The digital marketing industry is still struggling to realise the data-driven revolution

It’s fair to say that 20 years in the ad agency world has given me a pretty strong sense of what’s working and what’s not within the realm of digital marketing. But just 12 months since making the move from agency to ad tech provider, my thinking about the scale of the challenge facing our industry has evolved significantly.

ComScore research shows that, globally, mobile usage now accounts for 60 per cent of time spent online, while desktop-based digital media consumption makes up the remaining 40 per cent – essentially, that we have passed the tipping point from desktop to digital device.

This shift of both content and audiences to digital devices continues to offer marketers exciting opportunities to use data and automation to present the right message, to the right person, at the right moment – this is a cliché in the industry, so let's steer away from using such a patronising and overused phrase. Yet while everyone in the industry professes adherence to this mantra, the reality of digital marketing is that we are not delighting consumers with a personalised message at the relevant moment, with the level of ad blocking being just one high-profile symptom of a broader illness. Nor indeed are we satisfying the legislators, with impending regulations and directives such as the European General Data Protection Regulation now posing a fundamental threat to data-driven marketing.

Let’s be clear about this. Much of what the intended customer experiences is explicitly poor. Boring creative, made all the more annoying due to overexposure or aggressive retargeting. Too many ads on pages. Websites that are not responsive to the device being used and that have an advertising policy to chase every possible sale via a waterfall of marketplaces.

Beyond that, the utilisation of data and automation appears to be falling well short of the vision many data evangelists have been advocating for a number of years now. There is a knowledge and skills gap certainly, amongst agency, client and indeed content publisher communities. Time compression amongst teams based on tech and service commercial models is certainly also a factor.

Moving into the ad tech space has given me new insight into just how ‘closed’ the web is becoming from a marketing perspective, as more and more digital media companies seek to vertically integrate the technology that powers the advertising and marketing space. A world of walled gardens cannot be good for encouraging innovation and sustainable growth. Nor can over-promising. In the desperation to be sustainable – be that revenue growth, profitability or simply to be considered relevant – many operators are dangerously over-claiming what they can deliver, creating confusion, unrealistic expectations and frequently poor outcomes for budget holders.

If the past year in ad tech has taught me one thing, it’s that our industry has been distracted and is ignoring one key component to the advertising mix – basic ad serving. While not sexy, it is still the atom at the core of digital marketing. And if it doesn’t deliver, publishers are going to feel yet more pressure, with their failure to monetise only compounding the problem for advertisers, as consumers vote with their feet due to a poor experience caused by a broke, desperate publisher.

It is the responsibility of the buy-side to take a longer-term, sustainable view, and the responsibility of the technology providers to demonstrate greater openness and transparency about what’s working, what’s not, and how and where we can make improvements to the overall ecosystem.

Ultimately, there's an urgent need to align agency creativity with programmatic tech. Continuing the either/or approach is damaging the long-term viability of digital marketing and killing any chance the industry has for a genuine technology and data-driven revolution.

Anthony Rhind is chief strategy officer at Adform

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