Attention and trust – the two scarce resources advertisers are battling for

Nick Hewat

We’re used to saying that time is a scarce resource. But there are two other commodities that are equally as scarce in today’s world: attention and trust.

I’ll take them in turn, starting with attention.

I’m writing this at my kitchen table while a football match is on the TV. As the commentator’s voice goes up a notch, I look up. I’m more or less focused on writing, but my attention is not absolute.

These days, whose is? Pure, undivided attention on a particular task is rare in our always-on culture – second screening, social media, and open plan offices make it more and more difficult to focus on a single task.

The Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) recently suggested that radio doesn’t get the ad investment it deserves compared to the amount of time spent by its audience listening. The time spent vs money spent equation is most famously advanced by media and tech analyst Mary Meeker, and is supported by Sir Martin Sorrell who said that “the two big anomalies are newspapers and magazines”.

I have a different take on this.

I don’t think that all impacts are the same. Some are more effective than others – and some cost more than others as a consequence. By measuring the ratio between time and money spent, we are measuring what’s easy – not what’s right.

Take the environment of reading quality content. Our ancestors spent their lives on the savannah looking for food and shelter and trying to avoid a gruesome end. To achieve those simple ambitions, they developed five senses.

We have inherited those senses and use them for things other than survival. At any given time, we are looking, hearing, touching – nearly always simultaneously. Rarely do we take part in activities that involve complete and absolute attention.

But there is one exception to this rule. Reading – be it a magazine, newspaper, online or on your mobile or tablet – is singular, a very unusual human activity. You cannot usefully do anything else when you are head down and reading, especially if the content is good.

To my mind, this means that ads in this unusual environment should be better received because the focus on what we are doing is so sharp. The logical extension is that ads in this environment lie outside the simple time vs money spent ratio.

The other scarce commodity, trust, is closely linked to this. At the last IAB Engage conference, Richard Eyre said that only trusted brands and businesses will survive and thrive in the digital age. He said: "It is not creativity, it is not technology – the key differentiator will be trust."

I completely agree with this. Ads in a trusted environment will command greater attention. For instance, if a brand places an advert in a trusted media publisher the trust will rub off on the brand and have a positive impact on its effectiveness. Context is very powerful.

That’s why the most trusted brands in their category are moving away from buying any impacts on any platform towards trusted environments like premium publishers, where the “brand rub” of said respected publisher offers a direct transfer of their values to the advertiser. Over time, this creates a powerful network effect for both parties; you truly are the company you keep.

We work in a world in which the consumer is more entitled, vocal and curious than ever before; where he or she wants to understand the values of a business as well as its products. Their attention for what we want to share with them is squeezed and control of a brand’s perception has been lost. Attention and trust matter more now than ever.

Nick Hewat is commercial director at the Guardian

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