What I’ve Learned (So Far) From Stuart Elliott

When I first joined the Direct Marketing Association public relations team in 1988, Stuart Elliott had just left Advertising Age to join USA Today, covering the ad business there. Then in 1991, he took over the ad column, and the advertising business beat, at The New York Times. In December 2014, after 23-plus years, he chose to depart the Gray Lady

When I first joined the Direct Marketing Association public relations team in 1988, Stuart Elliott had just left Advertising Age to join USA Today, covering the ad business there. Then in 1991, he took over the ad column, and the advertising business beat, at The New York Times. In December 2014, after 23-plus years, he chose to depart the Gray Lady. His last column ran December 18.

The Times continues to cover advertising, but the column exists no more.

This week, I had the opportunity to listen to Stuart speak with George Wiedemann, chief executive officer of UMarketing, about the changes that have transformed advertising in the last 25 years. As disruption—digital, recessions, consolidations, consumer empowerment—has been one rule that has governed Madison Avenue (in itself an anachronism), there also is resilience.

Some of Stuart’s observations (these are not direct quotes)…

Madison Avenue may have been late in leading the conversation with clients on digital, social, mobile strategy and such, but many industries—outside of Silicon Valley—never foresaw the new business models, either. We (the ad folks) adjusted. The margins and money-minting might not be what they were, but “boo-hoo”—we’re all still in business.

In fact Madison Avenue always has done what its clients have asked it to do: The rise of the global agencies was to service global brand advertisers, the rise of holding companies to enable a portfolio of services, and the more recent rise of boutiques and start-ups—and agencies buying stakes in these—to enable experimentation and innovation while managing risk. Silicon Valley, and venture capital, is not the only source of startup funding.

While the U.S. economy tanked in the financial crisis—and large players disappeared (Lehman Bros.) or went bankrupt (GM), Stuart asked how many big ad holding companies also went belly up? None.

Data and technology have transformed advertising—and the rush for ad-tech and analytics prowess is an ever-constant concern of agencies and their acquisition of skills and talent. What is “big data”? Stuart said it’s data from more sources, more volume and often in real time—and brands grapple with what to do with it all and the difficulty of sorting through it. But we’ve moved beyond promise here to delivery, even if the integration path is hard. Social media alone prompts millions to interact with branded content, in addition to traditional media touches, and often in coordination. It’s not a matter of doing one thing or another—a brand has to do it all, or a competitor will.

On Millennials—advertising’s newest obsession—branding has become more important, not less. Younger consumers have been marketed to all their lives, and they are comfortable with being targeted, but they don’t connect with brands that they feel are not authentic. Who knew that Pabst would become a cult beer—because of its heritage and history, rather than its hipness, he offered as an example. Privacy may be less of a concern among younger audiences, but marketers risk being the “social outrage of the day” if they make a mistake in their storytelling, or when their actions don’t fit the narrative. Every day there’s examples of hashtag “fails” on Twitter.

Native content is just a new word for “advertorials”—but we need to be concerned that objectivity is not lost among sponsored content. There may be short-term gains, but diluted editorial may lead to long-term questions in the minds of consumers. Blurring news and advertising is not wise, even as large publishing companies launch native content development divisions and businesses. It will be something we need to watch.

Unfortunately, George’s conversation with Stuart lasted just one hour—and the impact of programmatic media buying, the last episode of “Mad Men,” and the rise of the Pluralist Generation—well, there was not enough time to hear everything on his mind.

I will miss reading about such insights in Stuart’s next Times column, but perhaps, after a break, his next endeavor won’t stray too far from ad reporting. After all, our business may be bigger than ever, but how many advertising columns still exist?

‘Programmatic’ Goes the World – Media Buying Is Audience Buying

Direct marketers have long had a love affair with data-driven media buying. In the world of direct mail, for example, list rentals and exchanges are filled with data cards (once print, now electronic) rich with audience measurements—the very attributes marketers need to intelligently target their offers to would-be buyers.

Direct marketers have long had a love affair with data-driven media buying. In the world of direct mail, for example, list rentals and exchanges are filled with data cards (once print, now electronic) rich with audience measurements—the very attributes marketers need to intelligently target their offers to would-be buyers.

Response lists not only indicate consumers (and business) buyers who are pre-disposed to buy remotely—half the hurdle overcome—but often household income ranges, gender and other characteristics that enable exceptionally performing customer lookalike and predictive behavior models. Compiled lists supplement and enhance the audience profiles, too. Yes, the offer, strategy and creative each and all are vital, but it’s the list (the data) that makes the success of the offer, strategy and creative even possible.

Of course, this is all old news to direct marketers, including digital marketers who have “grown up” in traditional direct-response channels (direct mail, DR print, DRTV, etc.).

You have to love this LinkedIn piece from Pamela Carr—founder and general manager, Chicago Trib Shops Marketplace—who is advocating that while it is important to have long-term strategies in place to college educate a new generation of marketing students in digital marketing and execution. We have much more to gain, and more immediately so, by retraining the direct marketing professionals we already have to be fully digitally conversant. Why? Because direct marketers, old ones and new ones, truly understand data-driven marketing and audience measurements that unlock any media channel’s potential.

The turn to digital and rise of programmatic media buying exchanges for many media channels. Twice during the past year, The Winterberry Group and the Interactive Advertising Bureau have co-published two white papers on the rise of data-driven, programmatic buying: “Programmatic Everywhere: Data, Technology and the Future of Audience Engagement” and “Going Global: Programmatic Audience Development Around the World.” How wise that the emphases in these programmatic studies are on “audience” engagement—underlying data on audiences—rather than “media.” No wonder Google’s CMO recently announced that 60 percent of its digital media spend will be conducted through programmatic buying. (Google says digital here, but why not other media, too?)

I’ll be looking forward to The Winterberry Group’s Bruce Biegel, in his annual address to the Direct Marketing Club of New York on January 8, where he’ll detail a media recap of 2014—and for the first time projections for 2015—on total media spend, direct marketing media spend, and digital media spend—and the drivers (and inhibitors) of each category.

Who better knows audience engagement than traditional direct marketers? The sooner we can put direct marketers in charge of the programmatic exchanges, the better for all of advertising—and for the audience-brand interactions that will surely follow. Time for retraining!

Death of the Agency? Not So Fast …

The last season of “Mad Men” is approaching, but let’s not be so fast to bury the ad agency with it. Media outlets are reading trends and are raising questions. The Economist has a special report on digital disruption in the advertising supply chain, and is quite taken by how “Big Digital’s”

The last season of “Mad Men” is approaching, but let’s not be so fast to bury the ad agency with it.

Media outlets are reading trends and are raising questions.

The Economist has a special report on digital disruption in the advertising supply chain, and is quite taken by how “Big Digital’s” profit margins and programmatic media buying have come to dominate advertising and audience selection. In one article, “Leaner and Meaner,” they’re saying:

The ad-tech firms are gleefully forecasting the imminent demise of Madison Avenue’s middlemen, but they may be wrong, for two reasons. First, ad tech has introduced so much complexity into the business that clients may want to hold on to agencies for advice, and agencies’ creative services are likely to remain in demand when brands are having to churn out so many different pieces of content.

Second, the prediction that technology companies like Google will start to compete head-on with the agencies is likely to prove wrong. To provide full client services they would need to hire thousands of new employees, for limited gains. Google’s margins this year are expected to be around 50%, whereas WPP’s are forecast at just 17%-and that is for the largest and one of the most successful advertising agencies. Perversely, the agencies’ mediocre returns may protect them from being wiped out by nimbler competitors. Their tents in Cannes may no longer have the best views, but the admen will still be there.

Mobile Marketing Watch had its own agency pity-party headline last week, “Are Yesterday’s Advertising Agencies Finally Dying?” reporting on a UK opinion piece:

As the challenges marketers face increase, the solutions from agencies shrink. It’s time for them to step up.

That’s the opinion of Tom Goodwin, founder and CEO of the Tomorrow Group, in a recent post at The Guardian.

“There is a curious tension in the current agency landscape—a vast mismatch between what clients’ needs are and what agencies are working on, and this gap seems to be widening,” Goodwin explains.

True, Goodwin admits, the Internet has been both a blessing (new opportunities) and a curse (change is always hard).

“The internet has been a mixed blessing, a volatile combination of incredible, new possibilities, rampant change and some of the most destructive forces the marketplace has ever seen,” Goodwin contends. “On a communications level, we have a plethora of new media channels, memes circling the world in seconds, the app of the moment bursting onto the scene, and trends like content marketing, native advertising and influencer marketing to navigate and leverage. The options seem more bewildering than ever and more abruptly changing, all in a context where attention is moving onto platforms which become even harder to connect with people.”

What’s to be done? Goodwin believes agencies need to up their games.

What does raising their game look like? Yes multiple screens and a crush of data are inflicting huge demands for content—some of it targeted to a few eyeballs. The scramble for creative, analytics and insight talent must be accomplished as agencies seek to keep their historic role as strategic counsel, with built-in expertise to deliver that counsel all under the same shingle.

That won’t be easy—The Economist says advertising is not the first choice for math students, for one—but skills matching must be a priority of agencies, because brands need guidance through the technology maze, and they need break-through content that engages wherever the consumer may be—something ad tech cannot or will not generate on its own.

By the way, Big Digital has its own death predictors, too.

White House ‘Big Data’ Review Recognizes Innovation and Self-Regulation

When the White House announced its intent to study the rise of “Big Data,” as a citizen, I guessed there might be a lot to say about government surveillance, public safety and terrorism, in light of Snowden. As a consumer, I suspected there might be a lot of attention to data breaches, in light of the recent Target incident among others. As a working individual whose livelihood depends on data access and use for more relevant marketing, I was nervous

When the White House announced its intent to study the rise of “Big Data” and its impact on business, commerce, government and consumer’s everyday lives, with privacy protection as an underlying theme, I have to admit I was bracing myself.

As a citizen, I guessed there might be a lot to say about government surveillance, public safety and terrorism, in light of Snowden. As a consumer, I suspected there might be a lot of attention to data breaches, in light of the recent Target incident among others.

As a working individual whose livelihood depends on data access and use for more relevant marketing, I was nervous there might not be a practical discussion of how information sharing and privacy protection can (and is) successfully provided through a combination of peer regulation, enterprising technology and sector-specific legal regulation where information protection and security is niche-based and designed to prevent harm from data error or misuse (credit, financial, health, for example).

Then the report, titled “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” (pdf), was released.

As a citizen, I was left wanting. Government surveillance of law-abiding U.S. citizens is parked for another report, another day. Some reforms have already been announced. Perhaps this is a blessing—there never should have been a link made between government spying and private sector use of data for commercial purposes anyway.

As a consumer, I was glad to see a call for a single national data breach notification standard. A few years back, I received several notices of “my” data being breached in a few months’ span—two of which offered a year’s worth of identity theft and fraud protection (which I continued to purchase on my own). Whether by luck or design, those notices have declined in number—I’ve had none in the past year. As I hear and read about more recent major data breaches, I haven’t been directly affected (to my knowledge), and maybe—just maybe—some organizations and brands in which I’m involved have gotten better about security. (Indirectly, we all pay for fraud—in higher prices for products and services, insurance, bank fees and the like—and perhaps in our collective loss of trust and carefree.)

As a marketer, I have to say I was happily surprised at the clear-headed conveyance of facts and reporting of opinion in this report—and, importantly, the steer-clearance of political grandstanding. I will leave it to our trade associations to comment on the policy recommendations, but as one our industry’s leading practitioners stated in Adweek, “If anyone of my clients wants a 101 on big data, I’m going to send them this report. This report is very relevant because a lot of what drives this business is programmatic media buying. There are millions of places to advertise on the Web, so an algorithm will decide what your likely audience will be.”

The report either cited or recognized such industry initiatives as the Data-Driven Marketing Institute’s “Value of Data Sharing” report, the Digital Advertising Alliance (disclosure, a client) and its own recent research on data sharing’s role in increasing advertising’s value, as well as DAA’s YourAdChoices.com site and consumer opt-out program for online interest-based advertising. There was care to note—even in the report’s title—that innovation is one of the benefits made possible by big data, and that this economic and social value needs to be enabled, if not fully supported and facilitated.

The report did raise red flags about commercial redlining, eligibility issues connected to employment, healthcare, finance and insurance, and data security (as noted)—but these important areas for consumer protection largely are already regulated, and even have industry backing for further regulation in certain areas such as breach notification. Most of these topics don’t have much to do with smarter marketing, even if some privacy advocates and academics hypothesize about that stretch.

Where do we go from here? The report did make several policy recommendations—and while there were some seeking to codify in law Fair Information Practices Principles (a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights), there was no attempt to call for an omnibus privacy protection law that treats all data and all data usage the same. If you haven’t had the chance, give it a read—I actually learned from it, and avoided tears and rage.