Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Media

Striving for agnostic: why brands, agencies & publishers need to work together


By Charlotte McEleny, Asia Editor

April 17, 2019 | 13 min read

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The disruption to marketing brought on by digital media has had a profound effect on the business models of everyone in the marketing industry but acting on self-interest creates a net loss.

This was the conclusion derived from a passionate discussion between marketers last month, hosted by Singapore Press Holdings and The Drum.

Short-termism, irrelevant remuneration models and using tech for tech’s sake were just some of the issues the group shared that was stopping them from truly being able to commit to agnostic, customer-first marketing. In order to really fix this, the industry needed to find new ways to work together, they concluded.

Ignatius Low, CMO at Singapore Press Holdings, summarized this view by saying, “It’s a bit like prisoner’s dilemma, the game - if everyone acts in their own interests it’s a net loss, if you all worked together to better effect then it would be an overall win for everyone.”

Ignatius Low, CMO at Singapore Press Holdings

But where is the industry at now and how can we get to a place where the industry can create a win-win for businesses and, importantly, consumers too?

Losing sight of creativity

The endless new formats derived from digital and a hunger from people to consume more and more content has left marketers with a major challenge in scaling up creativity. The group agreed that creative and emotion-led marketing was effective but that sometimes that was lost in the need to fill the online space.

Melvin Kuek, deputy chief executive officer of DDB Singapore, says, “We have been distracted by the advent of digital and technology over the last few years, there are always new things to catch up on, new mediums, new platforms and new channels. The distraction has caused us to lose focus on what’s really important and that is creativity because without creativity the platforms are just a vehicle to carry something and what is it they actually carry? You don’t actually know. Brands need to remember that it’s just a vehicle to carry their message but the quality of the message is important.”


A big contributor to the loss of focus on the quality of the message could be the fact that the industry has become more short-term in its outlook. Digital, while bringing a new level of accountability to the industry, also creates a culture of instant gratification, which is problematic and oversimplifies marketing.

Kuek adds, “A lot of results tend to be measured in the short-term, as a client you want to measure what a digital banner does in the long-term. Brand building still has a role in today’s society, people still need to be told a story. Look at Trump, look at Brexit, if you followed big data, it would have told you that there was no way Hilary Clinton was going to lose and there was no way Brexit was going to happen. Data only tells one aspect of the story, so it cannot be all-encompassing.”

Melvin Kuek, deputy chief executive officer of DDB Singapore

For Ian Loon, managing director of Starcom in Singapore, years of digital disruption has created an existential issue for marketers, who are trying to rediscover what it actually means again.

“Short-termism has been a very, very big issue and right now I think a lot of CMOs are impacted by this too. It’s hard because I think a lot of marketers are trying to work out what the role of marketing is right now. There is value in brand building but when it comes to justifying media, because of the complexity of digital, you are going to gravitate towards the one that delivers greater accountability in the shortest period of time.”

For brands, the pressure now is to deliver results that are beyond industry metrics and tie into real business results, which can be hard to prove. Another issue is that sometimes clients may not come from a background that is academically trained in marketing, and the traditional principles are lost.

Eugene Lim, director of marketing and sales at Oxley Holdings, agrees that some of the traditional lessons may be lost in client marketing teams now but that it is the client’s responsibility to brief partners well on KPIs.

“When we start a campaign, we want to invest in creative that is long-term because, in property, we can’t sell 1000s of units in one day. We are also not academically trained, so a lot of clients don’t really know what marketing is and they are very confused. So they will say, ‘I have paid you $x, I want immediate results’, so that has always been a problem with marketing. We can hire the best agency and have the best brand story but if we do not do our job in giving the agency a proper brief in what we want, the whole strategy will fail,” he says.

Eugene Lim, director of marketing and sales at Oxley Holdings

Undervaluing traditional media

One of the problems with being agnostic is being able to value media that has different forms of measurement. This is a key concern for media agencies like Mediacom, says Vivian Yeung, managing director of the agency in Singapore.

“In terms of measurement, what we are trying to do is find metrics that can be consistent across all touchpoints. It would probably boil down to something like ‘stickiness’ and ‘retention’, so stickiness is about whether you read or watch the entire piece of content and the retention of whether you remembered the message. There are ways to be able to qualify that through analysis, surveys or neuromarketing testing.”

Neuromarketing is catching on as a way to evaluate the receptiveness to media and is something that Singapore Press Holdings is looking at to help marketers understand how different media relates to one another. Specifically, Low says they want to scientifically prove some hunches they have about how compelled readers are to finish content on print versus online.

“We are going to prove this through science but we think that people are far more likely to finish reading on print, rather than if they have to scroll. There is something in the human tendency that you feel compelled to finish something on the printed page,” he explains.

Another topic that needs further exploration, the marketers agreed, was the element of surprise in traditional media that is lost through hyper-targeting. The editorial process that curates content you may not normally think about is in danger of being undervalued, the group agreed.

Mediacom’s Yeung says, “We are so fixated with precision targeting, so much that it’s almost predictive but where in that is the opportunity for surprise and disruption? A newspaper can be quite exciting from a disruptive level, to be able to introduce that because you wouldn’t expect that.”

She says when this is approached in the right way, and measured well, you can understand the shifts from short-term tactical ads and longer-term branding. She says for auto and property brands, print can surprisingly deliver a quicker return on tactical marketing but that digital is a longer-burn for lead generation but adds greater value over time.

Vivian Yeung, managing director of Mediacom Singapore

Bringing creative and media back together

One way to counter these trends and ensure that customer-centric strategies prevail is to bring the creative and media closer together, they say. While silos made sense in order to grow profit in times of huge change, the need to be more holistic is now.

Yeung explains, “At the beginning of advertising, there was a lot of merit in actually looking at advertising on a holistic level, the reality is that it’s split now and fragmented perhaps for the wrong reasons, but ultimately it’s about us communicating to our audience so it has to be audience-centric. When we approach any campaign, it really should be about the agnostic, about the touchpoints that are being consumed by our audience and it’s what we call systems planning.”

From a creative agency point of view DDB’s Kuek says he wants to see the two sides become one again because it brings the creative closer to the media owners.

“I think the way it was looked at is there’s one dollar and who gets the biggest share of that one dollar and I think that’s fragmented everything along the way. It will work better when it’s all pulled back together and the client needs to see that return at the end of the day. The cost becomes irrelevant because the profit becomes incrementally higher as well.”

From the Media side, Starcom’s Loon also agrees, saying that the two coming together again was an inevitability.

“The first step is to get the agency functions to collaborate a lot more. The different agency holding groups have different approaches but I think it all boils down to individual market leaders and clients,” he says, “What I would like to see is a lot more structure and the client knowing exactly what they want in terms of how you organise and structure those meetings throughout the year. Of course you get the agencies together but also getting the media owners too, because everyone has value to bring to the table for the best interests of the brand.”

Ian Loon, managing director of Starcom in Singapore

The commission-based remuneration around media is a key sticking point, according to Loon, and without that media agencies struggle to be fully agnostic. “For us to meet our revenue targets, we have to go after the spend, so it’s counter-intuitive therefore for us to say that media production should get more money, so even if we knew that was the answer, our roles would not allow us to be in that place.” With a new structure that brings production and creative closer to the media, media agencies can better remunerate around strategic thinking and expertise, than just commission.

New types of collaboration

For publishers, a first step is to meet agencies half-way by creating products that fit a more agnostic customer-centric methodology. Low says SPH is segmenting its audience, not by products or media brands, but by groups or ‘tribes’, in line with what the agencies are already doing.

“I think a key thing is that it’s not all about data, it's not all about price but it is about ideas and ideas require a certain type of partnership between the client, creative, media agency and media publisher, and I think these days the media owner needs to be able to marry his own product to make sure it fits,” he says

He cites an example of how it’s innovating around this for print. A new partnership with HP has created a possibility of print titles for clients customisable according to subscriber preferences. Another initiative with SPH’s Circulation division has resulted in extra copies of a print title being sent physically to certain demographics or geographical areas for that day, potentially increasing the ROI of the print ads within.

“We have to adapt our own media. If you say that medium is important, the onus is on us to make sure that’s relevant for you. The key is that innovation doesn’t necessarily happen online,” he adds.

SPH roundtable

For these partnerships to happen, Oxley Holdings’ Lim says it does start with the client and that starts with understanding that agencies are experts in their fields and not necessarily in your business.

“The market has changed. If you have a creative agency, they will be working on many other brands and so you can’t expect them to know everything about your sector,” he says, “I think a lot of responsibility lies on the client-side right from the start. If you don’t even know what you want and you start fishing around for ideas, it’s not going to work. That’s why it really is a partnership, I say we have to set the direction, we have to know what we want. We know the strategy but we also have to leave it to the professionals to run their side of things, so the creative agency has to come up with the creative, leave them alone and don’t disrupt that. Then the media sales person we trust to get us the best deal.”

Having a stronger partnership would ultimately change the issue of short and long-termism because accountability is better shared, according to the group, which will help shift measurement to business results.

“Some of our challenges with that come from clients expecting us to know everything in their industry, although we may not be as deeply involved, so it really is a partnership that we are looking for so we can lift our ability so we can become accountable from a partnership level. The client may often be in a better position to steer us in some of those areas, so it’s a more efficient use of all of our expertise,” says Yeung.

Doing these things will create a new energy for the industry and one that proves marketing’s function as a growth engine for business, but it requires a united front.

“It is about embedding in partnerships with all stakeholders to ensure a vitality for the marketing and communications industry. We want more disruption, change and choice, so we can create a unified front so that there’s no ability for monopolies to exist in the future. That’s the real threat for all of us,” adds Yeung.

As for how that’d work, it may be time for the industry to be more experimental in its own business models, as Low suggests, “I would love to see an experimental JV between a creative agency, a media agency and a media owner, for example. These three work on a joint P&L. Why not? The integration ring fences it, just to see how it works.”

Whether or not we start seeing joint P&L’s from creative, media agencies and owners still remains to be seen but there’s a hunger from the industry to create a united front and it very well could bring about the holy grail of agnostic marketing.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Media

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