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Roast's MD on digital performance and ad consultancy

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Roast's managing director Gareth Owen answers questions about the current state of the industry.

Digital agency Roast is enjoying a winning streak since its launch in 2015, having won the Freesat business last month, taking it from a major network, and having been named as one of the top ten London companies to work for by The Sunday Times.

Co-founder and managing director Gareth Owen - who's responsible for assessing the quality of products, driving innovation and growing the agency's clientele list - caught up with The Drum Network to discuss new ways of thinking about digital performance and the changing face of consultancy in the ad industry today (and beyond).

What place do you think digital agencies occupy in the industry today... Digital isn't dead, but should it be?

Just as physical retail has and will continue to evolve, digital isn't going to die any time soon. As a term, it’s becoming less the exception and evolving to become the norm. There is still value in understanding the nature of all the different types of media and interaction options available in a digital ecosystem.

The difference will be apparent when digital practitioners start to prioritise people and interactions in the marketing planning process rather than focus solely on the numbers on the spreadsheet. Part of the success of digital agencies was due to the fact that they employed direct bottom-of-the-funnel tracking. I could very confidently promise a marketing director that for every £1 they gave my agency, I could give them £4 back (or significantly more, depending on the era, the channel and the product type). While I can still do that, things like incrementality, margin, more accurate segmentation and targeting, as well as branding on social channels, have swayed that same marketing director to look again at the actual value of digital and want to assess it differently.

Do you think credible marketing is geared for communicating with humans rather than algorithms?

It may sound obvious, but credible marketing should be hard-wired into our approach as practitioners. As an industry, we need to understand people instead of numbers. This is what credible and measurable marketing will and should look like. We need to accept that not everyone looking online for our product or brand is going to buy it today, but we might still want them to interact with us and we will need to choose KPIs to reflect that.

The approach so far has been to try and build massive single customer view technology and then apply the same thinking that we previously applied to simple last-click optimisation. Partly, this is due to walled gardens and our lack of ability to track individuals. But it's also down to the digital practitioners trying to scale data to suit their approach rather than change their approach to something that resembles traditional marketing. What we need is a re-appraisal of how we value digital interactions with our potential customers.

In-housing presents a huge opportunity for agencies to reinvent themselves as invaluable performance consultant partners. Do you think in-housing could serve as a long-term solution?

There has always been a natural balance between companies wanting to in-house work and those wanting to outsource, and it applies to all kinds of functions, not just marketing agencies. If the current trend is tilting towards in-housing then agencies will re-evaluate their propositions and the trend will swing back again. There is value in both, so both models will always be viable. In digital right now, we could see this as a direct consequence of clients getting better visibility into ad fraud and programmatic capabilities, and deciding not to trust agencies with certain activities. The emphasis should be on agencies accepting that and proving incremental value.

Are we overthinking AI?

A lot of people assume AI is something it's not. Right now, most AI we use in this industry is machine learning, that effectively accepts inputs and continuously tries to find the most efficient way to reach a defined output. This works brilliantly in some areas of bottom-of-the-funnel CPA driven activity, but increase the amount of potential desired outputs and it becomes much harder to make it work. Any AI is as good as the team coding it and the data going into it. Clearer, less sensational guidance on AI is something I hope we will see in the industry this year.

If I were a CMO right now, my priorities would be…

Depends where I’m starting from! I would focus on two areas; optimising the interactions people have with my brand in the digital space, while continually understanding more about what they do when they are not interacting with me. That will be a mixture of branding and conversion focuses across all digital touchpoints, so it’s hard to specify exact priorities. If you want a soundbite, I would invest in CRM data heavily and look to augment it with increased research and insights.

What are your thoughts on Accenture's new M&A spree? Will this present increased competition or opportunities for smaller independents?

I expect it to be an opportunity for smaller independents, we’re not short of competition from large networks and holding groups already.

Gareth Owen is the managing director at ROAST.

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