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Debbie Morrison: looking at disruption from the outside in

Last week, I observed the issues facing marketers with a fresh perspective for the first time in nearly three decades. For each of the last 29 years I’ve attended the Isba Conference as an organiser and creator of the content. This year I was a delegate for the first time, keen to understand through fresh eyes the challenges for my new clients and opportunities for my new Ebiquity colleagues.

For me, there were three dominant themes at ISBA’s annual conference: trust, disruption and performance, all of them driven and shaped by the ever-more digital marketing ecosystem.

Restoring trust

In his swansong months as chief marketing officer of Unilever, stage favourite Keith Weed said that if marketers don’t now tackle the issues of trust that have mired the industry for so long, it may be too late. Consumer trust in advertising is at an historic low, which Weed puts down to seven deadly sins of modern advertising, from ad fraud and fake news to ad bombardment. He mapped out a five-point plan for restoring public trust in ads, launching a new white paper from the AA, Isba and the IPA. The best way to restore trust is to produce great advertising; creative that’s brilliant, focused, human, purpose-driven, and brave. To progress we now need brands and broader industry to commit to actioning the plan.

In a panel session on building sustainable agency/media client relationships, Sky’s marketing procurement supremo, Jane Dormer, argued that the best way for trust to be re-established – particularly between advertisers and their agencies – was for both parties to work together in partnership. This sentiment was echoed by Jenny Biggam, co-founder of media agency The 7 Stars, who said: “Open and transparent relationships are the only way forward.”

Riding out disruption

Boots chairman and Isba president Elizabeth Fagan opened the conference by highlighting the unprecedented – and increasing – pace of change in marketing. Then WPP chief Mark Read compared the radical surgery required in his own business with the “incredible disruption” WPP clients face every day. One of the leading drivers of this, he suggested, was companies trying to catch up with and adopt the use of technologies and platforms their customers are highly proficient at using.

The Guardian chief executive David Pemsel told an inspiring story of how the media group had gone from an £87m loss in 2015 – and year-on-year losses that were threatening the very existence of the 200-year-old organisation – to breaking even this year. And all this without introducing a paywall. Having been disrupted by digital, The Guardian completely re-engineered its business, made smart use of data to track and involve readers and encouraged a sustainable model of voluntary contributions.

Old vs new media disruption was writ large in a future-gazing panel session titled “Media 2024”. With P&G’s Gerry D’Angelo playing the role of referee, in the red corner were David Dinsmore of News UK and Tess Alps of Thinkbox, and in the blue corner Facebook VP, Steve Hatch, and the impressive Nishma Robb of Google. While there was far from universal consensus on what the world in 2024 might look like, Nishma struck the most optimistic and pragmatic tone. Five years from now, she predicted, the industry will be more mature in its use of tech, data, and meaningful measurement in advertising. “With new tools and new rules, we will be able to turn back to making great ads driven by creativity,” she said echoing Keith Weed’s opening keynote.

Driving improved performance

Ebiquity’s head of UK effectiveness, Nick Pugh, led a panel on contemporary marketing effectiveness picking up on the themes of a recent Isba and Ebiquity whitepaper on effectiveness. Nick argued that the science of marketing effectiveness can help to restore trust in marketing – particularly digital – by making sense of the disrupted lives all brand custodians lead today. He outlined the key steps required for building a marketing effectiveness culture detailed in the whitepaper, ranging from buy-in from the top down to a preparedness to break down silos, join up datasets and functions.

Direct Line Group’s marketing director, Mark Evans, characterised the marketing community as being split between “thrivers and just-survivers”. While many have been side-swiped by trust and disruption, in many businesses, marketing effectiveness culture is alive and well. Success demands curiosity and a combination of patience (to let the capability grow) and impatience (to get there as fast as possible).

Brain food

By drawing together brands, agencies, publishers, and platforms for a once-a-year big pow-wow, the Isba conference addresses issues that matter in marketing. But it also attracts challenging external voices who put familiar issues in a new light. I left the event with new perspective, a bit more trusting and a bit less disrupted. Whether I’ll be a whole lot more effective by 2024 remains to be seen.

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