Advertiser patience is wearing thin trying to figure out if those billions of digital impressions are all that valuable.
Today, digital marketing is dominated by conversations around "scale," giving one the sense of falling into a wonderland of ad networks, exchanges, trading desks, mobile and video platforms, all swirling in a cloud of big data. From afar things look normal, but on closer examination, everything is askew.
Impressions are arbitraged in a tangle of tech platforms and middlemen that defies attribution. We chase technical metrics instead of human ones. We talk about "brand-safe" ad placements instead of "brand-relevant" ads. And we play whack-a-mole with fraud, worrying about bots instead of aiming for real engagement with real audiences.
It's clear marketing is not a pure tech play. It needs to be delicately balanced between technology and the human element. Sadly, it's also clear the tech boom taught us how to value the science of marketing but not the art of marketing.
The cruelest cut of all is that technologists continue to grab headlines and revenue as advertiser trust in digital advertising plummets, leaving agencies and publishers bearing the brunt of advertiser rage.
No wonder advertisers and agencies are trying to figure out how to thrive in this chaotic ad-tech world. Here are five no-nonsense strategies to help thrive in 2015.
1. Increase focus on direct accountability. Tech's ability to bulk up on impressions creates incentives for lots of "middlemen" to take a piece of the action. Unfortunately, this impedes efficient campaign iteration, so when programs perform poorly, it's often left to agencies or publishers -- not tech platforms -- to justify apparently underperforming creative or media.
This intolerable situation is remedied when agencies step up and take back the reins of marketing accountability. Bold moves like GroupM's demand that Condé Nast agree to tougher ad viewability standards is one such example. In 2015, more and more agencies will reimagine marketing as they learn to design programs with accountability in mind from start to finish.
2. Lose the "Switzerland objectivity" principle. This outdated notion, originally meant to manage potential conflict of interests if agencies had interests in media or tech companies, has hurt the business two-fold: It precludes agencies from developing core tech expertise, and it prevents marketing expertise from influencing the evolution of tech solutions.
Agencies now realize there's greater danger in staying "neutral," so they're shedding old thinking and laying down tech bets. The launch of OgilvyAmp's data bet is an example. Monetization will occur if agencies make well-chosen bets in 2015.
3. Rebuild trust in digital marketing. Mistrust in digital advertising is an issue created by technology ventures, yet it is agencies and publishers left holding the metric bag. Therefore it rests with agencies and publishers to restore trust to the ecosystem.
A unified community approach is key. Agencies can reward media that deliver the highest-quality, niche audiences, even at the expense of scale. Advertisers can reward learning for its own sake. And we can all give genuine support to the industry's Trustworthy Accountability Group to help combat ad fraud.
4. Double-down on contextual advertising. This issue is urgent because programmatic platforms can push impressions, but they can't create an experience that is happy and relevant for users. Retargeted ads appear long after a user has purchased a product or an ad is placed completely out of context to a user's intention.
The time is ripe to transform programmatic buying into contextual programmatic buying. This merges omnichannel marketing platforms, letting agencies seriously get into this game.
5. Right-size internet marketing to a people-scaled internet. If I were to put my finger on the one thing we can do to rebalance the tech-human marketing equation, it would be to right-size the internet back to its roots as an intimate, people-scaled internet. Google's genius in 1998 was that it understood how to scale and monetize this basic truth. People wanted answers to their questions, solutions to their problems, and the ability to communicate with their network.
Yet scale today is about generating rapid, financial returns via billions of impressions, ignoring the fact that these impressions are delivered with the delicacy of a meat clever peeling a grape. It will work but not without a fuss, waste and mess.
The fix is to architect campaigns where a brand and a real consumer connect based on mutual benefit. Contextual platforms and opt-in technologies are leading this transformation. Very soon, we will value thousands of quality engagements with real people far more than a billion anything.
Our digital wonderland is a strange place, but thriving means learning to deliver human-scaled quality marketing. It is up to us to write the next chapter in 2015.