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GSK, Grab, Twitter, Mediacom & Adobe reflect on 25 years of digital advertising


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

September 17, 2019 | 11 min read

As the industry marks the 25th anniversary of the first-ever banner ad, created by AT&T. We reflect on how far marketers have come since 44% click-through rate, now practically unheard of, and its only call to action was a simple ‘click here’.


To mark the judging day for this year’s The Drum Digital Advertising Awards APAC, The Drum sat down with leading figures from agencies, brands and digital publishers at a breakfast panel in Twitter’s APAC headquarters in Singapore.

The panel, moderated by The Drum's APAC publisher Charlotte McEleny, discussed the impact digital advertising has had in shaping and determining the ad industry, as we know it today.

Here is what you need to know.

Digital’s impact on the industry in the past 25 years

Silas Lewis-Meilus, the director for Media Consumer Health in APAC at GlaxoSmithKline says digital's greatest strength and weakness is its ability to measure.

This is because digital has created so many challenges in the industry across so many areas.

“Because you can measure everything, even though you can't, everyone expects you to be able to deliver a bullet-proof reason why digital works. How many times have we all heard, 'I know how TV works.' But how do you know how TV works? What's telling you that?” he asks.

He acknowledges there are no doubts TV works but it leads people to believe that if they can't measure it in digital, it means digital is not effective in delivering some kind of marketing message.

This has pushed the industry into inappropriate vanity metrics and assuming that digital can only work in performance.


“We know these things are not right, but there's still a huge amount of inertia that sits within the industry around this notion that 'If I can't measure it in digital, that means it doesn't work' or 'digital can only do these things, I know my traditional space works',” he says.

“I think over the last 25 years, we've grown a lot in that space, but I still see industry people talking about click-through-rates, and clicks, which should just be removed from our vernacular completely because they are irrelevant, especially in the mobile world. So, we still sit in this space where we think these things are right because we have to measure everything.”

He adds: “Measurement is important, and the bottom line is important, and understanding the connection to the business is important, but also, the realization that people's exposure to messaging is also important, and that's how traditional media has operated for hundreds of years. And so, digital can operate in that way, too.”

For Vivian Yeung, the managing director at MediaCom, digital has shown the importance of transparency. She notes while there is hard data and numbers to be able to qualify performance, everyone has had a different definition or level of understanding digital and digital technology.

She explains that she sees clients and media agencies still learning how to be expressive, how to maximize and optimize the digital technology available, and how to explain it, as well.

“With a lot of brands, they still believe that digital, due to its transparency, is the Holy Grail for everything. But of course, what happens is that they get fixated on the numbers. Then, the issue is, but what are those numbers telling you in the first place about your business performance?” she asks.

“It has come as a good reminder for the media industry that there has to be some accountability, but of course, we are also going through this journey and evolution of how to understand what these numbers mean to make it accountable to the business.

Is the industry investing enough in digital in APAC?

Ng Kok Kong, an AdCloud specialist for South East Asia at Adobe, says he is seeing a lot of investment into developing markets like Thailand and the Philippines. He observes this means that these markets are performing as well as more developed markets like Singapore.

He points out that both agencies and brands are keen to invest more into digital, but are facing a lot of challenges in terms of getting their staff to really understand digital inside-out, not only in terms of the measurement. He adds that a lot of publishers, not only brands, are saying that they are bringing media in-house.


“It seems like they realized the moment they take it in-house, they don’t have the expertise to move it forward. That's where we start seeing the shift, and by both brands partnering with media, it will be interesting to see how we collectively as an industry can achieve fully utilized in terms of digital expansion across the region,” explains Kok.

Agreeing with Kok, Tina Pang, head of client solutions for SEA at Twitter adds she is also intrigued by the way commerce has grown in SEA.

“For South East Asia, the emerging markets have really doubled down on their investments. If you look at traditional businesses like Unilever, they are not a digital-first business, but yet, now they are building to become more digital-first in terms of engaging with their customers. They are also building digital assets internally that they can manage on their own to allow them to react faster,” she explains.


“I can see how this is evolving, but the talent pool is really missing, it is tough to get the right sequence and everything working together. But I think the next 25 years or so are going to get a lot tighter in terms of heavier investments towards supporting this industry.”

Connecting the dots between media and creative

James Sampson, the regional head of partnerships and strategy for GrabAds at Grab observes at the moment, the industry tends to focus on the actual image, or the video for creativity.

He brings up a campaign by Burger King which had this really interesting program where they flashed a real-time message on a digital out-of-home home billboard which said: 'Hey, you're stuck in traffic in this really congested city, do you want a burger? Yes, we can literally deliver you a burger in the next three minutes. Open your app.'

For Sampson, the campaign was creative in the sense that it was pulling together different assets using technology and data to resonate with the consumer.

“The video is really good, I don't know what the results were, but it was the last time where I saw one of these and was really, really impressed with how many things came together to pull off a really cool brand experience for consumers that seemed to have worked well,” he explains.

“I think maybe people in the media, data world, and creative world can come together in that sense, to come up with really cool and unique experiences. They're a little harder to pull off; obviously, it's a pretty difficult thing that not everybody can do. I think creativity can go up a little outside of just the creative palette that you are putting an image or doing a video on.”


For media and creative to work efficiently together, Lewis-Meilus says the industry needs to move past the “ridiculous” conversation that data and creativity should be disconnected.

He gives an example of how when a creative agency is trying to craft the message for an ad to target people with sensitive teeth but does not know which of their target audience is currently suffering sensitive teeth or even realised they have sensitive teeth. That could potentially lead the creative agency to craft a message that does not make sense.

“What if I can tell you, 'Hey, I can actually talk to those people as well, specifically to help me deliver that message to people who are relevant', that is brilliant. I think we have had moments in our lives where an advertising message has connected with you.” he says.

“You were looking for a laugh, and a funny ad connected with you, or something was emotional, and it really pulled at your heartstrings at a time when it was right. And those ads are brilliant, and they make so much sense, but they fall flat too because they are spewed out to the masses. So, having the ability to not only connect that understanding of who the consumer is, but also deliver that message to that right consumer is a brilliant space to try to move towards.”

He adds: “I will really hope that we move past this kind of notion that they need to be separated, or data kills creativity or all this other kind of rubbish that we hear out there, and we start to see everyone grow up about this. Media has pushed this outlook because we had to and because we saw the value.”

That said, Lewis-Meilus emphasise that while he is not saying that broad base advertising and reach base approaches do not work and do not have a place, the notion that marketers need to communicate to everyone all the time about an individual message is also not right.

“I think, once the agencies come on board, and there are agencies that are starting to realize this, and there are pockets of excellence of creative agencies who see the value that exists there, then we really start to do amazing work.”

How will digital evolve in the next 25 years?

Sampson believes it is getting easier to measure outcomes across all touchpoints because of technology even though challenges still exist. One challenge is that big audience-owners like Grab, are protective of their audience data.

He notes this means for brands and agencies, this means certain things cannot be measured as easily as others even though the rest of the Internet is easy to measure.

"What people are measuring, I think, sometimes, is a little silly. But people will eventually get there. The interesting thing is, more and more stuff is being bought online, which it is," he sa

"I saw the stats that 97% of commerce is still offline in this region. Maybe people can argue with that, but the vast majority is still happening in the offline world. How do you connect it to that? That's probably a bigger challenge. But at least, in the digital world, piecing it together is very easy now, and almost out of the box."

Yeung says the industry is currently going through a massive transformative and disruptive era of digital and technology in media because marketers want to standardize and identify common universal metrics across all touchpoints, which do not exist at the moment.


For example, she says free-to-air media owners in Singapore are facing the challenge to convert from Distribution Retail Price to Cost per Navigation (CPN) as they were using algorithms from Google, based on how Google displays their own CPN rates. Now, she says when the industry uses algorithms, they always know that they are black boxes because there is no way to compare the impact of a video ad to a TV ad.

"When you're trying to write out a CPN for TV, if you're not actually adding in those other variables, you can't really make a comparison on the rates properly," she explains.

"In India, Moving Walls just recently launched their programmatic digital OOH solution that is all based on mobile data. So, the core of it will still be data-driven, a lot of the fine-tuning is in terms of the type of data. So, the accuracy of the data, and the accuracy of the algorithms used to derive these metrics as well."

The Drum will be holding the first-ever Programmatic Punch APAC on October 3 to explore a range of topics at the event including transparency, fraud, data and ad-blocking. The Drum Digital Advertising Awards APAC will be held the next day.

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