking and a new canvas to work with; a new series of consumer behaviors, expectations, hopes, ambitions and possibilities. It is absolutely not, and will never be, a media channel. And if it ever was, then quite soon it will become, rather like electricity, ostensibly the only media channel that exists. It’s at its very narrowest a pipe to convey a wide variety of information (immediately and in both directions) but more usefully it’s an entirely new philosophy to think about.

So far collectively, we’ve pretty much got everything entirely wrong about the new digital possibilities. I had planned to talk about the great things we can do, but both parts are so full that I might look at the latter in my next piece, for this month we merely get the depressing way we’ve not understood it yet.

A failure to work around the possibilities

Generally speaking, the primary screens in our lives have got smaller and quieter and our unit of attention shorter. From the proliferation of cinema in the 1800s, to a move to TV in the 1950s, to desktops in the 1990s, to laptops, then the mobile phone today, the main canvas in our lives has become far far smaller. Because of this, the way we’ve made ad units for these screens has been entirely based on making what we’ve made before, but shorter, smaller and sometimes without sound. We see tens of billions of dollars spent in AdTech research and development each year, but evidently we’ve failed to create a single new ad unit. We spend it entirely on measurement and targeting, but not the thing we hope stimulates the audience - the creative. It’s categorically insane. I don’t mean to be so negative and I promise next month I will focus on the incredible things we can do.

We’ve got distracted with measurement and data

The world of digital has been distracted by what can be done, not what makes sense. We can now create a moving geofenced area around a London taxi, and serve ads for an airline, but we don’t think about whether that’s wise. We can find people that go into a bar and serve them an advert for a beer, without consideration of whether we need that granularity. Are beer drinkers a niche audience? We’ve lost the art of wastage and confidence. In a world where we can see in real-time precisely if people click, we optimize for what we can measure and change most quickly, not what matters most. We endlessly shift money from brand to performance marketing because in a world of shortermism, it’s better to ruthlessly mug people that we’re always going to buy a hotel stay in your hotel, than build long term equity in a brand to exploit for years. It’s better to claim credit with attribution modeling than it is to create success. For the first time ever we assume in the digital mindset that any ad that doesn't’t immediately entice me to click or spontaneously buy something has somehow failed. Brand building, it appears, is irrelevant. We can target against intent, but to create it appears inefficient.

Audience buying

Nothing has done more harm to premium publishers’ ability to make great content, for brands ability to reach people in a meaningful and prestigious way, and for a platforms’ ability to make sensible revenue than audience buying. It’s this technique that makes advertising in the urinals of the Selfridges basement, or in the car park stairwell of Heathrow, as valuable as in Concorde room in Heathrow Terminal 5 or the stunning six sheets of Westfield. Digital marketing has become almost emotionless and calculating in nature. It’s entirely unempathetic, coldly logical and uncreative. We never once consider the context and meaning of the ad, only the cold hard spreadsheet outputs.

A failure to understand context

When we watch TV we are seeking to be entertained. When we listen to the radio, we want more stimulus. When we flick through magazines, we want more nice images – people complain if you take ads from the Super Bowl or Vogue. The internet is different. We are not reliant on editors and curators, we are in control. We are there to get shit done, whether it’s work or spreadsheets or fact checking or watching birds dance or cats doing funny stuff, ads are getting in the way. We rarely consider the context of consumption. The most hated ad units are all 'digitally served'. We need to be mindful that when we’re in a lean forward immersed state, the ads get in the way of what we’re trying to do, so we need to think about ads differently.

In short, there is something about the tech world encroaching the creative fields of advertising that has made us unempathetic, cold and calculating. If we were once an art, we have become a science and we need to find the balance. Digital stuff has given us great tools. They provide an amazingly rich new tapestry, with great technology to serve ads in real time, to the right person to tell stories sequentially. I will come back to this in a future article, but for now, let’s understand that digital can work but we need to try harder, not be limited by the thinking of the past and conventional, while following the wrong wisdom.

If we consider digital ads in new ways, amazing things are possible.

Tom Goodwin is the EVP of innovation at Zenith Media. He tweets at @tomfgoodwin

TG

Tom Goodwin

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